Hamilton

"You have no control
Who lives, who dies
Who tells your story."

Let's start with a general observation: it's much easier to critique a piece of crap than a work of genius. I have to bring out my biggest words for Hamilton because it is brilliant, dazzling, unforgettable, possibly the best musical I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of them. It's as good as everyone says it is, and probably better.

(This is a review of the filmed version of the Broadway play Hamilton currently available on Disney Plus. The Agents of Doux posted a delightful exquisite corpse review a couple of weeks ago, but insisted that someone also write a more conventional review. I volunteered.)

Like most Americans, I knew practically nothing about Alexander Hamilton than what I learned in grade school – that he was our first secretary of the treasury, his portrait is on the ten dollar bill, and (I don't need spoiler warnings for an historical figure, do I?) that he was killed in a duel by the vice president.

But this play isn't just about our "ten-dollar founding father without a father." It's about how anyone, even a destitute orphan, can rise up and achieve greatness. It's also very much how Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to interpret Hamilton's life with contemporary music and performers of color, transforming this biography of a white Founding Father into a story of all of us. The tremendously moving ending even suggests that it was a woman that ultimately fulfilled Hamilton's potential.

The framework of this play is Hamilton's relationship with death. The opening number is a captivating recap of his childhood, the haunting death of his mother, his immigration to New York, his position in history. But who is narrating this story from the beginning? Hamilton's killer, Aaron Burr, in an exceptional performance by Leslie Odom Jr.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.

A hero is only as strong as his villain, and Odom is amazing. Burr floats through the entire play like Hamilton's Salieri, giving it all his own spin as he keeps trying to puzzle Hamilton out, or change him into someone he can understand. Aaron Burr thinks he is "keeping his plans close to his chest," but he is not; it is obvious that all he wants is power. He wants to be in "The Room Where It Happens," and what an amazing number that was. In contrast, Hamilton is motivated by something more noble. Hamilton wants to create something wonderful and enduring, to leave a legacy behind him. And Burr just doesn't get it.

Dueling is referred to repeatedly, and not just in the recurring "Ten Duel Commandments." In the first act, Hamilton's friends introduce themselves with a few clever lines in the song "My Shot." "Throwing away your shot" is an obvious dueling reference; interestingly, so is the word "satisfied."

Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones 

Let me make that a segue. While much of the story is understandably centered on the Founding Fathers, i.e., guys, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo are breathtaking as sisters Angelica and Eliza Schuyler. Their paired numbers "Helpless" and "Satisfied" are... now, see, I'm struggling to find superlatives, because "Satisfied" actually gave me chills. The second song quite literally rewinds and retells the more traditional love-and-marriage story in the first song by showing what really happened behind the scenes, somehow managing to express the unutterable sadness of a perfect love affair that never was. It didn't just choke me up; it made me outright sob.

Hamilton made me want to go out immediately and read about the man's life. It also drove home for me what an incredible man George Washington was. Christopher Jackson is commanding as well as vulnerable as Washington, showing us a flawed human being who left an indelible mark on our new nation by choosing to relinquish his power. Imagine what would have happened if he hadn't.

I had genuine difficulty figuring out what I wanted to say about Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance in the lead role, but finally arrived at this: with his expressive face and body language, Miranda makes Hamilton endearing somehow, cuddly and accessible, and the real Hamilton was so clearly not a cuddly kind of guy. Throughout the play, I found it impossible to forget who wrote this incredible work of art, because he was right there in front of us. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know. It just is. As much as I'd love to see a live performance, I can't imagine anyone else in the lead.

Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson

All the other performances are so good that I feel reluctant to single anyone out… okay, Daveed Diggs as both the Marquis de Lafayette in the first act and Hamilton's political nemesis Thomas Jefferson in the second is, well, dazzling. His breathless delivery of rapid-fire lines in "Guns and Ships" doesn't seem humanly possible, and his facial expressions and the way he dances across the stage in "What'd I Miss" makes me laugh every time I watch it. Diggs' performance as Jefferson lifts the entire much darker second act, as we follow Hamilton and Burr to their inevitable end.

Hamilton had a profound effect on me. I saw it for the first time last month on July 3, a probably unintentional counterpoint to the presidential performance at Mount Rushmore. I could hardly help comparing, and it was easy to decide which represented my vision of America. In the weeks afterward, I rewatched Hamilton several times and listened to the soundtrack repeatedly, memorizing those brilliant internal and external rhymes, singing the more traditional musical numbers in the shower. It keeps getting better, every single time. (The music, not the shower.)

For me, Hamilton expresses a love for the America that is all of us. It shows us what we hoped to become, what we can become, and even what we have not yet become. I'm so very glad that they didn't try to make a more conventional movie of this play (especially after what just happened to Cats). Hamilton needs to stay exactly what it is, and filming it with the original cast was the best thing they could have possibly done. Thank you.

Bits:

— I read somewhere that Hamilton could never have happened if it hadn't been for the ground already broken by 1776. I agree. My mother, who was deeply into musicals, adored 1776. She would have loved Hamilton.

