movie review

The Hamilton Movie Swings Open the Doors of Broadway

This show is in-your-face at a moment when nothing is allowed to be in your face. Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios/YouTube

Hamilton officially lands on Disney+ on July 3, over a year earlier than fans originally expected. Ahead of the occasion, Vulture asked theater critic Helen Shaw and columnist Mark Harris to watch the film version of the musical, and discuss the experience of watching a five-year-old, Obama-era Broadway production on a streaming platform in 2020.

Helen Shaw: Hi, Mark! So, how many times had you seen the show before you saw the film?

Mark Harris: I had seen it twice: once down at the Public and once, I guess, within a few months of its opening on Broadway — so both times with the original cast that is in the film. But I know that you went back, and you wrote about seeing it years later with a replacement cast.

Shaw: And that’s why I was so grateful to see this film version because I tend to only remember the most recent thing that has happened to me (I fight dirty in marital squabbles), so I could only vividly recall the version of Hamilton that I saw last year, which I found to be quite different from the versions I saw at the Public and the Broadway press night of Hamilton. The change in cast [from 2015 to 2019] I thought had unfortunate, deep, constitutive effects on the material, and so I was thrilled to be able to go and watch those original performers — the people who made those roles — because it felt for me like reclaiming the show. How did it compare for you?

Harris: I was quite thrilled by it in ways that I didn’t completely expect. I mean, for one thing, yes, it was a joy to see that cast again and be reminded of what a complete singular force someone like Daveed Diggs is, for instance, and be able to further appreciate Leslie Odom Jr.’s performance, which I had really liked on stage, but I think in many ways hugely benefits from the camera. The fact that I was able to see his face whenever he was singing expanded this. But the bigger change for me was this: This presentation of Hamilton, as you know, is a unique thing because it isn’t the original cast getting back together for one last fling. It was shot while they were all still doing it, and so any contemporary resonance for 2020 that this version of Hamilton has, it comes by completely honestly. You can’t say that anybody’s pushing to make it particularly relevant to this moment because it was shot in 2016. As I watched this time, it felt right to me that we were seeing this in 2020, but also, it reads differently as both a text and an act of casting and staging than it did for me five years ago.

Shaw: For me, there are two big contextual changes. First, I don’t think I was thinking about Trump in the same way that I was when I saw this originally. Jonathan Groff in deep close-up? Jonathan Groff is one of those performers I think is a genius, but I actually would like to be back in row seven watching him — because he … is a moist actor. He’s a spitter! And so as the camera gets closer and closer to him, and it’s more and more obvious that he’s in this extreme pancake makeup, that his hair is this disgusting Georgian wig, and that he’s frothing at the mouth with his need for loyalty which he won’t ever repay — I thought, maybe I missed this the first time around, but this seems like a Trumpian figure in its cosmetic as well as in its moral components.

And then the second change is, obviously, that we’re having the Black Lives Matter rereckoning specifically in the theater, and how this show does or does not make radical statements, how radical it actually is, also formed a different conversation in my brain than four years ago.

Harris: I completely agree with that. You brought up the spitting, and I want to say — and this isn’t about relevance — but I love to see the spit! I love that you can see the head mics; I love that, in a couple of shots at the very bottom of the screen, you can see the conductor. I love that there’s a one-minute intermission. There’s been a lot of discussion in Movie World about how much of a movie this was going to be versus a film record of a stage show. The “what is and isn’t a movie” talk can get really tedious, but this clearly isn’t a movie in one sense, which is that you can see it and afterward still say to yourself, “I wonder what it would be like if somebody tried to make a movie out of Hamilton.” What I think it does exceptionally intelligently is embrace the fact that it is a stage show and then enhance it with some judicious and understated filming technique. You’re seeing a live performance; you’re seeing not only Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work, but also how [the director] Thomas Kail and the choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler worked in sync with him. They’re all so clearly on the same page. It’s not embarrassed about being live: It uses the camera really well, and the sound recording is beautiful, so that you don’t get that feeling of overacting or yelling that you often get when you see a show filmed badly. This was filmed in a way that goes well beyond screwing a camera down to, you know, fifth row center and just letting it happen. It is not an attempt to turn Hamilton into something it isn’t; it’s an attempt to share with you what Hamilton is.

