Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Disney+
Director: Thomas Kail
Writer: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Composer: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Starring: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo
Genre: Musical, Biography, Drama, History
I came home from work one day and Jacquelyn was talking to her sister over the phone.
“Yall gonna watch Hamilton?” my SIL asked.
“Yeah, we’ll get around to it,” my wife replied. “I just need to make time for it—see what Maurice’s schedule looks like.”
Color me uncultured, but I had no idea that Hamilton: An American Musical had been in circulation since 2015. The high-brow, dare I say uppity folk knew this*, but I did not learn that it was “must-see” until the day its film version premiered on Disney+. I still would not have thought anything of it until its discursive reception on Black Twitter. Welp, guess I have to roll up my sleeves to see what all of this is about.
Covid really expedited this, huh?
Violence: Historically, we know that Alexander Hamilton perishes from a lethal shot Aaron Burr delivers during a duel. Hamilton portrays this scene, but of course, no one actually dies during a live-action musical. Depictions of the American Revolution are equally sanitary.
Language and Crude Humor: Hamilton instantly announces that its audience is intended for teens at minimum by opening with “Alexander Hamilton.” Its lyrics begin,
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by providence impoverished
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
Humorously, playwright Lin-Manuel “Gave Two F’s,” meaning that Hamilton contains at least one. Certainly, there are more. For example, “My Shot,” the character Hamilton sings,
A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile, Britain keeps shi**in’ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around, runs a spendin’ spree
He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century
Enter me, he says in parentheses
There is at least one GD, notably, in the song “Wait for It.”
Alcohol and Drug Use: During “The Story of Tonight,” all characters on set enjoy themselves mugs of…Samuel Adams? During the reprise of the same song, Hamilton and his party celebrate his marriage over drinks, and they are raucously drunken in the streets.
Sexuality: “Winter’s Ball” playfully mentions that there are so many women to deflower, a prelude to Hamilton’s relationship with Elizabeth Schuyler. Scandalously, and true to history, Alexander Hamilton engages in a torrid affair with Maria Reynolds, a decision that begins his downward spiral; this is the subject of “Say No to This.”
You want a revolution? I want a revelation
So listen to my declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident
That all men are created equal”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson,
I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel!
This selection of lyrics from “The Schulyer Sisters” is indicative of how Hamilton navigates some of the problematic politics of during the time of the American Revolution. Though the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, women in the US would not gain their suffrage rights until 1920 with the 19th Constitutional Amendment. Likewise, several of the key characters portrayed in Hamilton were slave-owners. The musical does not ignore this, addressing the problems of the Peculiar Institution in clever ways that do not disrupt its main focus.
This review will be easier to follow while listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.
A white, the blonde-haired, lesbian professor of African American studies teaching at a conservative HBCU, would one day become my academic advisor and encourage me to pursue a Ph.D. in English. She encouraged me to practice the art of “creative fibbing” while composing my statements of purpose so that I might distinguish my graduate school application packages from all others.
As if playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda (LMM) divined my professor’s advice, his Hamilton is a work of extraordinary “creative fibbing.” I love me some historical (meta)fiction, and LMM’s work delivers. Those looking for “The Veracious, Authenticated, Historical Account of Our Nation’s Birth as Told by the Sons of Liberty” should avert their eyes and plug their ears, because Hamilton strives to show and tell stories rather than illustrate plain, boring facts.
Performed almost entirely in rhyme, Hamilton playfully chronicles the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the United States first treasurer, Alexander Hamilton. Readers who did not skip over the Content Guide of this review (good for you!) already know that this musical’s opening lines are provocative enough to make the salacious lift an eyebrow and the discrete blush. From that point onward, a full ninety minutes will lapse before the thought, “I do not really like this song” runs through my brain, and never again afterward.
Witness King George III’s indignant rejection of American sovereignty through “You’ll Be Back,” with Groff’s spittle foreshadowing the character’s transition to madness as he loses a war that at first seemed like a small rabble. If, like LMM, I could preserve a single swear, I would describe “Right Hand Man” as bad-a**. General George Washington storms onto the set, ready to punch out a subordinate’s teeth to a hip-hop number, reminding me of the “James Bond Theme“:
Aaron Burr’s “Wait for It,” Lafayette’s remix of “Hamilton” called “Guns and Ships,” the cleverly-written “Ten Duel Commandments,” “Satisfied,” “That Would Be Enough,” and so forth—detecting a poor melody here is exceedingly difficult. It would be necessary to compose an entirely separate “Beat Breaker” article to do justice to all of the music in this production.
