If the arrival of Hamilton: the Musical to London in December 2017 was prefigured by a tropical cyclone of hype, then its appearance on Disney+ this week has brought its own mini-typhoon of excitement. Hamilton really is one of those productions that inspires fervour, but can this epic rendering of the politics of Revolutionary America possibly translate to the small screen? The answer is yes. In a duel, it might even win.
Before we get to why, though, I should probably out myself as one of that tiny band of naysayers who was a little… disappointed… by Hamilton in the flesh. Unlike many first-timers, I hadn’t learnt every single word in the period between its 2015 off-Broadway opening and its transfer to the country of King George III.
Consequently, I found myself trying to take in the fast-rushing words and the story and the dizzying musical shifts and the dazzling set pieces all at once. I was exhausted by the interval. As the rap genius Biggie Smalls might say: slow down, love, please chill, drop the caper.
But that previous viewing paid back five-fold watching this filmed performance – pieced together using two vivid, fresh ones from the original Broadway production, shot in June 2016, with composer Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Alexander Hamilton, and the brilliant Leslie Odom, Jr as his political rival Aaron Burr.
The reaction is still one of astonishment that Miranda has been able to take this complex tale of political idealism, backroom horse-trading and the establishment of a bank (now BNY Mellon, with annual revenues of around $15bn) and somehow make it fun.
He does it, of course, with an astounding verbal dexterity which is the key to why Hamilton is so admired: “Two Virginians and an immigrant walk into a room/ Diametric'ly opposed, foes/ They emerge with a compromise, having opened doors that were/ Previously closed/ Bros.”
As the composer of Matilda, Tim Minchin, who has known Miranda since he was doing “improv hip hop” in Melbourne in 2005, puts it: “He’s the guy that musical theatre’s been waiting for… it’s just taken this long for someone to come along who is a brilliant lyricist who loves Les Mis as much as he loves Kanye.”
There are all sorts of musical references in Hamilton, from The Pirates of Penzance to Destiny’s Child, and from jazz to boogie-woogie to Wagner. I think there’s even a sly play on John Adams, second US president, and John Adams, composer, yet its biggest debt is to hip-hop, often explicitly, always playfully.
“It’s like a jungle/ Sometimes it makes me wonder/ How I keep from going under,” raps Grandmaster Flash on hip-hop’s first masterpiece, The Message; “Such a blunder/ Sometimes it makes me wonder/ why I even bring the thunder,” sings Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson (Diggs also appears here as a superb Marquis de Lafayette).
Most affectionately of all, Hamilton recalls The Notorious B.I.G., murdered at 24 in a drive-by shooting, having already made hip-hop a tool for entire cinematic dramas that take place over three minutes. Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments becomes Hamilton’s 10 Duel Commandments. It’s essentially homage.
Yet Hamilton is more than its cleverness. The Burr Hamilton rivalry has an Iago Othello-like quality that builds and builds; there is love, and hidden love, and scandal and tragedy. The dramatic themes here are big and eternal, and the way history played them out gives them a powerful thump.
On first viewing, I thought the fact that Burr is more sympathetic, and in Odom Jr’s hand’s more charismatic, than Hamilton, was a problem; on a second watch, it feels like a strength. The drama needs its strong female leads, though, to stop the action feeling monosex. Renée Elise Goldsberry brings heart and hidden passion as the elder sister whom Hamilton didn’t marry, Angelica; Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton is the emotional touchstone, whose power doesn’t truly become clear until the final scene.
Hamilton's diverse cast and its theme that it matters who tells your story has never seemed more timely, yet Jonathan Groff’s camp George III nearly waltzes off with the entire thing. Luckily, though, Hamilton prevails.