Why Hamilton is the film we need right now

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jul 08 2020 Posted: 14:24 IST

Author: Professor Patrick Lonergan, O'Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance

Opinion: a film which is hopeful about the future and realistic about the past, it's a celebration of human life in all its forms

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamiltondramatizes a revolution, telling the story of the American War of Independence and its aftermath as seen from the perspective of one of the lesser-known founding fathers, the eponymous Alexander Hamilton. But in many ways, it has also started a revolution, transforming our understanding of what musical theatre can achieve, both on stage and in society. In doing so, it has become one of our era’s most important and impactful works of art.

In the five years since its premiere in New York, its influence has been widely felt. It was attacked by Donald Trump just days after his election, when he claimed that the show was "overrated", and demanded that the cast apologise for their "terrible behavior" towards Mike Pence. More recently, Trump’s former advisor John Bolton gave his memoir a title that was lifted from one of Hamilton’s stand-out tracks, "The Room Where It Happens". Such controversies have done the show no harm: before the coronavirus lockdown, it was enjoying hugely successful (and lucrative) runs on Broadway and London's West End.

Irish audiences will have an opportunity to see the show for themselves when it begins streaming on Disney Plus this week. Recorded at New York's Richard Rodgers theatre in 2016, it's a filmed version of the stage show rather than a cinematic adaptation per se. It remains to be seen how well the live experience will translate to the screen. In the theatre, Hamiltonoften has a feeling of joyous communion between performers and audience, mixing moments of air-punching delight with the more sombre episodes that characterised the final years of its hero’s complex life.

But what the film might lose in immediacy, it will gain in intimacy, allowing us to see the characters close-up and to hear live performances of the songs that made the Broadway cast recording one of the most successful albums of the last decade. The film version, like the album, is performed by the original cast, including Miranda himself in the lead role.

The play has won multiple awards for its acting, design and choreography, but it’s the music that makes it stand out. Somewhat unusually for a Broadway show, it is fully sung-through, blending a dizzying variety of styles, featuring everything from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Lennon and McCartney to Gilbert and Sullivan. For that reason, its reputation as being a hip hop musical is only partially accurate.  

Certainly, the show can be seen as a history not only of America but also of rap music . Hamilton’s major number "My Shot" owes much to Eminem’s "Lose Yourself". Both songs are about young men who are determined not to throw away their chance to "rise up". Both also gain emotional power from the virtuosity of the performers, whose lyrics sound like they are being spontaneously composed in response to strong feelings, but are really the result of rigorous artistic craft.

Later in the show, "The 10 Duel Commandments" will remind many rap fans of the Notorious BIG’s "Ten Crack Commandments", a song originally performed by a man who, like Hamilton, died at a tragically young age when he was shot. And then there’s Thomas Jefferson, who joins the action in the play’s second half. The fact that he raps in a style reminiscent of the 1982 Grandmaster Flash hit "The Message" shows how old-fashioned he is in comparison to the other characters.

But almost every other form of popular music finds its way into the show too. Hamilton’s wife Eliza sings a ballad called "Helpless", that includes rapped verses that are deliberately imitative of Beyoncé’s "Countdown". Eliza and her sisters Angelica and Peggy also sing the jubilantly addictive "Schuyler Sisters", which, depending on your age, will evoke memories of the Supremes or Destiny’s Child. And when England’s King George III appears (played by Frozen’s Jonathan Groff), he sings in the style of Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles.

The show also draws on a wide range of references to earlier musicals. It is narrated by Aaron Burr, the Vice-President to Thomas Jefferson who killed Hamilton in a duel. Miranda's decision to create a version of Burr who is both the villain of the piece and one of its most sympathetic characters recalls Andrew Lloyd Webber's characterisation of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstara show that Miranda himself once performed in.

Many other allusions appear. Burr tells Hamilton that "you've got to be carefully taught", using a line from a Rodgers and Hammerstein song about racism. George Washington calls himself "the model of a modern major general", quoting from The Pirates of Penzance. And when Burr decides that he's finally had enough of Hamilton, he sings a melody that is directly lifted from the moment in Les Misérables when the villain Javert commits suicide. There are also snatches of countless other shows, from My Fair Lady to Sondheim’s Assassins to The Last Five Years

Spotting those references can be part of the fun of watching Hamilton, but the decision to blend so many elements has an undeniably serious purpose. This is a play that aims to celebrate diversity by breaking barriers between high art and popular culture. Some songs are played with a string quartet, others with a banjo; we get allusions to Wagner and the Beastie Boys within minutes of each other; nods to Macbethare interspersed with snippets from West Side Story. A song like "Satisfied" might be referencing a speech by Martin Luther King Jr, but it’s also making use of a blues motif found in songs by Muddy Waters, Marvin Gaye and Jennifer Lopez, among countless others.  

In creating this model of musical diversity, Hamiltonis celebrating a version of America that is strengthened by variety rather than divided by difference. That ideal is also put into practice by the casting: all but one of the characters in the original production were played by non-white actors, and that approach has carried forward into later stagings of the play. While that decision has not been universally praised, it reflects the show's desire to represent the world we live in now: something that makes Hamiltoneven more relevant now than it was in 2015 – and not just in America.

Both in theory and in practice, then, Hamilton movingly proves that a nation’s stories can be rewritten, that our founding myths can become more inclusive by being remembered more truthfully. It also achieves that most old-fashioned of goals: it is a celebration of human life in all of its banality, messiness, and beauty. Showing that it is possible to be both hopeful about the future and realistic about the past, it might be exactly the film we need right now.

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