Appreciate you so much, @brokeymcpoverty. All the criticisms are valid. The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get. Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game. https://t.co/mjhU8sXS1U— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) July 6, 2020
LMM’s reception of criticism is refreshing. He requires no defense, but he does present the Founding Fathers as deeply flawed characters.
As wonderful as Hamilton is to experience, its exposure on Disney+ comes with odd timing. When LMM wrote this musical, it was during a time of hope. From 2010, LMM urgently wrote Hamilton so that it would premiere before Obama exited his presidency. Then, it seemed that the country was moving toward diversity meaning more than a perfunctory goal for employers to meet so that they do not catch a discrimination case. But this was before the next POTUS ordered ICE to hunt and lock brown children in cages or declare defenders of Confederate statues to be very fine people as they chant “Blood and Soil.”
So while one may applause Hamilton’s deluge of melanin-infused actors and actresses playing as characters one could safely assume to be universally white historically, my favorite song, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” punctuates the redcoats’ surrender with black men in powdered wigs, ruffled sleeves, and knee breeches reciting the line, “Black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom.” To this, the on-stage majority, including Washington, rejoins with an emphatic “Not yet!” In this regard, Langston Hughes’ concept of a dream deferred still looms.
LMM does attempt to address slavery more directly with “Cabinet Battle 3,” though it did not make the official cut.
LMM sprinkling the kinds of lines found in “Yorktown” puts the “meta” in “metafiction.” Not only do they allude to the war that the so-called United States would fight amongst itself less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, but they also indict America for nurturing sentiments related to the Lost Cause for so long that a majority-BIPOC cast winning Tonys, Grammys, and Pulitzer Prizes is considered anomalous this side of the 21st century rather than commonplace.
Though the country has recently taken a step backwards on the route to progress, Hamilton manages to make me forget that characters like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned slaves. LMM tries to balance this fact with lines like “I stay at work with Hamilton / We write essays against slavery / And every day’s a test of our camaraderie / And bravery” in “Stay Alive,” or “We’ll never be free until we end slavery!” in “Yorktown,” or “A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor / Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor / ‘We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting / We know who’s really doing the planting,'” during the Hamilton/Jefferson “Cabinet Battle #1.” LMM’s original plan was to write a musical for Abraham Lincoln; those who wish to perform a deep dive into the slave question can begin with the clues Hamilton provides, because its injustices are not this work’s primary focus.
Speaking of focus, Hamilton is a recording of a live performance, and so at times tries to simulate a stage experience, and other times, a movie. The camera tries to track the central characters at all times naturally. However, this diverts attention from some of the choreography happening simultaneously on-stage. Background activity, such as when Hamilton asks Elizabeth Schuyler’s father for her hand in marriage while she sings “Hopeless” in the foreground, would be great to see if the cameras cooperated. Likewise, I would love to be able to rewind and watch all the elements of the…”rewind”…that takes place preceding Goldsberry’s “Satisfied,” with all of the extras dancing backwards to simulate Angelica Schuyler’s remorseful recollection of the event when she and her sisters first meet Hamilton. By the time the song finishes, the stage is back to her toast of Elizabeth and Alexander’s wedding. Such are the limitations of a “cinematic” version of a stage play.
Though it is historical (meta)fiction, I can imagine Hamilton ascending into permanence in the American Imagination. With adeptness and aplomb, it accomplishes its quest to portray the America of yesterday through the lens of today. Hamilton: An American Musical not only provides substantial entertainment (check out the soundtrack at the beginning of this review), but it will also become a touchstone for theater schools and Early America introductory courses. Place Hamilton on the syllabus alongside Macbeth and King Lear, and kids and adults alike will want to blitz the history books in search of the “true” stories.
+ Music + Acting + Plot
- Camera angles - Weak on slavery - Erasure of Indigenous People's involvement in America's liberation
The Bottom Line
If one imagines how much history we would have retained from high school if the Jefferson/Hamilton debates were taught as a rap battle in a mutual exchange of roasts, then one has grasped the brilliance that is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton: An American Musical.