What is legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
Legacy, by its very nature, is ephemeral. One that is often shaped and continues to evolve long after you’re gone. It shares that evanescence with the theater, perhaps our slipperiest of art forms. But what happens when legacy arrives so quickly on the heels of invention? And what happens when theater is preserved on film, a living, breathing thing frozen in time?
Hamilton, the 2015 Pulitzer-Prize winning musical, arrives with a gloriously intimate rendering streaming on Disney+ to offer answers to these questions. As the pandemic rages across the country (and the world), theaters face unprecedented challenges with the artisans on and off stage who are its lifeblood out of work. Simultaneously, arguments rage about the value of recording live performance for at-home (or maybe one day theatrical) consumption.
This rendering of Hamilton is by no means an end to that discussion, but it is a resounding example of all the ways it can go right. From a financial standpoint, the lucrative rights deal put money in the hands of those who truly built the show: the original cast and production team. A model that all of Broadway should adopt.
The filming, conceived brilliantly by original stage director Thomas Kail and cinematographer Declan Quinn, is seamless, offering audiences angles that would be impossible in a theater. It wings from a bird’s eye view of the stage to traditional placement outside the proscenium to deft close-ups to shots from behind the stage. At times, it does slightly obscure the audience’s ability to take in the full impact of the staging and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, but it’s a minor quibble. Because even if by some miracle, you could afford seats third row, orchestra center, you couldn’t see the vulnerability and nuance of the original cast’s breathtaking performances in such exquisite detail as this camera placement grants.
Hamilton was already a kaleidoscope text, each listen to the soundtrack or visit to the theater another twist of the tube granting us different prisms through which to view it. This film isn’t simply another twist, it’s as if the creators also handed us an onion, with a whole new set of layers to unwrap.
We like to talk about how stage acting, particularly in musical theater, is big and boisterous, while film acting is small, with performances living in the single lift of an eyebrow. This cinematic rendering of Hamilton whole-heartedly steam-rolls that myth, instead capturing how this cornucopia of talent is able to simultaneously play to the back of the house with soul-deep wells of emotion and understanding, while also offering lived-in interpretations that can hinge on a single glance or clench of a jaw.
All the emotion and revelatory work has always been there: from Daveed Diggs’ whip-smart delivery and unmatchable speed to Renée Elise Goldsberry heartache and yearning to Leslie Odom Jr.’s haunting, quiet ferocity that lends the show its soul. That trio has long been the backbone of a show with zero weak links, but their work can all be dissected and more richly appreciated with the intimacy offered here. Quieter things, like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s shattered grief on “It’s Quiet Uptown” and Phillipa Soo’s steely grace as Eliza, hit in new ways. For a show about founding fathers, she gets the literal last gasp and of the profusion of talent on display, her performance is the most revelatory in close-up.
Theater lives and dies by its audience, the energy of the people in the dark feeding and shaping each performance. While it doesn’t cut away to reaction shots, Hamilton wisely includes their voices, their shock, amusement, and awe woven throughout. It doesn’t forget how essential that is to the equation, while also granting space for the at-home audience to have a fresh experience, mastering a difficult hybrid.
The show has been a hit since practically before it opened, but it’s easy to forget in its widespread popularity just how audacious and revolutionary an experiment it offered when it premiered. Like Rent and West Side Story before it, it’s become a referential text, one that in some ways has been reduced to a winking joke or a source for eye-rolls from condescending people who can only love something before it’s popular. Some of its meaning is stripped away by memes and quips that make it more about Hamilton as a cultural entity than cultural text.
For many, Hamilton’s legacy is already enshrined: a show that brought hip-hop to Broadway, that took a largely unknown cast predominantly made up of people of color and turned them into superstars. And most radically, a show that dared to imagine, as so often quipped, “the story of America then, told by America now.”
But premiering now, as our country goes through a crucible, it’s a necessary reminder of how complex legacy is and how history and art are meant to constantly be re-assessed. As we simultaneously grapple with our nation’s relationship with the founding fathers, so too must we reckon with the stories we tell of them.
On film, Hamilton feels every bit as fresh, invigorating, intoxicating, and revolutionary as it did when it premiered five years ago. But it also invites a new opportunity for engagement, a critical discourse it can certainly weather as a multi-layered piece of art that both broadens and deepens our view of the nation’s architects, while also problematically reiterating valorization. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” it asks, but it doesn’t exclude itself from that questioning so much as promote it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and this extraordinary company of artists have received the rare gift of getting to stop and smell the flowers in the garden of this legacy they planted. Hamilton on film is a new plant there, one that will bloom and shift the landscape. The live theatrical experience is not truly replicable, but this is a new hybrid object that offers a fresh corner of the garden to all of us in a time when we could use its joy, its grief, its provocation, and its complexities. It’s an urgent reminder of how, even in the darkest of times, how lucky we are to be alive right now. A
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