I’m Finally in the Room Where it Happened: Watching “Hamilton” (2020) at Home

I have yet to see Hamilton: An American Musical live on stage, and with the pandemic, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. It is not for a lack of trying, though. I spent two summers interning in New York City during college, 2016 and 2017, both of which were right in the middle of the initial Hamilton fever. That first summer I was working on a publicity team for a major studio, and so was surrounded by colleagues and outside publicists that could not stop raving about the show. Nonetheless, there was, and remains, one major roadblock between myself and enjoying a night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre where it premiered: a few hundred dollars to drop on the cheapest ticket. I accepted that pretty quickly, and opted for the next best thing. I entered the free ticket lottery that Hamilton offered each day. Each morning for two summers, I entered my information into the form and hit send, and each afternoon I received a cordial but crushing email informing me of my failure to secure tickets. 

Why open this piece with a self-pitying story about not getting tickets? Simply because I know I am far from the only person who experienced this reality. Hamilton became the hottest ticket on Broadway almost overnight (I know I’m hyperbolizing here, but for someone who doesn’t live in the Tri-State Area it sure felt like it), and so finding your way into the show meant contending with soaring prices and incredible popularity. But, why did this happen? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical telling of Alexander Hamilton’s life as a revolutionary American figure blasted into the zeitgeist for two major reasons. First, it is a jaw-droppingly well-made musical (according to those who were lucky enough to see it live). The script, music, and lyrics, all conceived and executed by Miranda, blend classic Broadway norms with more modern sensibilities, and inject all manner of hip-hop and R&B flourishes. Second, by re-casting the all-white history of the Revolutionary War with a group of uber-talented performers of color, Miranda and the production team announced Hamilton as a statement piece, one that took on the whiteness of American history by tearing it apart. Miranda said it best: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” That brilliant decision catapulted the show into well-deserved critical hagiography, and so its reputation as the ‘it’ show was cemented.

Therefore, from the beginning of the show’s run, rumblings about recording it and distributing it for a broader audience branched out from Broadway to the greater community of fans who were already obsessively listening to the official cast recording of the show on repeat. As a musical fan who was introduced to the cast recording by a dear friend, (thank you Monica) I was among those breathlessly waiting for any indication that there would be a filmed version. In the meantime, I filled the void by playing the cast recording while I did laundry, wrote papers, drove to the grocery store, and sat in Monica’s dorm room singing the entire show together. There were a number of bootlegs to approximate the experience, and when Miranda was the feature subject of a CBS Sunday Morning or NBC Nightly News piece there would be a few seconds of new official video, but it seemed that any full recording was a pipe dream. Years passed, and then in February 2020, it was widely reported that Disney bought the streaming rights for a full recording, shelling out $75 million for the exclusive honor to debut the video. All of a sudden seeing the show was within grasp, and then came the long-awaited announcement: Hamilton (2020) would premiere on Disney + on July 3, 2020. Cue my immediate happy tears.

I have a number of friends who were lucky enough to see the show on Broadway, and so I opened up Disney + with a general sense of the production. Those friends spoke at length about the choreography, lighting cues, costumes, and so on, and after four years of obsessive listening I have the songs pretty well memorized, so I imagined watching Hamilton as something akin to a filling in of the gaps in my imagination. I could not have been more wrong. Even knowing the music, the trivia, and the cast list, none of that fully prepared me for what it is like to see the musical in action. Because it is almost entirely sung, with the exception of a few lines here and there bridging songs, this was not an instance of gaps in my understanding of the story, but rather a full comprehension of the utter brilliance that is the staging of Hamilton. Thomas Kail was the director of the stage musical, and also directed the filming of the performance, and it shows. He shows off all aspects of the show through a combination of wide shots to encompass the whole stage, close-ups to maximize the emotional resonance of a note or a line, and mixes up the angles throughout so we end up seeing more than one could possibly see even from the front row of a theatre. The recording may in essence be just a capture of a stage show, but Kail takes pains to jump on the advantages of the cameras to best convey the show’s magic, and oh what magic there is at play. 

