Why We Need 'Hamilton' Now More Than Ever
Disney+’s new filmed version of Hamilton — recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016, shortly before the original cast members moved on to other jobs — opens with a brief message from the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and its director, Thomas Kail. Speaking from their respective quarantine lodgings, the collaborators acknowledge that this is a way for people to virtually gather to enjoy their work, and attempt to put that work into context before the performance begins.
“So much of what Hamilton is about is how history remembers, and how that changes over time,” Miranda notes. Kail says, “We’re all thinking about what it means to be Americans,” and later suggests, “I feel like we made something that spoke to the moment that we made it, and also can speak to the moment now.”
My god, does it speak.
There are works of art that feel borne of, and largely meant for, a particular moment in history. They can play well later if they’re good enough, but they’ll still feel like an artifact from the time in which they were conceived.
Once upon a time, Hamilton might have seemed like one of those artifacts. Miranda’s first real public performance of one of its songs — back when he was planning it as part of a hip-hop album about America’s least-celebrated founder — was at a 2009 White House evening of poetry and music in the first year of the Obama administration. The First Couple’s enthusiastic response to an embryonic version of the song “Alexander Hamilton” convinced him he was onto something big. By the time the full-fledged musical arrived on Broadway in 2015, with all but one major role (Jonathan Groff’s vain King George III) played by a non-white performer, it felt to some like a culmination of the Obama years: a repainting of America’s birth in more vibrant hues than the story had ever been told before, exploding into the zeitgeist late in the administration of our first African American president.
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The version arriving on Disney+ on Friday is stupendous in many ways. It offers the original cast at the peak of their powers, with Daveed Diggs spitting out Lafayette’s rhymes of “Guns and Ships” at lightning speed, and Phillipa Soo taking Eliza Hamilton’s righteous indignation in “Burn” to an even more vocally powerful place than she does on the show’s cast album. Kail oversaw the filming, which smartly captures both the scope and intimacy of the production, making sure we can see every aspect of the stunning sequence in “Satisfied” when time rewinds to show Hamilton (Miranda) meeting future sister-in-law Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), but also getting in close so that we can appreciate Hamilton’s smugness at being invited to address the Constitutional Convention, or witness the almost superhuman transformation on the face of Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) when he sings “Dear Theodosia” to his baby daughter, for a few precious moments finding peace and contentment rather than his usual stew of narcissistic grievances(*). It’s a Hall of Fame musical, expertly captured for posterity, at a time when we would have no other way to see anything remotely like it.
(*) The entire cast is spectacular, but this format’s spotlight shines particularly well upon Odom, who beautifully captures Burr’s years of resentment towards the man he was destined to kill in that famous duel.
But Hamilton also feels so special right now because it does, as Kail promises at the top, speak to this moment at least as much as it did to the era when Miranda first wrote it.
Even before this pandemic rolled along to utterly rewrite the world as we thought we knew it, the optimism of the Obama administration had begun to feel like it happened centuries ago. Social progress isn’t as linear as we might wish, and the last few years have featured white supremacists marching in the streets — and working in the White House — immigrant children in cages, and video after video of brazen, horrific police brutality against people of color. But where, say, the Clintonian fantasy of The West Wing felt out of rhythm once George W. Bush took office, or the quintessential Bush-era drama 24 seemed a relic by the time Obama took office, Hamilton was never implicitly about the days in which it debuted. Its themes are not only universal, but feel even more relevant and necessary in a time of social crisis than in a period of (extremely relative) harmony.
I had seen the show on Broadway (albeit after most of the original stars were gone) and listened to the cast recording many dozens of times over the last five years. I thought I knew Hamilton and the effect it had on me pretty intimately by the time I sat down to watch this version with my family. I knew I would choke up in certain moments when Alexander or Eliza sang about their son Phillip, knowing the fate coming for him. I knew I would laugh at the petty delusions of King George, or at Diggs’ work in the second act as an insufferably smug Thomas Jefferson. I thought I knew all of the moments that would make me feel different things, and why and how. What I wasn’t the least bit prepared for was what an overwhelmingly emotional experience it would be practically from the opening notes of “Alexander Hamilton.” A bit of this was the result of seeing Miranda and company play these roles, and literally being able to see everything better than from the mezzanine seats we had at the Richard Rodgers. Mostly, though, it was from how differently the material resonated now versus when I saw it in person.
