- Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin Manuel-Miranda
Since its off-Broadway debut at the New York Public Theater in early 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton has become a theatrical phenomenon of historic proportions, achieving staggering levels of critical and commercial success. I have had the great fortune of seeing Hamilton onstage a couple of times and have enjoyed this artistic masterpiece, but as I have written before, that pleasure comes with some caution and trepidation. By detaching from the narrative of slavery and disavowing Black bodies and their experiences, Hamilton brings the white body back to life, glossing over the racial terror saturating American history. While Disney’s early release of Hamilton is certainly beneficial in terms of accessibility, these shortcomings are far more pronounced. In the wake of 2020’s racial injustice protests and the coronavirus lockdowns, when gasps of grief and rage grew even louder, the show’s closing image of Eliza’s gasp took on a whole new meaning.
Wrestling between pleasure and urgency, the craft of theatre remains as a source of “revolution and revelation” (as the Schuyler sisters desire). Under the direction of Thomas Kail, who also directed the stage version, the film is a firsthand look at the actual stage production at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Rather than emulating the form and style of cinema, the film is an immersive live-captured version of a Broadway musical. Televiewers come close to experiencing what it feels like to be on the stage as a performer or in the theatre as an audience member from the comfort of their homes. While the film indeed offers a great approximation of theatre, the cinematic form, as is true for most live-recordings, can’t replace the liveness nor capture the give-and-take between actors and audience. What remains is a valuable historical document preserving the original cast on film and underscoring the collaboration of the creative team.
Shot in three days in June of 2016, when the cast was performing the show to sold-out audiences on a nearly daily basis, Kail captures both the scope and intimacy of Hamilton. He employed nine cameras, some placed in the audience, others overhead, and another set in the rear of the stage. The wide shots allow for a fuller theatrical experience. The spare, evocative set design of David Korins and stunning choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler stand out as central elements of the musical. The large two-story wooden scaffold with coils of nautical ropes and pulleys hanging in front of the brick wall underscores America being built from its foundation and how Hamilton and other immigrants came by ship. The film accentuates even more the physicality of the ensemble. Actors move above the stage, descend onto the platform, and stand on a turn-table-floor, offering the musical more expressive complexity to the subtext. Alex Lacamoire’s score, blending the rhythms of hip-hop, rock, and Golden Age Broadway, heightens the audio experience. The film beautifully captures theatre-making at its best, particularly in the final duel scene. The scratchy-rewinding-of-time along with the countdown punctuates Hamilton’s death. Ariana DeBose theatrically heightens this moment when she grabs the invisible bullet that will kill the title character in mid-air and the ensemble freezes in a series of tableaux. As the turntable-floor rotates ever so slightly, the ensemble reenacts flashes of Hamilton’s life in slow-motion.
The camera shifts from wide shots to close-ups capturing those moments sometimes not visible to the naked eye. Sitting in the far-off theatre seat, I missed the intensity of the spittle flying from King George III (Jonathan Groff). Now seeing his uptight posture up close against his spittle filled that moment with so much more humor. The wide shots and close up also helps capture the emotional intensity of the conclusion. Towards the end, Eliza speaking [End Page 83]
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