Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/01/20 21:51:25

"The Living Room Where It Happens"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It should be stressed right at the start that the film version of the extraordinarily successful Broadway musical “Hamilton” that is premiering this weekend amidst enormous hype is not a traditional, fully realized screen adaptation along the lines of “West Side Story” or, God help us, “Cats.” This is more akin to a concert video that consists of footage shot during a couple of 2016 performances featuring the celebrated original cast as well some additional footage of some of the key musical numbers shot later in an empty theater in order to accommodate more elaborate camera moves than would have been possible in front of an actual audience. Originally intended for theatrical release next year to serve as a sort of stopgap measure in anticipation of a full-fledged screen version, it was famously plucked from that berth and, as opposed to practically every other big-ticket movie of note, had its release moved ahead by more than a year as Disney Studios elected to instead debut it on their Disney+ streaming platform, just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, no less. Whether this move should be seen as a noble gesture that allows families to experience the same show that cost hundreds of dollars a ticket to seen on the stage from the comfort of their living rooms for only a few bucks in subscription fees or a hard-sell way of getting people to sign up for the streaming service now that the initial hype has passed, I will leave for you to decide.

For those who have been living under a rock, “Hamilton” essentially tells the story of the birth of America as seen through the eyes of one of its Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote the music and lyrics for this virtually sung-through show), who rose from being a lowly immigrant to becoming a war hero, the right-hand man of George Washington and the eventual creator of America’s financial system as well as the future face of the $10 dollar bill. Although revered today, his efforts found him butting heads with the likes of Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and onetime friend Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) in ways that would eventually lead to him being the one Founding Father who did not live to a ripe old age. His personal life would prove to be no less complicated as well—he would marry Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but carry unrequited feelings for her sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and also suffer tragedy when his son, Philip (Anthony Ramos) would die in a manner that eerily prefigured his own infamous demise, perhaps the one thing (outside of his face being on the $10 bill) that most people could cite about him before the show premiered in 2015.

When it did open, Miranda’s concept for the show was arguably the most radical thing to hit and succeed on Broadway in a long time. With the exception of Jonathan Groff (who makes periodic appearances as the increasingly beleaguered King George), the white characters have been cast exclusively with African-American and Latinx performers. Although this might have seemed like a gimmick to some when the show premiered, it has proven to be an uncommonly effective conceit that allows those who had been too often written out of the story of America’s founding to take front and center for once. Those who would protest this in the name of historical accuracy (and surely that is the only reason) can comfort themselves that a.) this is a show and not strictly a historical lesson and b.) that the actual historical record has been rewritten and whitewashed so many times over the years that a look at this story from the perspective of those who were exploited and overlooked along the way offers the chance for an often-bracing alternative take as seen from a generally unsung perspective.

Miranda’s other audacious move was to almost entirely ignore the traditional approach to the music and lyrics that one might expect to hear for a dense soundscape dominated by the sounds of hip-hop, augmented by occasional bursts of soul and pure pop, that was clearly designed to resonate with a younger audience that had not evinced any real interest in a new Broadway show since “Rent.” While the show at its core may be relatively traditional in terms of its story and structure, the radical approach to the music proves to be not so much a gimmick as a legitimately inventive and intriguing way in which to convey the ideas and themes of the show as a whole. The entire score is pretty spectacular both musically—if there are any duds among the tunes, I don’t recall them—as well as emotionally and it is interesting to listen to it again and realize how a number of the lyrics have gone on to become a part of the vernacular in the years since they were first heard. Whether Miranda’s score will truly shake up Broadway in long-lasting ways may not be determined for a while but when people talk of the landmark scores in the history of musical theater, the position of “Hamilton” among them has been cemented.

As someone has not seen “Hamilton” on stage, I cannot speak with real authority about how much of the experience of seeing it live has survived the transfer to the screen. After watching the film, I would say that the one real gripe that I have is that the overly busy visual style employed by director Thomas Kail throughout is often more distracting than anything else in the way that it keeps switching up camera angles to the point where it is sometimes hard to get a fix on the obviously intricate work from choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Clearly Kail was trying to find a visual equivalent to the energy that one might experience from seeing it live and it is obviously preferable to simply plunking one or two static cameras in front of the stage for the duration (as anyone who saw the woeful filmed version of the Kevin Kline-Linda Ronstadt revival of “The Pirates of Penzance” can attest) but a little more restraint in this area might have made it a little more effective in the long run. The hell of it is that the film doesn’t even really need the visual pyrotechnics to liven things up—the extraordinarily energetic performances from the entire cast drive the material along with such relentless and headlong force for virtually every single one of its 160-minute running time to such a degree that simply watching them (while wondering how they could possibly summon the energy to give these performances over and over during the course of the show’s run) is exhausting.

Would I have enjoyed “Hamilton” more if my first encounter with it was on stage in all of its glory with the collective energy from the audience combining with the pure power and spectacle emanating from the stage? Probably, but even though it almost certainly cannot begin to equal that experience, what it does do is certainly nothing to sneeze at, not the least being the way that it preserves the already-legendary performances of its original cast for future generations to watch and admire. Instead of just serving as a cheap cash-in with no more artistic weight than a souvenir T-shirt, it provides a decent simulacrum of the show that will be embraced by its massive fan base while giving newcomers a convincing idea of what the fuss was all about. No, this is may not be the full-on film version of “Hamilton” that many have been clamoring for but until the time for that finally comes around, this take will do the job quite nicely.

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