— I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jonathan Groff's memorable performance as King George III, an obvious counterpoint to the saner George Washington, and a reminder that no one should have that much power. How did Groff manage to actually sing with drool?



— "It's Quiet Uptown" absolutely slayed me. It made me feel the utter devastation of the loss of a child.

— Like everything else in this play, the staging is also amazing: the simple background of brick and stairs, the use of tables and chairs, the seamless motion of the circular section of the stage. And the company is almost always there, singing in the background, in constant motion.

— I had never heard of tailor-turned-spy Hercules Mulligan. What a delightful story (and name), and an enjoyable performance by Okieriete Onaodowan, who also plays the less memorable James Madison in the second act.

— And may I add that all of the dual performances are terrific, especially how the characters are paired. My favorite is obviously Daveed Diggs as both Lafayette and Jefferson, but Jasmine Cephas Jones is funny as Peggy Schuyler and a helpless vamp as Maria Reynolds, and Anthony Ramos is terrific in both tragic roles as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.

My favorite lines (feel free to add yours in the comments):

"How does a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman
Dropped the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean
By providence impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"

"I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory."

"Immigrants, we get the job done."

"Why do you write like you're running out of time?"

"Even now I lie awake, knowing history has its eyes on me."

"Whatever it is, Jefferson started it."

"Talk less. Smile more."
(Aaron Burr skillfully defining himself in only four words.)

"When are these
Colonies
Gonna rise up?"

"How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of shower
Somehow defeat a global superpower?"
(This one might be my favorite.)

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, and this play is not to be missed. Four out of four of the very best words,

Billie
---
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

10 comments:

sunbunny said...

Did you catch the reference to 1776? "Sit down John.." There was a whole Adams rap but it got cut from the show. Here it is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUI8b17YGx8.

I was also reared on 1776 (we watched it every Fourth of July) and I couldn't believe John Adams was Mr. Feeney!

Hamilton is technically perfect, brilliant, deserving of every praise lavished upon it. I'm also glad that they're not (yet) going to give Hamilton the movie treatment. It's just too good on stage. Usually I'm the first saying "yes, give us a slick Hollywood version of this" (WICKED, I'M STILL WAITING) but I honestly don't believe Hamilton would work.

CoramDeo said...

Of course they cut John Adams' part. Nobody appreciates John Adams these days. *sigh*

Josie Kafka said...

Billie, what a wonderful review!

I hadn't heard of 1776 until just this moment.

Something that's been on my mind recently: There's an upcoming movie version of In the Hights, Miranda's first big musical. I saw a preview for it back when theaters were open, but according to Google the new release date is next summer. I wonder if Disney would be willing to release it on Disney+, too? That'd be nice.

CoramDeo, I think my dad read a biography of John Adams. So there's at least one person who appreciates him still. My father has a memory like a vise, so there's someone who remembers him, too.

Billie Doux said...

John Adams is the lead character in 1776, so there's that. It's a wonderful musical.

I certainly would be interested in seeing In the Heights, too.

Thanks, Josie. :)

sunbunny said...

They're not done shooting In the Heights, if I'm recalling info from Lin's Twitter right. And Josie, that wasn't his first big musical, that was his FIRST MUSICAL. He wrote it in college. It won Tonys including Best Musical. Do we all feel inferior yet? The movie will star Anthony Ramos (Laurens/Philip).

He's a brilliant guy. I HIGHLY suggest following him on Twitter which he uses on and off (he'll tweet a ton for days and then delete the app for a few weeks to spend time with his young family). He costarred in Mary Poppins Returns and in His Dark Materials. He did the music for the Disney movie Moana and is working on their upcoming adaptation of The Little Mermaid (Daveed is reportedly going to play Sebastian). The man is non stop.

Shari said...

What an amazing review! I'm obsessed with the show and I've been lucky enough to see it live 3 times so there's no way for me to be objective. But I felt like you read my mind and put it down in words.

Thanks.

Heather said...

Billie, this is such an enjoyable review. It is a challenge to review something that has had, as you said, a profound effect on your psyche and I think you did a wonderful job! Hamilton had its way with me too, and it even motivated me to read the source material which is a very long book! :) I just wanted to see some inkling of LMM's vision, I think.

If anyone has HULU, the improv rap troupe that LMM and others were in, in college, in the early mid 2000s is the subject of a documentary called We Are Freestyle Love Supreme. You better understand LMM's origins and brilliance and learn about other key figures in both In The Heights and Hamilton's creation, including meeting the kid who LMM wrote Aaron Burr for, who did not end up playing him. Really interesting stuff.

Mikey Heinrich said...

Great review Billie!

One other perk of them never doing a glitzy hollywood version of Hamilton is that we'll never have to deal with the likes of this...

Although it's funny to imagine.

(I'm sorry, you can't unsee this.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mx0NLGcL6pI

Billie Doux said...

Thanks so much, you guys. I think my anxiety about this particular review might have been a bit obvious. :)

Anonymous said...

"We studied and we fought and we killed for a notion of a nation we now get to build. For once in your life take a stand with pride. I don't understand why you stand to the side."

Those lines always stick in my mind.


Burr: It's full of contradictions.
Hamilton: So is independence.