Hamilton: An Exquisite Corpse Review

It all started, as such things do, about 100 years ago with some extraordinarily drunk French surrealists.

Their legacy lives on here, in the Agents of Doux exquisite corpse review of 'Hamilton: The Version Currently Airing on Disney+.'

A brief note of explanation before the fun.

An Exquisite Corpse is a group project wherein the person contributing at that particular moment only gets to see the very last bit of what the person before them contributed. For our purposes, we each took a chunk of a group review of the film version of Hamilton, hereafter referred to as Hamilfilm, and wrote a couple paragraphs each while only knowing the last sentence of the previous entry. For the sake of clarity, the sentence that was forwarded on to the next agent is shown in bold type, and marks the point where one of us handed off the project to another,

The contributing reviewers are all tagged in the labels, but part of the fun is identifying who wrote what bit based only on the prose style. That's how they caught the unibomber, after all.

Right, enough explanation. Here, for your enjoyment, is our Exquisite Corpse review of: Hamilton - The filmed performance.



It’s difficult to say for sure whether or not Hamilton is the biggest musical theater event in Broadway history. People still seem taken with that thing about cats, for example. But it’s hard to deny what a huge phenomenon Hamilton has become, particularly since the release of the filmed performance on Disney Plus just in time for this last 4th of July. So that’s one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, in any case.

It seems like it should be difficult to convey the sheer sense of scale that this show has through your television set, but somehow they manage to communicate it to an impressive degree. The use of the circular pivots, particularly in the phenomenal ‘reverse time’ moment in act 1 creates a truly jaw dropping effect.

But if we’re talking about things that take your breath away, there’s one we have to talk about.

There may not be a more stunning musical number in modern musical theatre history than 'Satisfied.' Hamilton uses this number to pull off the most jaw-dropping version of its essential mechanism used to convey the simultaneity of time. (It only helps that it's set to a tune that could be on a Destiny's Child album, sung and rapped by the exquisite Renée Elise Goldsberry!) Angelica reminds us of our inherent power to rewind moments in our lives in order to understand their deeper reality. The choreography, where the actors move in slow motion backwards through time encompasses how our perspective in reverse reveals what is valuable and truthful, and composed of our authentic nature. One needs to just do a little time travel to get there! Hamilton is doing this from the first note, to the last. It's rewinding time to show moments where who we were, and are, can be revealed.

The show's graceful transmission of this elastic nature of time is what I think has penetrated fans' hearts to their core. It's certainly what gripped me! While we visit a moment in American history, we exist as an audience in the present, with eyes on the future, while the sentiment remains timeless. 'History Has Its Eyes On You,' 'Dear Theodosia' and 'One Last Time' speak to existential heartache rooted deeply in the human experience; whom and what do we leave behind. (As well as, term limits!) We are not left at the end of Act 2 in the state of sheer bliss that we are after 'The Schuyler Sisters' or 'Yorktown.' We are asked quietly, in gorgeous harmony, a capella, "It's only a matter of time... will they tell your story?" 

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

Three excellent questions, but I want to add a fourth: how is that story told? I went to a live performance of Hamilton mostly because I wanted to hang out with the lovely people who invited me. Raised by a mother who loved Andrew Lloyd Weber, I therefore dislike musicals; educated by very strange teachers, I abhor the eighteenth century. I was surprised, then, to fall absolutely in love with Hamilton. The music, the diverse cast, the sense of gleeful possibility mixed with epic tragedy made the story of the man who wrote most of the Federalist Papers (which I only ever pretended to read) one for the ages.

And all of that comes down to the way that Lin-Manuel Miranda and the pitch-perfect cast brought such skill and energy to the play. The best example of Hamilton’s brilliance—the song that I played on repeat once I bought the soundtrack, that I memorized, and that I promptly fast-forwarded to when the musical premiered on Disney+—is “Guns and Ships,” a mixture of the fastest French-accented rap I’ve ever heard and George Washington’s plaintive appeal to his right-hand man. I still get goosebumps when I listen to it, and I have a huge crush on one of the song’s major players. Who, you ask?

Could it ever be anyone other than Lafayette?

Speaking of anyone other than Lafayette, let's talk about the second half of the production, in which Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson, who is notably someone other than Lafayette. Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan do an excellent job creating two distinct characters with their performances in the two acts (so do Jasmine Cephas-Jones and Anthony Ramos, although it's less obvious). One of the things that really struck me about Hamilton was the clear distinction between the two acts. They almost feel like separate pieces, although they complement and comment on each other and ultimately make a compelling whole. The first has more ferocity and energy. It runs through an insane amount of history, throwing facts and details out to all the history nerds like t-shirts and sunglasses from a merchandise gun at a concert. It's notable that the first act concludes with a song titled 'Non-Stop', because it's quite descriptive.

