August 2020

Arts & Letters

America’s imperfect angels: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’

By Shane Danielsen
Post Black Lives Matter, the hit musical already feels like a souvenir from a vanished pre-Trump America

Everyone has a genre they just don’t like. You might detest westerns, or recoil from slasher flicks. For me, it’s musicals – and not just the Broadway variety, but the classic movie tuners as well. Singin’ In the RainCabaret? Look, they’re good; they’re obviously, undeniably well done. But would I ever choose to watch them over, say, La dolce vita or What’s Up, Doc? or Blade Runner? Probably not. (As for La La Land, forget about it. You couldn’t have dragged me to that thing with chains.)

For this reason, I’ve spent much of the past five years cheerfully untroubled by the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit show about the father of American federalism. I used to say, glibly (but also sincerely), that I couldn’t enjoy Hamilton because I already like the Wu-Tang Clan. Meaning that I love “real” hip-hop – along with post-punk, one of the cultural touchstones of my life – and not some lame “rap musical” for NPR listeners to clap along to.

Then I learnt that “My Shot” – perhaps the show’s most famous number – quotes from “Shook Ones, Pt II” (“I’m only 19, but my mind is old”), a classic Mobb Deep cut; and a year or so after that, realised that “Cabinet Battle #2” referenced Biggie’s “Juicy” (“And if you don’t know, now you know”). When a friend pointed out that the original cast album had been co-produced by The Roots’ Questlove and Black Thought, I nodded impatiently, feeling my argument start to wobble.

A movie version has been in the offing for some time; it’s common knowledge that the original Broadway production was filmed. However, Disney’s decision to premiere it on the 4th of July – more than 12 months before its planned release date – took many by surprise. But was it nakedly opportunistic (as some sneered, citing the lockdown) or oddly principled – an appeal, in the teeth of a national crisis, to some buried strain of American patriotism, and the better angels of its domestic audience’s nature?

Whatever the motive, the decision paid off: subscriptions to Disney+ soared, and Hamilton became a hit all over again, in a whole new medium. Remembering the US$75 million it cost to acquire the broadcast rights, and knowing the Mouse House’s enthusiasm for franchises, I found myself pondering what further entries in the Hamilton-verse might look like. A buddy-comedy with presidents James K. Polk and Millard Fillmore? A Pixar short for William Henry Harrison?

For the benefit of anyone who’s been locked down for the past half-decade, Miranda’s show – a 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner – is an account of the fractious birth of the United States, only with actors of colour playing white historical figures (Washington, Jefferson, et al.) and the argot of contemporary black music (hip-hop, R&B) exchanged for 18th-century formality. It’s conceptually audacious, but more remarkable still is its creator’s ambition: in an age of jukebox musicals, efficiently and cold-bloodedly tapping nostalgia for a particular period (    Jersey Boys) or artist (Mamma Mia!We Will Rock You), a 46-song original score represents nothing if not an almighty swing for the fences.

This film version essentially captures an onstage performance by the original Broadway cast. There’s no attempt to dramatise the action à la Les Misérables, or to stylise it further, like (God help us) Cats; we’re very much in a theatre space, confronted by David Korins’ brick-and-timber set. There’s crowd noise and visible scene changes; songs end in thunderous applause. Only this time, our point of view is not fixed to a single seat, but omniscient.

I went in sceptical, buoyed by my prejudices, and was happy as well as surprised to be proved wrong. Both as theatre and as television, Hamilton mostly works. Director Thomas Kail’s staging is consistently inventive, musical director Alex Lacamoire’s arrangements nicely sparse (no Les Mis bombast here, mercifully), and Miranda’s writing is confident, complex and frequently witty, its tone set during an early exchange between Angelica Schuyler and Aaron Burr, future vice-president:

“Excuse me, miss, I know it’s not funny / But your perfume smells like your daddy’s got money …”

“Burr, you disgust me.”

“Oh, so you’ve discussed me? / I’m a trust fund, baby. You can trust me.”

Like any musical, the production ultimately stands or falls on the strength of its songs. And Hamilton’s reputation rests, I think, on half-a-dozen unassailable classics. Especially notable are “Helpless” and “Satisfied”, a phenomenal one-two punch early in the first act – the former a springy R&B jam that resembles a great, unheard Destiny’s Child single (in fact it borrows a melody from Beyoncé’s “Countdown”), the latter a straight-up barn burner, rewriting and subverting its predecessor while at the same time offering a jaw-dropping showcase for Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler. My favourite number here, it also provides this production’s most cinematic moment: while the son et lumière of the staging is impressive (due largely to Howell Binkley’s lighting design), Jonah Moran’s elegant editing ensures it also works in filmic terms, creating something complex and dissonant from an abundance of coverage.

