Lots of people have been waiting for years to see the film made from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Hamilton.” It’s been almost five years, after all, since the musical premiered on Broadway in the summer of 2015, and four years since the original cast filmed a string of shows at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June of 2016 — years in which devotees of the smash hit eagerly anticipated how it would translate to film or television screens.
I was not one of those people, because I never saw “Hamilton.” Oh, I entered the lottery for tickets on the occasions when I was in New York City, and also tried when the touring company came to Los Angeles. But I never got lucky — and since a friend of mine once told me that you shouldn’t listen to the original cast album until you’d seen the show, I never picked up the music, either.
So if you’re a “Hamilton” fan and you want to know how the Thomas Kail-directed production, which comes to Disney+ in time for the Fourth of July weekend, translates to the screen, I’m not the guy you want to listen to. TheWrap has already run a review from a critic far more attuned to the impact of Miranda’s creation on a live audience, and to the nuances of the stage-to-screen translation. All I can do is tell you how it played to somebody coming into the world of “Hamilton” for the first time.
And from that vantage point — which, I suppose could be the vantage point from which many and maybe even most of the Disney+ viewers will approach it — the filmed “Hamilton” feels like a powerful piece of work that has some dazzling moments but goes on for a very long time. (It’s two hours and 42 minutes, including brief thanks-for-watching videos from homebound Miranda and Kail.)
It makes a solid case for itself as filmed entertainment, while also suggesting strongly that it really ought to be seen in person in a theater.
Before going into any details, I should probably add in the interests of full disclosure that I don’t think Broadway musicals tyically transfer very well. Of the filmed versions that came out in this century, I loved the way “Chicago” solved the problem of people on screen suddenly bursting into song, but that’s really about it. Other musical adaptations were either passable at times (“Dreamgirls”), mostly bad (“Rent,” “Les Misérables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” “The Producers”) or jaw-droppingly awful (“Mamma Mia!” and, of course, “Cats”). And of the string of musicals that have been turned into live TV specials over the past few years, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was the only one I was able to stick with.
Then again, “Hamilton” doesn’t try to be what those film projects are (the TV ones like “Superstar” excepted), which are adaptations that move the action off the stage and into some semblance of the real world — except maybe for “Mamma Mia!” and “Cats,” which don’t exist in any world I’ve ever been part of. “Hamilton” was filmed on the stage of the Broadway theater where it played; most of it was shot with an audience in the seats, though several songs were also filmed in an empty theater. It is a document of the stage show rather than an adaptation of it — a safer way to approach a sacred property like “Hamilton,” and one that fits on the Disney+ TV format, but also one that can’t transcend its origins.
What this adaptation of “Hamilton” can do is take advantage of the intimacy that cameras provide. The cameras can lay back and give us an audience-level view of the first few cast members who take the stage, then move in close when Miranda appears as Alexander Hamilton. It can take a production in which every audience member has a single, fixed viewpoint, and give him or her a combination of perspectives that shift from moment to moment.
Watching it on screen having no background with the stage production, it took a couple of songs for the particular blend of hip-hop and history to come into focus — but by the end of “My Shot,” the show’s first big number, you can see how overpowering it could be on a stage.
On screen, the show works hard to hit moments of transcendence, and it gets there plenty of times: at the end of “Helpless,” in “Wait for It,” in Daveed Diggs’ electric performance in “Guns and Ships.” (I don’t know if it felt this way on stage, but in this format he’s a powerhouse playing the Marquis de Lafayette in Act 1, a showboat playing Thomas Jefferson in Act 2.)
But then, Act 2 is where things dragged for this particular “Hamilton” newbie, as it piles on a number of songs that are no doubt crowd-pleasers for a live audience but feel like padding in this format. And yet the audacious idea of the project and the exhilarating complexity of its musical palette are continually invigorating, and the second act picks up steam as it heads for a graceful and haunting coda with “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
It also feels timely at a moment in which we are reconsidering our past icons and heroes, including the founding fathers. Why not recast them as people of color trying to create a new nation, especially at a time when we are trying to refashion our old nation as one more accepting of people who look like the ones on stage?
In that way, “Hamilton” clearly speaks to our time, five years after its Broadway opening and four years after these performances were filmed. This document of the show makes me happy that I was finally able to see it in some form, even if it also makes me wish even more that I’d won that damn lottery at least once.