Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Unmasking Alexander Hamilton in the (Living) Room Where It Happens

 It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows no one any good. As we all live through the enforced boredom of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is making a mighty comeback in living rooms everywhere. Would-be theatregoers like me had our expensive tickets refunded at the start of quarantine. But in a great trade-off, we can now see the original cast in the filmed version of the stage production, by committing to a month of Disney+.

Normally a filmed play is not something to get excited about. The thrill of live theatre lies in its spontaneity: the fact that drama blossoms right before your eyes. The audience, fundamentally, is part of the show. Some productions capitalize on this fact by staging the action in such a way that the onlookers are personally drawn in. Back in the 1930s, Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which culminates in a labor uprising, planted strikers in the audience, the better to shake up the crowd. In 1967, Hair sealed its connection with the young people in their theatre seats by inviting them on stage to dance with the cast, while their parents awkwardly stayed put. The stage version of The Lion King mesmerizes audience members by opening with a animal parade up the theatre aisles.

Hamilton is not the kind of show that relies on such (let’s face it) gimmickry: the actors stay on the stage and the audience stays in its seats. Still, this very pointed re-telling of the birth of the U.S.A. uses such innovations as rap music and the Founding Fathers played by actors of color, all to drive home a point about the revolutionary nature of the great American experiment. Individual performances have generated electric excitement, particularly just after the 2016 election when Vice-President-elect Mike Pence was in the house. Since then, Hamilton has continued to be a hot ticket, particularly among those new to the theatre-going experience. The show’s reach has been so great that when John Bolton, former National Security Advisor in the Trump administration, put forth his tell-all book, he apparently borrowed its title, The Room Where It Happened, from Hamilton’s jazziest tune.

Because Hamilton, in its Broadway staging, has become such a cultural phenomenon, the always shrewd Disney company saw fit to back the filming of the play, planning to release it at cineplexes next year. COVID changed those plans: with all of us currently addicted to TV viewing, it made sense to release the film NOW, as a splashy way to kick off Disney’s new subscription service.

Years ago I graduated from (really!) Alexander Hamilton High School. There was a statue of Alex in our main building, but few of us had much interest in the man himself. In his knee britches and pigtail, he looked singularly boring: all we knew is that he was Secretary of the Treasury (big whoop!) and had the bad taste to die in a duel. Too bad, we all thought, he wasn’t someone exciting, like, say, Thomas Jefferson. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition, Jefferson is a real sparkplug, though not perhaps someone worth admiring. Hamilton, by contrast is a bastard, an orphan, and an immigrant—who knew? Also brilliant and occasionally very much mistaken.

I saw a road company of Hamilton in Chicago, in the third balcony of an enormous old theatre. I enjoyed it, but felt I was missing the nuances enjoyed by those in orchestra seats. Thanks to a film version artfully photographed (with ten cameras) and edited, I could finally truly see what the historic hoo-ha was all about.


  1. Hey Beverly...nice review, and I, too feel connected to the play because of my time at Hami High. I like two things about this play: First, we are used to musicals that have dialog and action that is complemented by musical numbers. Not Hamilton...it is non-stop music and lyrics from the get-go and never stops. It's actually more like an operal than an traditional musical. And Lin Manuel has the chops to bring levity and whimsey to some songs that highlight history, like King George's "You'll Be Back." Second, as you noted, there's a bright light shone on history that even as students of the namesake school, we never knew. Why was Lafayette so close with Hamilton? Because when Washington recruited him he was "assigned" to Hamilton to learn the ropes of the newly forming republic because Hamilton spoke French. Little factoids like that bring history home to us in an enjoyable way. And surrounding the historic facts with foot-stomping tunes and poetic lyrics have made this play an American phenomenon unlike any other.

  2. Excellent points, Bruce. How nice of a fellow Hamiltonian to write in! I too could go on and on about the ways in which this show sells its narrative: I once had to read a student screenplay covering Hamilton's life -- a lot of the same facts were present, but I found it unbearably dull. Lin-Manuel's wit and original use of music and language really do speak to us today.

    1. Hope you don't mind if I post it on the Reunion site, too. (I thought that was where it was going.)

    2. Of course. Spread it far and wide if you like!