But to get back to its new resonance now in the era of Black Lives Matter protests. It felt to me like Hamilton was ahead of its time in 2015 when we saw it, and now it is interestingly in dialogue with its time. The whole concept of Hamilton, which is inherent in its casting and in its musical idiom, the idea of Black and brown people taking possession of an American story that always belonged to them as much as to other people and reshaping it by the way they’re telling it, now feels like it is in conversation with something like the “1619 Project.” It feels right for this moment, rather than like something anticipating a moment still to come.

Shaw: That’s very interesting because I would have said that I didn’t necessarily think in 2015 it was ahead of its time, in the sense that it is so much a product and expression of Obama-ism. I was talking to Isaac Butler the other day, and he talked about that first song: the “Founding Father without a father” who “got a lot farther by being a lot smarter.” You’re listening to a description of Obama. And you’re doing it with a Black president on stage! Daveed Diggs in an interview spoke about being at the White House, with Chris Jackson [who plays Washington] singing a song as a Black president to a Black president with the picture of white George Washington hanging on the wall behind him. Those three men in a row, Diggs said, that’s where we are in history. And so in that sense I think of Hamilton as being not ahead of its time but kind of a crystallization of its time, so what it is in dialogue with now is … how fragile that image of the three planets in conjunction turned out to be. Those orbits actually kept moving and white supremacy came back around again. Today, for me, those aspects of Hamilton have moved into the realm of fantasy and nostalgia and pleasure-pain (remember when your White House looked like this?) as opposed to reflection and reality and up-to-date-ness.

Harris: Except that of course you can’t put out of your head the terrible current state of the world while you’re watching it, so, like a lot of pieces of great American political art, it’s relevant both in times of optimism and in times of darkness. In the Obama era, there was hope that we were at least embarking on a path of progress that would continue. But Hamilton turns out to be at least as powerful when you watch it in a time of great pain, and also of increased awareness of how fragile hope can be. This time, when I watched the debate showdown between Hamilton and Jefferson, it stung more — it feels like an act of calling out the hypocrisy of those who demand progress but haven’t cleaned their own houses. The first two times I saw it on stage, I enjoyed the incredible dexterity of their jousting, but this time, what resounded for me was the genuine anger and stakes underneath it.

Shaw: You know, I was listening yesterday to “Cabinet Battle #3” — cut from the show, but the music is on YouTube — and it’s the one where they actually talk about slavery. So in the other Cabinet Battles, there are these sort of sly, elliptical references to the corruption of slavery on the Jeffersonian model, but there is this other rap battle, which doesn’t make it into the show, which, look, I know that show is two hours and 40 minutes long, but I think it’s terrible that it’s left out. It’s the one in which they actually explicitly talk about whether they can kick the slavery can down the road. You’re absolutely right that those rap battles are about hypocrisy, but the third (unheard) rap battle is the one that points out that one of the biggest hypocrites on stage is Washington. Washington is a slave owner who does not want slavery to go away. And that fact is missing from Hamilton.

Harris: That is a big issue. What I think is interesting is you could listen to that third confrontation, which means that it is available to you. It makes me think of Ron Chernow’s book, the 800- or 900-page biography that is the inspiration for Hamilton. And maybe it’s because I’ve recently finished writing a biography myself [laughs] and it is not short, but what you just talked about is the equivalent of a footnote — and I don’t mean “footnote” as “trivial,” or “not important enough to put in the main text.” I mean, when I write a footnote, it’s because I have this important thing that I want to tell you and I can’t quite figure out how to weave it into the overall fabric of what I’m doing, but I still want you to know it. So I understand the frustration on the part of some people that this specific piece of information is not addressed in the show, but I’m glad about its availability — not only as information, but as a piece of musical theater text that’s in keeping with the rest of the show. It’s not just, “Oh, by the way, here’s something more you should know about Alexander Hamilton.” It’s, “Here’s something more you should know about Alexander Hamilton in the language of Hamilton.”

Shaw: You know, that word “availability” is the most important thing about this film. One of the things that I wrote about when I saw it last year was that it gravely wounds the show for tickets not to be available — you couldn’t go for less than like $400. It wasn’t as simple as saying “It isn’t reaching the people it needs to reach.” That unavailability was actually warping and corrupting the artistic object because the musical — as we can see from this film — desperately wants to be shared, and not simply among the ultrarich. Now, with the availability of it going wide like this … I don’t know what I’m paying for Disney+, maybe ten dollars? And that feels radical to me! It does bother me a great deal that I see the Disney logo before I go into it, on the one hand, because one of my problems with Disney is the way that they’re making old Fox films unavailable and putting things into the “vault,” but still, the way that this broadcast swings those Richard Rodgers doors open rescues the ethical treasure of Hamilton.

