To contextualise the release of Hamilton at a time when people can’t gather for live performances, and many consider what it means to be an American this Independence Day, there’s a brief introduction. We hear from the director of the original stage production, and this filmed version, Thomas Kail, along with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the originator of the title role as well as the writer of the book, music, and lyrics of the Pulitzer, Tony, Olivier and Grammy-winning worldwide cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton. Miranda says: “So much of what Hamilton is about is how history remembers, and that changes over time…I think it takes on a different meaning when you see Black and Brown performers telling the origin story of our country.” Recorded in June 2016 at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, when Obama was still in office, Hamilton is being released during a week where the current President referred to ‘Black Lives Matter’ being painted on 5th Avenue as a “symbol of hate” and committed to protecting statues of Confederate leaders. As the best art does, Hamilton resonates in different ways depending on the circumstances under which you see it, watching it right now when we have lost so many in this country and throughout the world to Covid-19, the lyrics to Stay Alive, “we’re going to fly a lot of flags at half mast”, gave me chills.
As Hamilton is about to begin, Kail allows us to settle into our armchairs, conveying the buzzy atmosphere in the Richard Rodgers Theatre as Jonathan Groff in character as the foppish King George asks the audience to switch off their cellphones in his clipped English accent. Take his Majesty’s advice and do the same at home, and while you’re at it turn that TV volume up, and devote your attention for the next two hours and forty minutes to what’s happening on screen, trust me, you won’t want to look away for a second of it.
A hot ticket in every city it has played in, Hamilton is a show worth standing at the back of an auditorium for, but thanks to Disney+ Kail offers us better than the best seat in the house. It’s clear that the film has been directed by someone who knows every beat of the production intimately and the camera is exactly where it should be at every moment throughout. It’s an exceptional collaboration between director, editor Jonah Moran and cinematographer Declan Quinn. Although there’s plenty of variety and aesthetic beauty in the composition of the shots, which convey the impressive scale of David Korins’ set design, they always allow us to connect with the performances. When the on stage action is busy, the dynamism of the camerawork combined with Moran’s editing, communicate the energy and rhythm of Andy Blakenbuehler’s choreography. It is camerawork that never intrudes or distracts, but rather invites us into the emotion of the moment. It feels appropriate for each number too, for instance, by King George’s solo You’ll Be Back, we already know what the stage looks like, so the camera keeps pretty close on Groff throughout, with long takes that allow us to really take in his performance, and see the spit fly (it’s a fitting character choice). As we’re enraptured by Groff at home, the slower edits effectively convey that the actor has the live audience in the palm of his hand.
Something that even a front row seat doesn’t allow for, but this filmed version does, is taking the viewer on to the stage itself, to find the intimate moments in the epic. It’s an incredible experience to see the eyes of a stage performer so close up. In the scene where Miranda as Hamilton takes in the news that his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) is pregnant, we’re right there with him; vitally important for a show that offers us the human emotions behind the historical facts. Moments such as this exemplify Hamilton’s masterful use of cinematic tools to capture what’s impactful about theatre, rather than trying to impose filmic conventions on to the process and allow Kail’s film to amplify Miranda’s intention of making history accessible, vibrant and exciting. The film doesn’t miss a beat of the show’s humour, while the Nevin Steinberg’s excellent sound design captures every crisp and clean word that’s delivered.
Hamilton captures the acclaimed original Broadway cast members in their prime, inhabiting roles they’d been living with for many months, their energy and charisma bursting off the screen, including of course Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerhouse, emotionally potent tour de force. In doing so the film feels like an important historical document in itself to be preserved for the ages. As we take in the news that Broadway will remain dark for the rest of the year, Hamilton the film captures the spirit of everything we love about the collective magic that creates live theatre. While some filmed theatre productions can have a static, dry, lifeless quality to them, Hamilton has an incredible freshness running through it and manages to deliver the essence of that hold your breath excitement of watching something live; you feel like you’re right there, in the room where it happens. It might make you miss live theatre, but it certainly gives you as close to the thrill of it as you can get right now. In fact it’s an electrifying experience, riveting throughout. By the end it’s hard not to join in with the standing ovation as the audience whoops and cheers.
By James Kleinmann
Hamilton premieres on July 3rd 2020 around the world streaming only on Disney+.