‘Hamilton’ Film Review: Can’t Afford Broadway? Now You Can Be in the Room Where It Happened

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 hit musical heads to your TV screen with its stage roots very much intact

Last Updated: July 3, 2020 @ 6:37 AM

Yes, you can finally watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” at home. And yes, it’s just as ingenious, energizing and brilliant as you’ve been hearing for the last several years — inspiring everyone from musicians to theater artists to former Trump official John Bolton (who lifted from the show for the title of his new memoir, “The Room Where It Happened”). But the filmed version of the 2015 Broadway megahit, shot with the original cast in 2016 and premiering this week on Disney+, is a very particular work.

For one thing, it’s less a musical film than a recorded stage performance, like those concert films you see on HBO. Shot at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016, this “Hamilton” does not attempt to escape or transcend its stage roots — even in the ways that recent live TV musical productions like “Grease Live!” and “The Sound of Music” have by moving within various sets on a vast soundstage or studio lot.

Thomas Kail, who directed the stage show, here performs an act of performance capture — cutting from widescreen views that suggest the full scope of Andy Blankenbuehler’s athletic choreography on the turntables of David Korins’ set to closeup views of Miranda as Hamilton and Leslie Odom Jr. as his chief onstage rival, Aaron Burr. Essentially, you perpetually get the best view in the house — the front row of the mezzanine for the bigger production numbers as well as front-row center of the orchestra section for the more intimate character moments.

That approach also mimics Miranda’s achievement here, reimagining American history and the grand project of the founding fathers through the lens of an individual story, and in particular that of an undersung founding father who achieved greatness from humble beginnings as “an arrogant immigrant, orphan bastard, whore’s son.”

Miranda crafted a sung-through hip-hopera that hews closely to the facts of Hamilton’s life while feeling utterly contemporary at every turn. Odom’s Burr calls himself a “trust fund baby.” Hamilton’s sister-in-law and trusted confidante flashes proto-feminist tendencies. And debates in President George Washington’s cabinet about the utility of a national bank are presented as rap battles between the foppish Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and Hamilton (Miranda), complete with catcalls from supporters and end-of-phrase mic drops.

The score is vintage Miranda, with melodic and lyrical nods to his diverse range of influences: Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Stephen Sondheim on the one hand; Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, and the Fugees on the other. Miranda has long blended the looseness and syncopation of hip-hop and the more disciplined musical structure of classic Broadway. “Hamilton” elevated that approach, re-deploying motifs (and overlapping them) for greater dramatic power.

Given how quickly Miranda’s quick-witted, plot-based lyrics fly by, home viewers, especially newbies, have a distinct advantage over paying theatergoers: You can stop and rewind for any details or turns of phrase you may have missed. The show is dense with exposition, particularly in the opening few minutes, when biographical details are often rapped in daunting rapidity.

This production carries the distinct advantage of the unique talents of the show’s original cast, many of whom had worked with Miranda before and whose individual skills were shown to great advantage. Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry are superb as the Schuyler sisters, who both fall for Hamilton (in memorably harmonic ballads). Daveed Diggs has a flair for comedic energy in his dual roles as Marquis de Lafayette and a slightly ridiculous Thomas Jefferson. Jonathan Groff, the rare white actor in the cast, nearly steals the show as England’s King George III, whose bouncy British-pop numbers hilariously evoke royal hauteur.

And then there’s Miranda, who captures the intelligence, impulsiveness and boyish neediness of the title character — though his admittedly thin baritone-tenor voice is better suited to the tongue-twistingly tricky raps in his score than the more melodic passages.

In many ways, this version of “Hamilton” seems like a throwback to a time and place — the final year of the Obama administration — that already feels very distant. But the underlying message of the show, its call for inclusivity and for grappling with the messier aspects of our American history, has never been more urgent.

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