Harris: I couldn’t agree more. I also think that it’s a way in which the Disney+ Hamilton points to something that is probably going to preoccupy all of us who love theater in the years to come: How do you create a more genuinely inclusive, progressive, broad-gauged theater in a system of capitalism that is designed intrinsically to exclude people? I mean Hamilton on Broadway did a pretty great thing by not only creating the ticket lottery but publicizing it and then turning it into a thing. (It’s one of the many ways in which, aside from all of its other virtues, Hamilton was revolutionary in the way it was marketed to a younger audience.) But still, it was a lottery, it’s a crapshoot. It’s a really limited number of tickets. So how do you make theater genuinely available to people?

It’s been a vexing question for decades, but more vexing now because the rate of ticket prices for Broadway over the last 40 years has vastly exceeded the rate of inflation. I suppose there will be people who say, “Well, there’s nothing to compare to seeing Hamilton live on stage.” But now, manifestly, there is something to compare! It’s fine to say that they’re different, and it’s fine to say that there’s a certain kind of immediate excitement of seeing people’s bodies that you’re not necessarily going to get in a film version, but this frankly comes a lot closer than I would have imagined to capturing the excitement of walking into that theater and seeing Hamilton. The first time I felt that filmed theater might be going in this good direction was, I guess, last year with Netflix’s version of Springsteen on Broadway. But that was a one-person concert, basically, and we have a lot of experience already in how to bring a concert to life on film. Doing something like Hamilton is much, much harder and more complicated. And for me, they cracked it.

Shaw: I will admit that I found it a little busy. I counted something like 24 cuts in “Dear Theodosia,” when all I wanted the camera to do was to get as close as possible to Leslie Odom Jr. and then just stop. I kept hoping that things could be a bit more still, but that experience changed for me as the piece went on. The busyness bothered me a lot in the first half, and then in the second act, I thought either the camera work is calming down, or I’m acclimating. But I can say personally that after I saw the show last year, I thought, “Oh well, I’ll never see the show again. I’ve seen it three times; life is short.” I have it loaded up in my phone, and I certainly listen to the entire album, but there isn’t really a reason for me to go back ever again after this. And then I saw the Disney+ film and yep, I would now definitely go back. The film actually fed appetite. And I think it will do that for others. I talked to the guy who runs something called Marquee TV, which is sort of Netflix for performance, and he said these types of films tend to push people toward the theater, not away from it. That is a very big difference between “performance on film” versus cinema, which is that cinema feeds its own appetites but performance on film feeds the appetite to go and see a production live. And at least I can say in the marketing group of one (which is me), I would go back and see this again. I am suddenly just dying to be … I’m not going to say it.

Harris: I know, I know, but I hear you wanting to say it.

Shaw: Let us say, I want to be in the chamber where it occurs.

Harris: In the space where it takes place! One thing that surprised me was that in just five years, so much of Hamilton has become part of our cultural language. I mean not just “the room where it happens,” which has obviously been grotesquely co-opted by John Bolton just in the last month, but also “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”; “I’m not throwing away my shot”; “immigrants, we get the job done.” I don’t want to overemphasize catchphrases as a sign of durability, but in Hamilton’s case, these things are landing in our collective vocabulary for a reason, and it’s because they speak to the time. Watching it made me want to see it again in five years or ten years, just to see how it will speak to future moments differently than it speaks to this one. Hamilton is now tied up with the Trump administration, and it has been from its first week, when there was that first Trump versus Culture controversy, when Mike Pence went at what then seemed the height of anti-immigrant rhetoric (we now know it can always get worse), and “immigrants, we get the job done” became extremely pointed in a new way. Did you call it “performance on film”? I think that’s exactly the right phrase. Seeing this performance on film really convinced me that it’s not a show that lives only in the moment it was created. It’s a political show that will speak to any political moment, just in different ways.

Shaw: During this conversation I was having with Isaac Butler the other day, one of the things he said, which I thought was interesting, is he asked, “What does it actually mean that there are Black and brown people playing the Founding Fathers?” He’s certainly come up with his own answers, and so I’ve been thinking about that, and when I was watching it last night I realized that the passage of time had radically changed for me what it means.

