Friday, July 3, 2020

HAMILTON Tells His Story

Hamilton is a pop culture phenomenon that lives up to the hype. All but the most insanely hyperbolic are exactly right: it’s a major work. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by the life of Alexander Hamilton takes Revolutionary War history and projects it forward and backward in style, giving it Shakespearean dimension and modern musicality. Like the Bard’s History Plays, it’s a moment of our national story fitted to our times as a mirror and a comment. This is where we were, as told by where we are. The sung-through musical, written in verse dense with intricate clever rhymes and swirling motifs, is staged on a well-oiled machine of a production. The ensemble of characters has a depth of relationships, politics, and personalities as they circle each other, jabbing, hoping to build up their own lives with and against the politics of their moment, setting a scramble for status and satisfaction within the birth of a nation. You’ve likely heard the story by now. Hamilton (Miranda) has a lively, hard-charging ambition that sends him straight into pivotal roles in our nation’s founding, building his legacy and his family. The first act takes off with head-spinning rapid-fire biographical sketches and events in the overthrow of colonial control. The second act settles into the knotty political entanglements of forming a new government, and the increasingly complicated personal life of Hamilton. And all along it’s narrated by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who’s one part Judas, one part Iago, and two parts Salieri, whose jealousies and frustrations power his perplexed admiration for the title man.

Filmed over three days in the summer of 2016, the original cast’s performances in their original Broadway staging have been preserved in an excellent document of a movie. What prevents it from being a mere concert-film cash-in or a Fathom event live-stream is the way director Thomas Kail (also the show’s stage director) uses the camera to direct our attention and stay out of the play’s way. He uses his deep understanding of the staging to hang back in medium shot, capturing every bit of the theatricality in perfect proscenium awareness. It gives us the documentary sense of being there in the front row. But he also knows just when to get a tad closer, pushing in for a close up on a particularly emotional line, or slowly pulling back to capture the spirit of a moment. Kail allows this film’s audience to appreciate the craftsmanship and choreography, the theatricality on display, while following the fast-paced, densely plotted, endlessly quotable musical numbers and electrifying, deeply moving storytelling. The show is alive with possibility, with a haunting melancholy of historical inevitability hanging over it. Here are the founders’ great ideals, and here’s how far short they fell. In their greatness is also their fatal flaw. They were only human, after all.

We meet all sorts of characters from history books, brought down to life with human motivations and understandable urges — Washington (Christopher Jackson), Jefferson and Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Madison and Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan). King George (Jonathan Groff) brings scene-stealing petulance, while Hamilton’s loves (Phillipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry) get big beautiful ballads and a swaggering intro. Their lives play out on a stage that can slowly rotate subtly enhancing the blocking or emphasizing a moment. The set is simple, and props are kept to a minimum, the better to glide through time and space as quick as a couplet, and stretching, suspending, or reversing in key moments with nothing more than a flourish of melody and the glide of a dancer. This documentary recording finds the joy of live performance in every second — watch the performers belt out notes and spit out rhymes as they dance and emote while sweating (or, in the case of Groff, literally spitting); they’re astonishing — just as the show itself finds hope and solace in the potential and promise of an art form, a country, a legacy. How lucky we are to have this film keeping this production for posterity.

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