I’ll get to Hamilton in a minute.
First, let me make clear that I love musicals and I have no trouble with the idea of people breaking into song — or doing nothing but singing — as a story is being told. (The fact that some people take issue with this is amazing to me when they have no trouble believing explosions in space, superheroes wearing capes and Dan Aykroyd playing a human being.)
But while I love musicals, I do have problems with most movie musicals, especially those made in the past few decades. Quick, name three outstanding non-animated musicals since 2000 where all the elements came together to make cinematic magic.
I’ll spot you Chicago and wait …
Maybe you came up with Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’m with you there.
Kind of tough beyond that, though, isn’t it? When Mamma Mia! is a contender for the short list, you know the genre is in trouble.
And yet …
There have been strong musical productions shown in movie theaters. Many of them. We just don’t call them movies.
I’m talking about the one-night-only events presented by Fathom Entertainment and others — shot-from-the-stage productions that retain the original scripts, the complete songs and often even an overture and intermission.
Moviegoers munched popcorn to Imelda Staunton as a revelatory Mama Rose in Gypsy and to an outdoor Into the Woods that was moving where the Disney film was merely amusing. And She Loves Me with Laura Benanti was pure joy.
Why did these fourth-wall-free presentations work so well? Partly because the work was deeply embedded in the cast by their having worked together for weeks or months, feeding off each other and developing not just their own performances but their relationships to each other. Their performances were tested with audience after audience after audience. And the performances they ultimately gave for the cameras were linear, starting at their first entrance and continuing to the curtain call. No performances were created out of available options in the editing room. There’s something compelling about performances — and an entire show — in toto. It’s why we tend to applaud after a stage production or concert but not after listening to an album or watching a TV show.
I’ll get to Hamilton in a second. Hang on.
Alas, only a small percentage of musicals seen on stage have been shot there. Most of the time, the rights holders hold out for Hollywood. But I challenge you to find anyone with any taste whatsoever who wouldn’t prefer a shot-from-the-stage-with-the-original cast video of A Chorus Line to the Richard Attenborough film atrocity. Or someone who would sit through the unappealing Daniel Day-Lewis film version of Nine if they had the option to watch either Raul Julia or Antonio Banderas in the stage version.
This is why, when Hamilton exploded on Broadway, I wasn’t enthusiastic about the possibility that it might someday become a film. And why I was jazzed when I heard that its team had the wisdom to film the original production, with the original cast and eventually have it available for public viewing. (At one time intended for theatrical release by Disney, the studio has instead placed on the streaming service Disney+ — where it is now available.)
Told you I would get to Hamilton. Thanks for your patience.
To reward that patience, I’ll tip my hand and say that this is an outstanding recording of an outstanding show, leaving nothing out but two F-bombs that would have given it an R rating.
This Hamilton is far from just a you-are-there recording. There are clear, smart cinematic choices made by director Thomas Kail, who also directed the stage production. It starts with a long shot, on Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) asking a question, and we don’t go to a close-up until Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is introduced. It never shies away from the theatricality but the camera deftly glides, mostly in an unobtrusive nature but often with remarkable dexterity given the near-constant motion of the cast and the rotating floor.
Kail’s skill is most clear as both a stage and film director in the remarkable sequence featuring the songs “Helpless” and “Satisfied.” In the former, we see the meeting, courtship and wedding of Alexander and Eliza (Phillipa Soo). It’s followed by the same version of events as heartbreakingly recalled by maid of honor Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry). A very brief overhead shot (a technique overused in some of the National Theatre recordings), deft lighting design and Goldsberry’s performance all feed a sequence unlike anything else I’ve seen on stage or screen.
This is a big, passionate show about big, passionate things — love and infidelity, friendship and rivalry, parenting and politics — but the performances are well modulated for the camera. There are moments when I wish Miranda had pulled back a bit and times when I yearned for the feelings I had watching Odom in New York and Joshua Henry in Chicago anchor Burr at the center of the show. And there’s a lot to pack in, which newcomers — if there are any out there — may find jarring when the bullet-forward first act transitions to a more kaleidoscopic second act. While Burr’s choices are clearly motivated throughout, Alexander’s second-act actions are less connected. And I’m sorry to say that Jonathan Groff as King George, while in great voice, is not nearly as fun as other actors I’ve seen in the royal part.
But the emotional beats — including the laugh-out-loud moments and the heart-wrenching ones — are still firmly in place.
I suspect much of the audience will be people who have either seen the show or at least know the music backwards and forwards. That may turn the experience of watching it on a screen more into a concert than the deeply moving, character-based drama that Hamilton is. That’s fine, of course. You can’t go back and forget the story and the groundbreaking, multifaceted score. But I’m certainly glad I went into the New York production with only a cursory knowledge of the songstack and of Hamilton himself. My knowledge was pretty much limited to what deal came out of “the room where it happened” and, of course, the result of the duel with Burr. As such, it was a pleasure discovering the story in the theater. The relationships with the Schuyler sisters, the bonds with his revolutionary posse and his parental connection with George Washington all were delivered fresh. On top of that, “It’s Quiet Uptown” struck me as one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard about grief and loss. And the coda left me in tears. If you don’t know the details, you should be comfortable diving in. (I hosted a bus trip of uninitiated senior citizens to see it in Chicago and they unanimously loved it.)
No matter your previous history with the material, though, if you are anything like me, you’ll also find yourself oddly affected even in less obviously emotional moments captured in the film. Sometimes it’s just the way movement and performance and music come together with glorious synergy. Sometimes it’s an actor’s decision to close his eyes on a particular line in a song. Sometimes it’s the right glance caught by a director with a combination of instinct, history with the material and cinematic savvy.
That’s part of the magic of that rare thing, a great movie musical. And this is a rare one.
Am I forgetting anything?
Oh, right … and Peggy.
Here are links to my reviews of the Broadway production, the Chicago production, and the touring version. (There may be some overlap where I plagiarized myself.)