Every aesthetic choice, in other words, is a good one, and for a few minutes this becomes something more than merely the preservation-record of a hit show… though of course, it was never just that. Not only were two separate performances shot, in June 2016, but the cast was then assembled in the empty Richard Rodgers Theatre to run through 13 numbers again – this time with cameras placed onstage to capture the action more closely. It’s a decision that pays off handsomely in the play’s darker second act, offering a more intimate perspective on the unfolding human drama.

The weird thing, as you watch it, is the dawning realisation that Miranda himself, in the title role, is actually the weakest of the key cast – his flow superb, but his voice, a reedy, slightly nasal tenor, thin and unsteady. Far better is Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr, Hamilton’s colleague and adversary. A striver with a ready smile, Burr privately seethes with fury and resentment, as tormented by Hamilton’s rise to power as Salieri was by the genius of Mozart in Amadeus. Odom, an extraordinarily charismatic performer, conveys the character’s duality brilliantly. His early solo showcase, a dancehall-inflected anthem titled “Wait for It”, nicely complicates our feelings about this supposed antagonist, and Odom’s performance remains admirably understated throughout, calibrated for the camera and not the dress circle. (The show’s best rapper, meanwhile, is Okieriete Onaodowan, a burly former linebacker with the throaty growl of Busta Rhymes, who in one memorable moment plucks a thrown chair out of the air so effortlessly, it might have been made of matchsticks.)

Still, at more than two and a half hours, this show occasionally feels long; worse, its second act, more narrative-driven, lacks the refined songcraft of the first. “Washington on Your Side” is fun (though no credit to Disney for censoring the handful of f-bombs scattered through the lyrics) and “It’s Quiet Uptown”, hushed and sorrowful, is its last real showstopper. But otherwise, there’s an awful lot of expository numbers, advancing the plot without ever quite tickling the ear. There’s nothing here as joyfully exuberant as “The Schuyler Sisters” – Miranda’s unabashed attempt to write his own “Empire State of Mind” – nor as flat-out thrilling as “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”. And the closing song, “Who Tells Your Story”, encapsulates pretty much everything I hate about Broadway musicals: overwrought, prolix, weirdly gauche – and straining for a sagacity it never manages to achieve.

Nevertheless, it culminates in a final beat of mysterious, almost shocking power, as potent onscreen as it must have been onstage. I have a theory about this ending (and yes, this is a spoiler): that it’s less about transcendence than breaking the fourth wall. Not a glimpse of Heaven, as it’s commonly understood, but the sudden, shocking realisation – per the lyric: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” – that there’s an audience out there watching what has occurred. The Hamiltons’ tale has, indeed, endured. Though even this is complicated by the ambiguity Phillipa Soo (as Eliza Hamilton) brings to the moment, her expression – stricken, almost aghast – denying the viewer the comfort of any single definitive reading.

Shortly after the film’s release, inevitably, came a number of op-ed pieces – from Ed Morales at CNN, from Hannah Robbins at The Conversation – claiming that, given the shifting terms of race relations in the United States since the murder of George Floyd, this was actually precisely the wrong moment for Hamilton. Its hero is too ambivalent, the writers claim, and the show’s message too vague and/or conciliatory, consecrating individuals who enslaved the same minorities who now portray them. (Per Morales: “The play seems now at odds with Black Lives Matter’s strident call for radical change to an America where the legacy of white supremacy lives on.”)

This is true – well, the part about America, anyway – but I’d actually be more interested had the show’s makers pushed back on the current “progressive” notion that an actor can and should only represent their own race and background – a belief that, if accepted, would throw virtually all of the principal cast here under the bus.

More troubling are the historical elisions: the Schuylers, for example, were apparently one of the largest and most notorious slave-owning families in New York State. (According to CNN, “The name is so scandalous that last month the mayor of Albany ordered the removal of a statue honoring Phillip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law.”) But there’s nary a hint of that here – and while Hamilton taunts Thomas Jefferson for relying on slaves (“Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labour”), neither George Washington’s slave-ownership nor his own are mentioned at all.

In response, Lin-Manuel Miranda announced that he considered the show’s silence over the Black Lives Matter movement “a moral failure”, and producer Jeffrey Seller pledged to “work with all of the organisations who are doing so much to support the welfare, livelihood, safety and liberty of African Americans”.

Ironically, these failures only deepen the film’s status as a (recent) historical record – a souvenir of a particular moment in a now-vanished United States. Back when Obama was still in office, children were not in cages and the nation had not yet become pitiable. People went to Hamilton because, like Whitman, it hymned a fundamental belief in the promise of America; always naive, that sentiment today seems little short of absurd. Still, I doubt that Hamilton will be Cancelled – its intentions are too noble. (And conservative critic Armond White has dismissed the entire production as “a racial gimmick”, so it’s clearly doing something right.)

“I never expect a perfect work from an imperfect man.” The real Alexander Hamilton said that. He clearly never heard of Twitter. But if the calculated anachronisms of Hamilton attest to anything, it’s that the past is never done with the present; for better and for worse, history will always have its way. Just wait for it.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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