I saw Hamilton on the stage last year, in London. I’d purposely avoided it because of the hype surrounding it, the two queue ticketing system, the eye-watering levels of pricing, and the overexposed opening song where everyone whooped and cheered when the line “My name is Alexander Hamilton” was uttered.
The American founding fathers, on the surface, does not seem an obvious choice for a musical: yet that was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s choice, and Hamilton in particular. A man who was an immigrant, who is not likeable, and who perished in a duel at the hands of longtime political rival Aaron Burr (“I’m the damn fool that shot him”).
Hamilton is a long musical, two hours and twenty-three minutes, of which a large proportion of sung-through score is influenced by rap and hip-hop. Traditional, melodic music is there now and then, but is the exception (although when it comes the choral work is exquisite).
With a cast that is largely black or Latino, the point of Hamilton would seem to be less a story which is historically accurate (it skirts over the fact that Hamilton himself, his wife’s family the Schuylers, and many of their peers, were dedicated slave owners), but instead a sort of reclamation of a character, ‘Alexander Hamilton’ who attained his place through “talk less, smile more”.
The cast sometimes double up roles, and at least one ensemble role is key throughout to presenting themselves as an instrument of fate. There are three duels, all dramatically staged, which has to be a stage first – and the internal rhymes and rhythms are quirky enough to please the ear when you catch them in the high-speed delivery (“My name is Alexander Hamilton/there’s a million things I haven’t done”).
The trouble with the show is that there is very little to latch onto, emotionally. There is a story, yes. It is the rise and fall of a man who helped America escape from British rule (portrayed here by the slightly comic, definitely deranged, performance of Jonathan Groff, who dribbles and spits his way through eight minutes of screen time).
We see Hamilton fall in love and out of it. We see his grief for those who die prematurely, before him. We see his grasping pomposity and opportunism. But for me, there is something missing. I didn’t care. And with Miranda himself playing Hamilton in this film (created from three staged performances with an audience plus additional scenes without), there is an extra problem in that this creator does not do justice to his own material.
To put it bluntly, I found his singing weak and his acting unconvincing. I doubt this will matter one jot as this musical continues to be a huge earner (Disney reportedly paid $75 million for the rights to screen it), but I do prefer to see a performance that draws me in, convinces me, and moves me. Miranda’s strength is in the quick-fire hip-hop elements such as the trash-talking with Thomas Jefferson, but not in the more traditional elements, sadly.
Female roles in Hamilton are not without controversy. Eliza the wife, and her sisters (notably Angelica) are presented as New World feminists and free thinkers, but have little place in the narrative as a whole other than as traditional home-based support systems. This seems rather unprogressive given the other groundbreaking elements of the show.
Maria Reynolds, the lady who leads Hamilton into blackmail, is a cypher at best, and Sally Hemings, his slave mistress, is only alluded to in passing, despite Miranda’s assertion that “slavery is the third line of our show”. This sanitisation of a shameful period in America’s history remains problematic and is never fully resolved.
I enjoyed the performances of Leslie Odom Jr (Aaron Burr), Anthony Ramos (John Laurens and Philip Hamilton), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) and Christopher Jackson (George Washington). As this is a film, with lots of close-ups, the chance to experience the full choreography, set and lighting is limited, making this a different experience to watching a live theatre production.
I have to conclude that Hamilton is just not for me. I don’t like the speed of it, the lack of memorable numbers, the lack of a heroic lead. I appreciate it as an attempt to do something new and different, but the hyping of it as “the greatest musical ever written” just led me to a nagging feeling of disappointment and ultimate disengagement with the piece.
Hamilton is available on the subscription streaming service Disney Plus.
Photo credits: Disney Plus.