Arts Reviews

‘Hamilton’ on Disney+

We can all finally be in the room where it happened now that Hamilton is streaming on Disney+. The musical penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda tells the story of the American founding father Alexander Hamilton’s life. It was instant hit when it opened in Broadway in 2015. Even on a small screen from the comfort of my sofa, it is easy to see why: Hamilton is a musical on an epic scale.

Not only does it cover nearly 25 years of history, it does so through hip-hop and rap with rich and rapid lyrics. Like its protagonist, the intensity of the musical truly is non-stop. The show follows the life of Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda), the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”, and his rise to become one of the founding fathers of America.

He meets his eventual nemesis Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). Hamilton prefers to speak his mind and make his view known, whereas Burr advises a more cautious approach. This disparity in their approaches leads to a core conflict throughout the show.

Hamilton soon meets revolutionaries Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), and Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan) who bond over slick rhymes. A ball, hosted by the Schuyler sisters,
Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Philippa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones) introduces Hamilton to Eliza and they quickly fall in love and marry.

George Washington (Christopher Jackson) leads the revolutionaries into battle and Hamilton rises through the ranks to become his right-hand man.
King George III (Jonathan Groff) is a fan-favourite for his breakup-style song ‘You’ll Be Back’, in which he laments the actions of the revolution. The King returns for several songs in a similar style as the revolution progresses and eventually rids America of British rule.


In the second act, Diggs and Onaodowan trade their roles for the founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Maddison. Where Act 1 was focused on revolution against the British, the second act deals with the political machinations that result from their victory. Cabinet debates are framed
fantastically as rap battles. It is testament to the strength of the show that a rap debating the pros and cons of a national bank assuming state debt is not only watchable, but engrossing.

It is testament to the strength of the show that a rap debating the pros
and cons of a national bank assuming state debt is not only watchable, but engrossing

A separate focus of act 2 covers Hamilton’s disloyalty to Elisa and the romantic and political fallout that results. Ramos now portrays Hamilton’s son Philip. An impressive feat of acting shows Philip growing a cute rapping 9-year-old to a 19-year old battling for his father’s honour. 

Every word of Miranda’s libretto carries meaning and weight. Thomas Kail’s direction combined with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography makes masterful use of movement and space to convey the story. The ensemble keep the pace up at all times and are as much stars of the show as the main cast. Combined, it is easy to see how Hamilton won 11 Tony awards in 2016.

Given the rapidity with which the show progresses, David Korins’ set design needed to relatively simple as there is no time for large set changes. Korins’ solution may be simple, consisting mostly of wood and rope, but is all the more stunning for it. The ‘under-construction’ appearance of the set clearly reflects the themes of the show.

The ‘under-construction’ appearance of the set clearly reflects the themes of the show

The centre piece of the staging is a double turntable. It gives fantastic effect of conflicting characters literally orbiting each other as they battle with wits, words, and duelling pistols. Combined with the choreography the effect is often mesmerising, drawing you into the whirlwind lives of the
characters.

Hamilton is a meditation on the theme of legacy. Culminating in the beautiful ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, the musical battles with the question how we are remembered. Although the founding fathers were white, their legacy is felt by all, regardless of colour. Throughout history the people whose stories are told are white and male. Miranda describes Hamilton as “the story of American then, told by America now.” Thus, the specific casting of Black, Latino, and Asian American is directly intended to give control of the legacy of America to those too often written out of the history books.

The musical is not without controversy, with same arguing it celebrates deeply problematic historical figures. The cast and some of the creative team have expressed their views on this topic, I highly recommend watching Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes On You and Hamilton In-Depth, both also available on Disney+.

The final song of the show reveals that the musical is not a story told by Hamilton. Eliza is the one in control of the story. Eliza is the reason Hamilton’s legacy lives on, and she left her own powerful legacy behind even if this is not as well-known as her husband’s.

Hamilton is an impressive feat of musical theatre and will go down in history as one of the greats

Hamilton is an impressive feat of musical theatre and will go down in history as one of the greats. Miranda, directly inspired by a long line hip-hop and rap artists, has produced a musical with a fresh sound not often heard on Broadway. Every part of Hamilton is intricately designed for maximum impact. It may well be a very long time until another musical hits the international zeitgeist in the same way.

5 STARS

Matthew Bird

Images courtesy of @hamiltonmusical and @disneyplusuk via Instagram. Featured image courtesy of  Travis Wise via Flickr.

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