We committed the unpardonable crime of being mavericks who were successful, and everybody hated us. It would’ve been fine if we’d been just hacks and made a lot of money, that’s OK. Or to be really original and starve, that’s OK. But it’s not OK to do both, and they didn’t forgive us.
That’s what Stephen Sondheim says in the 2016 documentary Best Worst Thing That Ever Could’ve Happened. He’s speaking about the glee and meanness in the press and elsewhere over the commercial failure and quick closure of the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, which he created with producer and director Hal Prince after the successes they’d had with Follies and especially Sweeney Todd. Sondheim isn’t saying that’s why people didn’t like the show; he’s saying that’s why they took such pleasure in not liking it.
Talking about Hamilton now can, if Sondheim is right, provoke a similar reaction. The film version of Hamilton that arrives Friday on Disney+ is a film of the stage musical, assembled from three days of performances when the show was at its hottest, in June 2016, just before the original cast began to leave. Hamilton was a juggernaut by then, and it’s a Disney movie now, but it was also “really original” and, let’s be honest: pretty high-risk.
It’s not just that it’s a race-bent hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers. It’s almost entirely sung-through, meaning there’s little dialogue to flesh out the story. The company, outside the main characters, dresses in plain white and cream in what often looks like underwear. The staging plays with time, both by spinning it backward and forward and by stopping it entirely. And arguably its most humane, deeply felt performance is by Leslie Odom Jr. playing Aaron Burr, the man who kills the title character. And who reminds you in the opening number that that’s how this all ends: “I’m the damn fool that shot him.”
It’s easy to forget now how much people struggled with what to make of it. In a now-famous clip from 2009, filmed when Barack Obama had been president only a few months, 29-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda appears at a White House event called “An Evening Of Poetry, Music & The Spoken Word.” He announces, in front of an audience that is not terribly different from the big-ticket Broadway audience he’ll one day have to impress, that he’s working on a hip-hop concept album about Alexander Hamilton, and they laugh at him. Gently, appreciatively, but they laugh. Even by the end, though they give him a big ovation, they don’t seem entirely sure it’s not a joke.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to continue working on this for another five years, having taken something you see as an epic American tragedy for a spin at the White House and having them laugh? And continuing, and persuading your collaborators to continue, in the conviction that this was your Sweeney Todd, and not your Merrily We Roll Along?
But here we are, 11 years later, and the film adaptation is a marvelous and welcome addition to the show’s legacy in spite of a few imperfections. Even for those who know the celebrated cast album backward and forward. Even for those who have seen it live. Even for those who have seen it live with this cast.
A few basics: This is not a full film adaptation such as the movie versions of Grease or Rent or whatever. It’s a high-quality recording of the stage production, like the ones they would show on PBS’ Great Performances (where some of us thought this might end up when they announced they were filming the show back in 2016). It’s directed by Thomas Kail, who also directed the musical onstage, and for the most part, it does a good job of translating the show for a home audience.
One reason to watch the film is to better appreciate the acting. Close-ups of theater actors can be a little distracting because acting for theater is sometimes exaggerated for the benefit of an audience that’s far away. When you see it from a foot away, it can look a little much. (Miranda is probably the performer who’s most negatively affected by that problem in this film. Well, Miranda and Jonathan Groff, whose tendency to spit is legendary. You shall see.) Fortunately, in most cases, the opportunity to see the actors up close brings out nuance and performance choices that aren’t discernible on the cast album and wouldn’t even be fully obvious live. Phillipa Soo, playing Eliza, brings great warmth to some scenes that could be hard to take given the long-suffering nature of the character, and you get more of that when you see it up close.
Another reason is that the staging has a tendency to bring out different elements — additional elements — of what a song represents in a scene. One example is “My Shot.” On the album, it’s a song where Hamilton is bonding with John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) and Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Odaodowan). But in the film, you can more easily see how it serves to introduce Hamilton’s magnetism; it’s not only his new friends who are persuaded; he’s pulling in a whole bar full of listeners while Aaron Burr (Odom) sits, disapproving, nearby.
You also really have to see it to appreciate the quality of the very best performances in it, particularly the work of Odom and Diggs. Aaron Burr is a confounding, complicated character, and seeing Odom operate in different parts of the stage and in clearly different performance modes reminds you that just like Diggs is playing Jefferson and also Lafayette and Ramos is playing Laurens and also Hamilton’s son Philip, Odom is also really playing two roles. He’s playing Burr in the moment, as Hamilton’s contemporary. But he’s also playing an older, reflective Burr — the one who’s able to explain at the end the profound effects of his having shot Hamilton. This older Burr is an intimately involved narrator, almost like the Leading Player in Pippin or the narrator in Into the Woods (or, for the matter, the Emcee in Cabaret), and his performance there swells to “The World Was Wide Enough,” which contains the duel and Hamilton’s death.