What it used to mean to me was reclamation, the refusal to tell a tragic story with Black faces in public. It was about joy and rebellion. And watching it last night, I realized that the public conversation that was shaping my thought now was the one about Confederate statues and what we choose as monuments. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but in Times Square — the empty Times Square — is this Kehinde Wiley statue, which, if you’re standing at a distance, looks like a standard war memorial. It’s a man on a horse on a giant plinth, and you think, “Oh, maybe I just missed that there’s a Grant statue in Times Square.” But then when you go over to it, you realize, no, the rider is actually a modern Black man, with a messenger bag and short dreads. It isn’t a memorial, but it is a monument. It is of size; it’s going to be difficult to move; it’s cast iron, or whatever.

And that’s what I thought watching Hamilton last night. Hamilton is clearly the achievement of musical theater of the last ten years. There’s no question. There’s now this document available on Disney+ and everyone can watch it and realize, Here is a crowning musical theater achievement. It’s immovable. And it’s a monument made of Black faces; it’s all brown faces. It became suddenly very important to me in this time when we’re pulling down monuments — here is the thing that’s replacing them.

Harris: Like you, I think that I’ve had a journey in terms of how I read that. When I first saw the show, the casting felt deeply celebratory to me and also just as a piece of theater text fascinatingly inextricable from the content. [As an audience member], you know that how Hamilton was cast is part of what Hamilton is. But as I watched it this time, I thought of this interview Bill Barr recently gave, where he was asked about one of his innumerable transgressions against justice, and he sort of shrugged, and the reporter said, “How do you think you’ll be remembered?” And he said, “Well, history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”

I thought of that when I was watching Hamilton because this was one of the radical things about its approach to history. It’s not a simple retelling of the story of the Founding Fathers, and it’s not a version that includes Black Americans by telling the story from the perspective of enslaved people or activists. To me, what the casting is saying is that white people have always had custody of the historical narrative. And that isn’t just erasure, it reshapes history itself. Hamilton imagines America’s history in different voices and therefore questions everything about the way you have been told history and the way you’ve been asked to incorporate it into your thinking about the world. So now, we live in a tougher and angrier moment, and seeing this cast, you can’t watch them without thinking about all the stories that aren’t told, all the people who are prevented from telling them, all the people who do not ever get granted custody of the narrative. And about the people who are determined to hold on to that custody.

Shaw: I should also say, I think the third big contextual shift is obviously the pandemic. There’s a moment in Hamilton when Renée Elise Goldsberry (as Angelica) is standing right next to Lin-Manuel Miranda and she’s berating Hamilton for betraying her sister, and she opens her mouth and the opening is almost the size of his head and these incredible sounds come out. Her mouth hinges in the back of her head, somehow. And it is so exciting. Through the screen, you get this fight-or-flight response. Her sound is unearthly: this gigantic, resonant, indescribable thing. And I thought, selfishly speaking, I’m very eager for theater to survive the pandemic. And it’s not necessarily a done deal that Broadway will come through, that musical theater will come through, that people singing that close to other people will come through. And watching her sing makes an argument that goes far beyond any rhetorical debate point that I could make about “how important storytelling is to our shared human experience.” Honestly, we just show everyone a clip of Renée Elise Goldsberry singing for two seconds, and everyone in the country will think, “We must save this art.” It proves that it is very, very precious.

Harris: Yes. This show is in-your-face at a moment when nothing is allowed to be in your face. One thing that struck me when I was watching it is how many moments in the show are moments of just sheer pleasure, or about people performing for each other. The language of the show is, in some places, about showing off — putting up a good persona. And that is also part of the joy of theater. It’s particularly moving to see it at a time when all of that seems so imperiled. Look, someday, someone will take a shot at making a full-on movie of Hamilton, and you know when they do that the same actor probably won’t play Lafayette and Jefferson, as Daveed Diggs does in the show, and that is understandable for a movie. But watching him shift from one of those roles to the other is a pleasure that is so unique to theater — one of the things that we all love about theater is the joy of a performance flourish like that.

I think this captures a lot of what I said I like about the spit: It’s a theater thing. I wanna see the spit; I wanna see the sweat. I want people to know why it’s exciting to watch people in real time turn into somebody else. Like you, I miss all of that very much. I mean, so many nights I’ve gone to the theater and I’ve walked in and looked at the sign, and said to my husband, “Jesus Christ, two hours and 45 minutes?” But I would give anything to suffer some of the longueurs of theater right now. I really do miss it more than I imagined.

The Hamilton Movie Swings Open the Doors of Broadway