NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S ay, kids, have you heard of this fun Broadway musical called Hamilton? It retells the story of the Revolution and the Founding in a delightful, contemporary idiom enriched by hip-hop and R&B. And all of the major American characters are played by minorities! It’s such a vibrant example of [gigantic Monty Python foot comes down from the heavens and squashes me flat].
I’ll start again: Since it debuted on Broadway in 2015, Hamilton has already become a relic of a different age. It would take considerably more courage to launch it today: black and brown Americans singing, dancing, and rapping in praise of white Americans, several of them slaveholders? Really? While hardly casting a glance at the evils of slavery, white supremacy, and patriarchy? And presenting the Revolution without shame as a spectacular advancement in human rights instead of a noxious compromise with, or even an enshrinement of, systemic racism?
Anyone who signed on to this project today would probably get a sinking vision of being called out on social media as an “Oreo” or a “coconut” or an “Uncle Tom” for lending his talents to this . . . whitewashing by people of color. The Walt Disney Co. has a long history of presenting an idealized version of American history that is now taken as an affront. Are we meant to give Disney a pass because it has enlisted willing minorities as accomplices in its project of ignorant patriotism? How will the film of Broadway’s Hamilton, which is debuting on Disney Plus this holiday weekend, appear to our great-grandchildren? Will this be their Song of the South?
Director Thomas Kail, who along with author/star Lin-Manuel Miranda provides a one-minute, socially distanced introduction to the show (filmed in 2016 with the original Broadway cast), acknowledges that the cultural world has turned upside down: “I feel like we made something that spoke to the moment when we made it and also can speak to the moment now,” he says. So: two very different moments, then. That’s grim.
Miranda, in his intro, seems a bit nervous about whether his universally beloved show might be so universally beloved in a culture in which liberals are being shoved overboard by radicals. “So much of what Hamilton is about is how history remembers and how that changes over time,” Miranda says, a bit defensively. He then suggests we consider the jobs and visibility his show brought to people of color. “It takes on a different meaning when you see black and brown performers telling the origin story of our country,” he says. Maybe that’ll satisfy the radicals. Maybe it won’t.
As always, we should hope the radicals lose, because Hamilton deserves all the praise it’s gotten, which is probably the most praise of any item of American culture this century. I’m not sure who first dubbed it “Schoolhouse Rock by a genius,” but that’s a fair description of how Miranda builds bouncy, propulsive songs out of historical facts, then decorates them with traditional Broadway filigrees like playful surprise rhymes, setting them to melodies informed by everything from today’s radio-style hip-hop beats all the way back to Richard Rodgers. Miranda covers, for instance, the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates in a rap contest that’s as prodigiously clever as anything Stephen Sondheim ever wrote, but more civically useful to us than, say, Sweeney Todd’s ode to cannibal meat pies.
Hamilton the man — driven, arrogant, brilliant, but tragically unable to step down on a point of honor — remains one of Broadway’s most fascinating protagonists, and he’s surrounded by lively opponents, notably the tortured friend turned dueling foe, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.); the prissily menacing King George III (Jonathan Groff, the lone white actor among the principals); and the peacock of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Jefferson’s rap during a debate about federalizing the states’ debts after the Revolution typifies the frisky zing of Manuel’s rhymes:
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,
We offer these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em
Don’t act surprised, you guys, ’cause I wrote ’em!
Disney Plus’s Hamilton (which is rated PG-13 for profanity) isn’t a proper movie but rather a record of an adjacent but very different art form, a stage performance: What we’re seeing was designed to be experienced in person, and the impact is inevitably reduced when the viewer is placed at one remove. As with any filmed stage show, the recording comes across as . . . stagey. The set changes are limited, the editing is limited, the camera movements are limited, all of which creates a feeling of being stuck in place for a home viewer, though none of this would be an issue to the same viewer present at the theater.
Don’t let the intrinsic flaws of the format distract you, though: This is a fitting introduction to one of the greatest productions in Broadway history, and if you like the film you’ll love seeing it in person, in the company of all but your youngest children if you can afford it. They’ll remember this, as my (usually squirmy but on this occasion rapt) eight-year-old did, and they’ll thank you for it later.
Hamilton wasn’t supposed to appear on TV at all this year, Disney having spent $70 million it hoped to earn back at the box office in a 2021 theatrical release, but when most of the live productions of the show had to be halted this spring, Miranda and Disney agreed that it would make a fine Independence Day gift to America. I’m glad they did. In the less than two months since that decision was announced, America’s self-image took a turn for the worse, but now the show has gained even more purpose, as a stirring rebuke to a season of mindless, debauched, and wicked iconoclasm. May Hamilton’s love for the Founding and the men who made it help steer America away from the sickening disinformation of those who despise it.