In five years, Hamilton: An American Musical has gone from its off-Broadway opening to winning eleven Tony and seven Olivier Awards, opening productions in London and Chicago, and completing three US tours.
3 July 2020 marked a new era, not only for Hamilton – which tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, who helped create the US Constitution and financial system – but for how we understand theatre, as Disney+ began streaming a feature-length recording of the show. With dynamic motion shots, bird’s-eye stage views and many-a close-up, the ‘movie’, shot back in 2016, is an engrossing experience and frankly, a pleasure to watch. However, questions are now arising about the precedent this sets for the future of theatre, as well as the starry-eyed portrayal of America’s Founding Fathers in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson.
First things first: no, the Disney+ movie is not better than seeing Hamilton live. Those lucky enough to have seen it in the flesh can say that even the cheapest seats in the house offer a more exhilarating and impressive experience than sitting in front of a 13-inch laptop screen with headphones on.
Nonetheless, the movie lays bare the lyrical genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The style of Hamilton is unlike any other in the industry, embracing rap and spoken word alongside more typical Broadway tracks. There is something uniquely hilarious and satisfying about hearing a revolutionary military officer in 1776 rhyme “anarchy” with “panic-y”, or having the conflicts of the day summed up by “how does a rag-tag volunteer army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower?”
Whilst Miranda’s writing is what gives the show its magnificence, it must be said that on stage (where he plays the title role), he is outshone by his castmates as his singing voice lacks the powerhouse qualities that Broadway and West End audiences have come to expect. Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette) and Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), are particularly outstanding and demonstrate how bringing talent from other areas of the industry (Diggs, for instance, had only rapped before Hamilton) can be so rewarding.
Many have raised the question of what Hamilton streaming online will mean for theatre. If audiences can now watch one of the most in-demand shows of all time at the click of a button, why would anyone pay up to hundreds of pounds to see it in person?
Logic partially answers this question. People will still go to the theatre when they open simply *because* it is theatre: it offers an entirely different experience to a movie, as an event in itself. Those speculating that Hamilton’s release will have negative consequences for interest in live theatre may as well say that anyone with a Spotify account need never go and see their favourite music artist in concert. The show will have been seen by more people in the last few weeks than in the last five years combined: a triumph for accessibility.
With this accessibility, however, comes scrutiny. In the show, Hamilton is presented as “a hero and a scholar”, George Washington is “the pride of Mount Vernon” and the audience is encouraged to cheer as the cast sing “Thomas Jefferson’s coming home!” The problem raised with Miranda’s writing is that the production glamorises these characters and overlooks racist behaviours, not least their involvement in slavery. Hamilton married into the Schuyler family, one of the wealthiest slave plantation-owning families in New York, and is framed as an abolitionist – something historians query. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners themselves, and Jefferson had children with one of his enslaved women, Sally Hemings (children whom he set free posthumously). There is understandable anger at the portrayal of these men as smooth-talking gents you “could grab a beer with”, rather than the creators of a system which claimed that “all men are created equal” (Thomas Jefferson) but did virtually nothing to make this a reality for enslaved people, other women and the poor.
Moreover, the show’s commitment to casting black and other minority ethnicity actors as the majority of characters, whilst seeming laudable, has been labelled as a mask for Miranda not writing the stories of any people of colour into the show. Responding to this on Twitter, the writer said that “all criticisms are valid” and that “[I] did my best”.
However, while Hamilton has received criticism for its interpretation of American history, the greatest strength of Miranda’s play is its portrayal of power.
When you see an African-American man playing a former president who talked about the “profitability” of his slaves, Miranda is allowing actors of colour to change the narrative of who tells their story and fulfil the ethos of the show to present ‘America then, as told by America now’. It says that if the Founding Fathers had lived up to their very own words, perhaps history would be an uplifting story of the diverse America that has always existed and still exists today, but has never fully been heard.
In short, go and watch Hamilton. The film is marvellous, especially in its dynamic cinematography that allows you to see close-up expressions that you do not see in live theatre. However if you are able to, seeing it live will be considerably more touching and exhilarating, and I firmly believe Disney’s release of the production will encourage, rather than discourage, audiences to visit the theatre. It may not end up being one of your favourite shows ever, but from a theatrical perspective it is breath-taking in the true sense of the word. From a historical perspective, it will teach you that who tells a story can influence the power of the story itself: that is certainly a message for our times.
Featured illustration credit: Cameron Somers