But Odom’s performance as that contemporary Burr centers on two of the show’s best songs: “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens.”
In the first, he’s a study in stillness, in the projection of restrained, coiled-spring tension. It’s a song of both great energy and enormous discipline, and seeing him perform it gives a better idea of how he holds those performance notes in balance. In “The Room Where It Happens,” you see that energy overwhelm him. This is where he abandons his existing ideas of patience, and the physicality of the performance — this is really the first time he fully joins in a dance — brings home the moment of transformation in a way that the music certainly supports but doesn’t fully communicate. When you see the performance, it is jazz, it’s Cab Calloway, it’s ecstatic, it’s church. It’s thrilling, and he’s losing himself.
As for Diggs, a true fact might say more than any description I can muster: I couldn’t stop watching his entrance as Lafayette in the song “Guns and Ships.” I kept rewinding it. I’ve heard the cast album more times than I can count (my phone might know, but I’m afraid to ask), and I still was so blown away by the charismatic sonic boom of that Lafayette entrance that I replayed those 45 seconds or so probably 10 times before I moved on, and then 10 more times at the end of the movie, and then 10 more times since.
There is something about a perfect marriage of writing and performance — that’s not to say there haven’t been and won’t be lots and lots of good Lafayettes, but it’s pretty hard to hear anybody else sing “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” after you hear Ethel Merman do it, you know? The same could be said about Diggs’ little hopping dance when he first enters as Jefferson, in his gaudy and somehow perfect purple suit, flapping the tails while he dances to “What’d I Miss?” He is an electric, charismatic, athletic performer, and when you see the physical choices, you get closer to understanding the full weight of the work he did.
It’s also worth seeing the film, as an effort to document the live show, because the musical performances are a little less polished. A cast album is … well, it’s a cast album, meant to be listenable by the broadest possible audience without reference to the action. And because that’s the case, the live performances of the music tend to be a little more ragged — more raucous, to use a more positive adjective — while the ones on the album are neater. Specifically with hip-hop and rap, the cast album documents those elements with the most rigorous adherence to the beat, while in the live show, there’s a little bit more of a tendency for the performers to bend the vocal a bit more around the rhythms, sometimes a bit more ahead of the beat or behind it, which you also hear in the performance of “My Shot” credited to the Roots that plays over the end credits.
The last thing I’d mention that comes into focus much better when you see how it’s staged is the creative use of the company. There’s a relatively small ensemble outside the main cast, and they have to represent armies and wedding guests, and they provide the chorus, and they are the dancers. The way they’re used is both sparing and imaginative, with limited but emphatic costuming changes transforming them between scenes. And similarly, it’s worth noticing how the members of the main cast linger on the catwalk above the stage, sometimes singing or speaking from there and sometimes simply observing, often augmenting the ensemble. It’s a clever and sometimes quite touching way to continue the theme, which begins in the double-casting, of connections between the people in a life, how they are in the background at one time and prominent at another.
I do think there are a couple of missteps: Rather than simply showing the unconventional staging of “Satisfied,” which is the most creatively staged number — alongside perhaps the duel in the finale — Kail seems to have tried to come up with a filming technique that would provide, via filming and editing, the disorienting effect that staging had. They should’ve just filmed it, with its tremendous performance by Renée Elise Goldsberry; you lose something here that’s special. I would say the same about the side-by-side two-chair staging of “Dear Theodosia,” in that I’d have messed with it a little less.
But these are small nitpicks. On the whole, absolutely, positively, there is new insight and new excitement here for people who already know that they love this show, and even for those who have stayed away from the album. Hamilton is a piece whose status as art is constantly threatened by its status as a phenomenon and a status symbol; the cultural exhaustion has been, at times, very real and beyond understandable. This is a good reset, and a good chance to put a fresh eye on it. You will notice new things (there are a few clever stage tricks I don’t want to spoil), you will marvel at little wonders like the perfectly still way Groff holds his head when he sings, and you will likely not be bothered by a couple of f-bombs that are garbled to avoid an R rating. (Most aren’t. But the rules are strict, so a couple had to be.)
And if Sondheim is right, there will be plenty of people waiting for the next Lin-Manuel Miranda musical to go over like Merrily We Roll Along. The film, I think, will not.
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