In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Broadway and the film world grinding to a halt, the news that Disney had pushed up the release of a filmed version of Hamilton from October 2021 to July 3, 2020 took the world by storm. Originally filmed in late June 2016, this filmed stage performance of Hamilton, featuring the original Broadway cast, would give millions their first chance to see one of the hottest shows on Broadway, a title it has held since it premiered in 2015. Did this filmed performance of Hamilton live up to the hype? Keep reading to find out!
I've seen filmed stage productions of Broadway musicals before (Cats from the late 90s, Phantom of the Opera at Royal Albert Hall), but they pale in comparison to this performance of Hamilton (not least because Cats and Phantom are WORLDS apart from this show). As you sit and watch you feel like you're in the best seat in the house, seeing the show from the perfect angle. Great lengths are taken to preserve the experience of sitting in a theater, as not only is there a one minute intermission between acts (which can be easily paused if a longer break is needed), you also get to hear the opening announcement reminding you to silence your cell phones. With the added presence of an audience, that laughs and cheers at the right moments, it genuinely feels like you're sitting in the theater in NYC watching the show.
And what a show! Considering this was filmed on Broadway, it's no surprise the production values are already top notch. But what's even more impressive is that there's no real way to tell what comes from the performances filmed with an audience and what was filmed in reshoots (with no audience). The editing is, quite frankly, flawless, and it allows you to get up close and personal with the characters in ways that a traditional audience could only dream of. With Broadway closed for the rest of 2020, this really is the best way to experience Hamilton.
Given that this was my first time watching Hamilton, I was nervous about one detail: the hip-hop and rap elements of the music. I have nothing against either genre, but I haven't listened to either all that often, and I was worried that my unfamiliarity might make it hard(er) to get into the story of Alexander Hamilton as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it. Thankfully, my worries were ultimately for naught. While I do admit it took me about half an hour (the first time I watched), to get into the flow of the rap and hip-hop beats, by the time Act II started I was fully into the story. It is an adjustment if you're not familiar with those musical genres, but don't let that deter you from watching the show. You will never look at cabinet meetings the same way again once you see two of them presented in the form of rap battles (yes really). Quite honestly, I loved every song in this performance, but I have to give a quick shout out to "Ten Duel Commandments" for laying out the rules of a formal duel in the coolest way possible and "The Room Where it Happens" because it is just that awesome.
What really grabbed my attention at the beginning of Hamilton is that the entire story is narrated (more or less) by Aaron Burr, aka the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. You don't learn this until almost the very end of the musical's opening number ("Alexander Hamilton") and the revelation had me sitting upright thinking "Oh boy, so it's like THAT is it?" It's actually quite reminiscent of how Jesus Christ Superstar is structured (that story features Judas as a quasi-narrator), and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Burr telling Hamilton's story was done in homage to that show.
In putting this review together, I looked the story and production over to see if there were any significant flaws I needed to report. Aside from the obvious liberties taken with the historical record (something bound to happen when history is used as the source for a musical), I'm hard pressed to find any major issues. The only issue I can think of, which I alluded to before, is that some might find the quick flow of certain rap segments hard to follow (particularly Lafayette's rap in "Guns and Ships"). One should certainly not be bothered by the fact that Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette, and most of the cast are played by actors of color. This casting decision made the story so much more relatable, if that makes sense (I'm not sure if "relatable" is the right word but that's the one coming to mind).