For the uninitiated, Hamilton has a tight main cast, with a number of performers pulling double duty by portraying one character in Act I, and then transitioning to a new one in Act II when their first one is no longer part of the story. The central characters are Hamilton (Miranda), Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), and King George (Jonathan Groff). In terms of the swappers, Daveed Diggs plays Marquis de Lafayette in Act I and Thomas Jefferson in Act II, Okieriete Onaodowan is Hercules Mulligan in Act I and James Madison in Act II, and Anthony Ramos is John Laurens in Act I and Philip Hamilton in Act II. I have listed all of these performers because there is a tendency to discuss Hamilton as if Miranda is the only figure who matters when it comes to appreciating its brilliance. There is no denying his vitality, as he is the brilliant conceiver, writer, composer, and de facto star of the show, but watching it on Friday night drove home once again the reality that this is a musical that only works because each of its stars is breathtaking in their roles. Each song and set piece is showstopping in its way, and every performer steals their own scene. 

Miranda gets the first showy moment with “My Shot,” a rap-heavy thesis statement on Hamilton’s goals and outlook on life that also happens to be the perfect song to run to. Yet, this gives way almost immediately to “The Schuyler Sisters,” and so Goldsberry and Soo dominate the stage to announce these women as just as central to the story as any of the ‘Founding Fathers’ we already know by name. “Right Hand Man” introduces Jackson as Washington, and Jackson is captivating and convincing in his gravitas from the first moment. On and on these songs go. With 46 songs on the soundtrack, and each standing on its own as a mini-masterpiece, I could go on for pages and pages, so I will limit myself to a few final highlights. First is “Satisfied,” in which Angelica mourns her decision to bring Eliza and Alexander together instead of following her own feelings for him, while also celebrating the love she knows the two share. It is a heartbreaking scene, and Goldsberry straddles the line between warmth and sadness perfectly, performing both the rap and singing portions of the song with equal emotion and skill. Diggs drops everyone’s jaw on “Guns and Ships” where he raps at near-supersonic speeds about Lafayette returning with provisions from France and begging Washington to bring back a sidelined Hamilton to the war. Odom headlines “The Room Where it Happens,” one of the most classically ‘Broadway’ songs with its sweeping melody and toe-tapping rhythm, but imbued with a sinister edge that foreshadows his eventual turn and murder of Hamilton. Odom is equally electrifying and unsettling, a spectrum he balances the whole show over. I suppose all of these examples  display the truest joy of the show, which is that it flaunts the absurd talent of its whole cast by allowing everyone a chance to belt out their signature song. Each of the 46 has something to offer, and that is a rarity for any musical.

I was entranced by the set, which suggests a colonial barn or ship depending on how you look at it, and features a spinning center wheel which provides for a number of the show’s most memorable moments. Stairs move, ropes swing, and the whole place feels alive, a note matched by the glorious costume design. As the characters move from pre-war, to Revolutionary War, to victorious governance, the costumes evolve with them. They begin muted and militaristic, and become flashy and sexy, and on through each emotional modulation. If the music and performance is the rightful heart of this show, what elevates it beyond comparison is the meticulous nature of everything arranged around it. You believe every word Hamilton spits and each of his emotional turns because the world he and the show inhabits feels real. Not real in the sense that you can mistake a stage for the real world, but in the way that a truly diligent group of artists can welcome you into their imaginations. It is all of this that stopped me in my tracks while I watched it for the first time, seeing how each of these factors underscored and elevated the songs I already knew and loved. I came in knowing every beat of the story, every note it would hit, but I still found myself laughing and crying.

It is a minor miracle that the world can now watch Hamilton for the cost of a $6.99 a month subscription to Disney +. That seemed unimaginable a few years ago when tickets to the show were going for a $600 starting price, but here we are, and at such a vital moment. Listening to Hamilton in 2016 felt like a rallying cry for the continuation of a new era in American life, but now it lands more like an urgent and vociferous plea to stand up and shape the America we hope to live in. In “My Shot,” Miranda sings “Come on, let’s go / Rise up / When you’re living on your knees, you rise up / Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up / Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up / When are these colonies gonna rise up?” We may no longer be colonies, but we are in need of rising up. The “America now” that Miranda spoke about is under attack, not a new attack, but one that more people seem to be aware of then ever before. Hamilton challenges viewers to turn a critical eye to politicians, systems of power, and the way that tyranny in any form is enforced. We must take that spirit and that energy and carry it beyond our living rooms where we are watching this, just as Hamilton, Lafayette, Laurens, Mulligan, Schuyler, and all the others did. Listen to what Hamilton is trying to tell you, and don’t throw away your shot. 

 

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