But then we get to the second act, which is much more about the characters, their journeys, and the themes which will define the whole show. It also comments on the historical context of the story, in songs like 'The Room Where it Happens'. Even the musical style changes slightly. The first act leans heavily into the rap/hip-hop and pauses only twice for a number I could call quiet or slow. The second act still has that Hamilton flavor, and there's plenty of rapping, but the music slows way down on average and becomes much more traditional (employing jazz and rock and roll elements, to name a couple). The tone and themes also become much more prominent and serious. We see Hamilton's profound failings more clearly, and ultimately watch him journey through his terrible mistakes and their devastating consequences, into a noble sacrifice and a light of hope and forgiveness at the end. I was not expecting to need tissues for this show.

In the immortal words of Steve Martin from The Three Amigos, 'You were supposed to fire up! We both fired up!'

And with that, a resounding bang and the slump of Hamilton’s cloaked upper body signals that Burr, in fact, was not willing to wait for it—at least not as much as he thought.

That’s one of the things that strikes me the most about Hamilton. The way that Lin Manuel-Miranda is able to turn repetitive catchy beats into recurring character motifs. Burr waits– or doesn’t wait for it. Eliza is helpless. Angelica is never satisfied. And excluding that fatal end, Alexander never throws away his shot. It’s such a clever way of charting character growth through song. Looking at Burr’s other musical motif, in the span of a few minutes, he goes from singing “No one else was in the room where it happened” to “I wanna be in the room where it happened.” Meanwhile, King George doesn’t change his tune, because he never actually changes as a character throughout the show.

Hamilton, the BIPOC-led hip-hop musical about America’s very white founding fathers, would never work as a movie. The show’s such a perfect fit for theater because it completely hinges upon the medium’s capacity to tell a story in both a literal and figurative way. And that storytelling dissonance never seems jarring or takes you out of the story—not even when Hamilton, or maybe Lin, points out a fun fact about Martha Washington in “A Winter’s Ball.” Because from the start, Hamilton is already treading the line between the story as it unfolds and the story as it’s told. In a way, we’re both watching Alexander Hamilton’s life in real time and learning about it from a history book narrated by an amazing cast. And how eloquently they speak it.

Except maybe when they’re trying to say “ain-archy.”

And can we just take a moment to appreciate Daveed Diggs? Rapping at a breakneck pace (with a French accent no less), jumping off tables, that head bobble thing he does as Jefferson? What a gift to humanity he is. As much as I love Lafayette (which is quite a lot), Diggs shines most as Jefferson. The way he and Lin play off each other in the Cabinet Meetings is beyond adorable. I can’t help but think what a precious gift Hamilfilm is to us, the lowly, un-ultra rich and connected who will never sit front and center at an exorbitantly priced Broadway show. Broadway just isn’t accessible to everyone. Sorry, theater kids, you know I'm right. Even tours only visit big cities and even then it’s an arm and a leg for seats. I’ve seen Hamilton twice: once from the cheap seats and once from the REALLY cheap seats I mean the actual back row of the mezzanine at the Pantages but I’m fortunate to have even gotten to see that. It was electrifying but it’s no comparison to Hamilfilm.

To see the original cast, moulded and honed into a finely tuned machine, working at the absolute top of their game, is incomparable. You can see the looks on their faces. You can see the choreography from the middle distance. We even get a few shots from the ceiling. Hamilfilm is unlike any recorded Broadway show I’ve ever seen in its ability to capture the big moments in a big way and the small, intimate moments almost as if you’re on stage with Pippa and Lin. Hamilton may be a once in a lifetime musical achievement but hopefully Hamilfilm isn’t a once in a lifetime movie. I want to see every musical filmed like this. If you’re worried it’ll hurt ticket sales, put it on the shelf for a few years. Release it in theaters (Hamilfilm was meant for theaters, but circumstances…intervened). There’s something magical about seeing something for the stage performed on the stage, even if you’re looking at it through a screen. Hamilton won a Pulitzer, a Grammy, and ELEVEN Tonys, and also wins my seal of approval.

Four out of four America’s favorite fighting Frenchmen

18 comments:

Mikey Heinrich said...

Any fan of Hamilton should absolutely treat themselves to this - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7sm49fHlyI

sunbunny said...

I've been so excited to read this! Looks like we all love Daveed Diggs.

Billie Doux said...

I'd love to guess who wrote which but I know too much! It wouldn't be fair.

Wow, do I love this review. :)

"Satisfied" is so incredible that it literally makes me sob. Everyone is wonderful but Daveed Diggs is my favorite, so glad to hear that I'm not alone. I am so glad that they chose to film the play. It would be awful if they made a furball of a movie out of this masterpiece.

Baz said...