It’s a four-year-old performance, but every scene, every song, every stylistic device feels acutely current. The idea of having black and brown actors play the founding fathers plays even more potently in this moment when George Floyd’s murder and its aftermath have forced us all to reckon with the racism that has been baked into the American experiment from its beginning. When Chris Jackson’s George Washington thunders ahead from the rear of the stage near the start of “Right Hand Man,” it’s spine-tingling to see this imposing, charismatic African American man as our nation’s first, most important and revered leader. So, for that matter, is it to witness Hamilton and Jefferson’s argument over the new country’s financial system reimagined as a rap battle, with juvenile taunts and mic drops mixed in with the policy debate. It’s not that the show is rewriting the many mistakes we’ve made as a nation — Hamilton calls out Jefferson and the other Southerners for owning slaves, and Angelica gets to complain about the sexist phrasing “all men are created equal” — but in reframing these iconic men and moments in a minority context, Hamilton forces us to consider a version of history where everyone had a seat at the table from the start. It’s inspiring, as is the moment in Act Two’s “One Last Time” when President Washington explains that he needs to step down after two terms to help America come into its own, rather than depending on any one man to guide it. At a point when it feels like the entire system of government that Washington, Hamilton, and friends established is falling apart at the seams, the song feels at once galvanizing and bittersweet.
Miranda’s focus on Hamilton as a penniless West Indies orphan who made very good after arriving on our shores feels more vital than ever after years of the current administration demonizing, hunting, and mistreating immigrants, and otherwise making a mockery of the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Even beyond the now-iconic “Immigrants / We get the job done” exchange between Lafayette and Hamilton in “The Battle of Yorktown,” there are frequent references to Hamilton’s humble origins, and to how he was viewed by those so eager to pull up the ladder behind themselves. (Jefferson in “Washington By Your Side” vents, “This immigrant isn’t somebody we chose!”) When Hamilton in a low moment recalls how the people of his town raised money to send him to America in the wake of personal tragedies, it can’t help but evoke all the crowdfunding that has been forced to replace our country’s tattered safety net in recent years.
Even more than in the early days of the 2016 presidential campaign, the show’s depiction of Burr as an empty suit who stands for nothing but his own advancement — whose greatest pleasure comes from campaigning for its own sake, to bask in his supporters’ adoration rather than to argue for anything that might assist them — points a glaring neon arrow towards the current holder of the job Burr tried and failed to win in the election of 1800(*). It’s still a warts-and-all biography of Hamilton, so some of his foibles feel painfully familiar now, too: the Reynolds Pamphlet in 2020 would be a Twitter thread that started “1/?” And the four-hankie late number “It’s Quiet Uptown” is about a tragedy specific to Alexander and Eliza, yet its portrait of their collective grief in a seemingly empty Manhattan could be happening right now, sadly. As Angelica sings over their journey, “We push away what we can never understand. We push away the unimaginable.”
(*) Also, hearing Odom belt out the line in “Non-Stop” about “taking my time watching the afterbirth of a nation” — a wink at D.W. Griffith’s 1915 cinematic celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation — hits harder now that white supremacists have felt emboldened to come out from under their rocks.
This was all written, rehearsed, performed, and recorded long before our present-day nightmares began to collide. But each song, each scene, seems meant for now. It’s not that Miranda and his collaborators were prescient, but that we’re a nation built on tragedy as much as triumph, and history has a nasty way of repeating itself. Still, by changing the lens through which we view that history, Hamilton points the way to what we hope can be a better future. The family room got dusty more than a few times, yet I came out of the experience oddly optimistic for what may lie ahead. Because if something like Hamilton can not only get made, but become a phenomenon for years on end, then maybe we haven’t completely screwed up this whole thing.
Hamilton premieres July 3rd on Disney+.
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