In 2015, “Hamilton” became Broadway’s first bragging-rights musical in a generation. Everyone was in a clamor to see it, from the corner bodega owner to George Clooney to your college friend who loves volleyball and can’t spell “revolution.” Cramped seats were selling on StubHub for $10,000.
Yes, the whole world dreamed of watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson that was endorsed by President Obama and enthusiastically hawked by Jimmy Fallon like a timeshare. And when viewers stream the new filmed version of the stage show on Disney+, they’ll still dream of really watching it.
That’s not to say the new product is lousy — it’s an exciting record of a moment in time and a special ensemble of actors that will be talked about for decades. We have no such pristine archive of the original casts of “A Chorus Line” or “Rent” at their height, for example.
However, I’m not the Archival Footage Critic. We are all well-aware “Hamilton” is a brilliant show. It took home a trove of Tonys, and broke a record at London’s Olivier Awards, the British equivalent, while being a musical about how fabulous the American Revolution was.
“Hamilton” the film is just OK.
You might be asking, “How can you judge ‘Hamilton’ as a movie but not use the same criteria for other taped theater productions like ‘Live From Lincoln Center: The King and I’?” Well, Disney, Hollywood’s cackling megalomaniac, did not drop $75 million on “The King and I” with pandemic-thwarted hopes of a lucrative theatrical release on a scale we’ve never seen with a filmed stage show. Millions of people will watch this.
And that’s really what this amounts to: a not-particularly-transcendent filmed stage show. It’s directed by the musical’s original director Thomas Kail, and while that gig might seem obvious, it’s actually quite uncommon to do double-duty. For instance, “American Utopia,” the David Byrne musical that was helmed on Broadway by Alex Timbers (“Moulin Rouge”), was filmed by Oscar-winner Spike Lee for HBO. They would’ve been smart to snap up Lee, with his clever cinematic eye, for “Hamilton.”
Kail, whose biggest screen credit to date is the FX miniseries “Fosse/Verdon,” struggles at times with where to put the camera. “Hamilton” is a busy production live, with Andy Blankenbuehler’s nonstop choreography and movement paired with lightning-speed lyrics making for concert-like sensory overload. What’s rousing and transportive at the Richard Rodgers Theatre can be dizzying and confusing on TV
The musical, of course, is the life story of America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda). (In the interest of full disclosure, Hamilton founded the New York Post in 1801. Lol). Audiences have been packing the theater for nearly five years — not because of a passion for the Federalist Papers, however, but lured in by Miranda’s innovation. The powdered-wig historical figures are played by black, Latino and Asian actors; the stuffy oboes and clarinets of “1776” are swapped for pulsing hip-hop and R&B. It’s cool!
You can’t help but once again admire the level of accomplishment here, only now it comes through best in its solemn moments rather than the flashy showstoppers such as “My Shot” and “The Room Where It Happened.” Our first glimpse of the movie’s potential power is Leslie Odom Jr.’s guttural “Wait For It.” The closeups on the actor — playing Hamilton’s eventual killer Aaron Burr, wincing as he rails against his opponent — reveal the nuance beneath the spectacle. The same is true of Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wronged wife Eliza and her anguished ballad “Burn,” as well as Christopher Jackson’s “History Has Its Eyes On You.” Renée Elise Goldsberry’s “Satisfied” is the one big song that still packs a punch in its new medium.
All of Miranda’s numbers as Hamilton get a boost from TV’s intimacy.
Miranda was not lauded as much for his acting as his many co-stars — Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Jasmine Cephas Jones and more — who emerged from this show like talent Chia Pets. But the camera reveals that, while never showy, the creator’s performance was unfailingly tender and honest. “It’s Quiet Uptown” will crush you.
So, watching “Hamilton” on TV might be best suited to the Lin-Fanuels and Hamil-stans. It’s kind of the Applebee’s to Broadway’s Peter Luger. And you know what? During a sad week where Broadway, the artistic heart of New York City, announced that it’ll remain shuttered until 2021, I’ll take it.