I am generally not a fan of Broadway shows, though the Lion King in the West End is one of my favourite nights out ever. Hamilton is amazing however and I have been singing various pieces of the show non stop since I watched it 3 weeks ago. I’m going to give a big gold star to King George’s actor (Kristoff and Sven in Frozen btw!) who had my many of my favourite non-Lafayette moments in the show.

I have never come away from a show where I cannot name a list of favorite songs, because there are SO MANY of them.

Fantastic, 5/5 bullets taken out of my gun.

Heather said...

Cheers, everyone! This review is a really fun read. I was nodding my head enthusiastically with every ensuing paragraph! Hamilton is a great fandom in which to participate.

Tomorrow there'll be more of us.

CoramDeo said...

Huge props to whoever managed to follow up on my final line. That could easily have been completely baffling.

Josie "You Need Your Right-Hand Man Back" Kafka said...

Baz, I think the guy who played King George was also in Mindhunter, which is just a wacky shift.

CoramDeo, if your last line was the one with Steve Martin, then I want to applaud whoever followed you, because they handled it beautifully.

I didn't have a chance to say this in my section, but I only ever listen to the first half of the soundtrack. It keeps Hamilton happy for me, and ends on a real up note.

I'm so glad Daveed Diggs got all the love he deserves. Two fun Daveed Diggs facts:

1. The first time I saw him in anything, or knew anything about him, was the TV show Blackish. He plays Bo's brother, and Bo's husband Dre says something like "So, are you working? Do you even have a real job?" And Daveed Diggs's character responds, "Yeah, I've been doing a bit of musical theater." Dre just guffaws. I was delighted to finally get the joke over a year later.

2. He's a part of the rap group Clipping, and Rivers Solomons, a speculative fiction writer, wrote a novel inspired by (and co-authored by, sort of) Clipping. It's about...well, I'll let the blurb take over from here:

"The water-breathing descendants of African slave women tossed overboard have built their own underwater society—and must reclaim the memories of their past to shape their future in this brilliantly imaginative novella inspired by the Hugo Award–nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’s rap group clipping."

Billie Doux said...

There are so many lines and phrases that I love, but I think my favorite is "How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of shower / Somehow defeat a global superpower?"

Billie Doux said...

Or maybe, "Whatever it is, Jefferson started it."

sunbunny said...

His name is Jonathan Groff and he was also in Glee. The range on that man.

Baz said...

If anyone else wants more Daveed Diggs, watch Snowpiercer. It’s a show a lot of folks on this site would like I would think!

Billie Doux said...

Baz, you read my mind. I was just this moment thinking about trying it just for Daveed. :)

Mikey Heinrich said...

As a couple of people have asked, and since it's far enough down in the comments to not spoil the fun for anyone who wants to guess, here's the rundown of who wrote what -

The first, and least interesting, chunk was mine. I deliberately cut it short because I knew I'd be writing an intro in front of the whole thing.

Then came Heather who deftly dealt with my ridiculous set-up line and very kindly cut her initial submission down a great deal. ( I was trying to keep things from getting too crazy long.) She must have had a terrible time cutting it down, as every word she put in the original draft was fantastic and well observed.

Next up was Josie, who I thought did the best job of tying in the personal experience of watching the show to where the craftsmanship lies

Following, came CoramDeo, who had both may favorite first sentence and favorite last sentence of the submissions. Honestly, who had money on the Three Amigos being relevant to this discussion?

Next up was Mara who handled Coram's final line with a near infinite amount of dignity and grace and kept everything on track. Honestly, I probably would have ended up with five paragraphs about Spies Like Us at that point.

Finally, Sunbunny brought it all home, and somehow managed to tie the entire piece together, in spite of only having read eight words of what came before.

Thanks to all who participated!

Baz said...

Billie, due to a DVR cock-up I’ve only seen the first 2 episodes, but i definitely intend to continue when I find out how! Daveed was excellent as usual, and the premise is very interesting. Have you seen the movie version with Chris Evans? Also excellent!

Billie Doux said...

Baz, I haven't seen the movie. Maybe I should.

sunbunny said...

Snowpiercer the movie is on Netflix. Also I can reveal exclusively that Josie and I saw Hamilton together :)

Anonymous said...

This was such a cool idea and a fun read! Thank you to all the writers who contributed and to the person or people who put it all together!

I wanted to second the idea that both the Snowpiercer movie and tv series are really good! Daveed Diggs is awesome! I've seen the entirety of the first season of Snowpiercer and can say that the quality continues throughout.

Lastly, this might be because I have international Netflix, but for me, both the movie and tv series are on Netflix.

Josie Kafka said...

Thanks for the rec, everyone! I watched the first episode of the Snowpiercer TV show last night.

I still haven't seen the movie, but the show was promising. Lots of Daveed Diggs (good) and lots of exposition (I'm sure they'll get over it).

The only way I could watch it here in the US was to buy the episode on Amazon. The other option was to sign up for Hulu's "Live TV" subscription, which is $55 a month!