The two most frequently asked questions about this film-of-the-live-show can’t be answered by a single critic. Does what we see do justice to the live show? Will first-timers enjoy it? As a first-timer, let me just say: if I could have given this six stars, I would’ve.
True, this is a high-concept affair and there’s a lot to get your head around. Fighter, writer, statesman and flawed husband, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s genius creator), was one of America’s founding fathers. Like his friends, Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) and Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan) — not to mention his rivals Thomas Jefferson (Diggs, again) and Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr) — he was white. Yet these dead white males are all played by men of colour.
In the show, characters communicate via witty and catchy songs, obviously influenced by rap and hip hop. It’s often said about Hamilton that it employs colour-blind casting. Wrong! Colour-blind casting is predicated on the idea that an actor’s colour is irrelevant, but if Hamilton was performed by an all-white cast it would be cringe-worthy.
The fact that the founding fathers of rap were NOT Caucasian is crucial to how, and why, this wonderfully slippery piece of story-telling works. To put it another way, Miranda composed the songs, and wrote the lyrics long before the Black Lives Matter movement took off, but it’s hard to think of a musical more determined to show that Black lives matter.
As viewers, we feel like we’re sitting in the best seat in the house: when petulant King George (a fab Jonathan Groff) foams at the mouth, we can see the spittle, but we don’t get spat on. Only the luckiest/most privileged of theatre-goers will have had this much access to Odom Jr’s face (the strongest link in a flawless chain; every close-up of his clenched mouth makes you shiver). It’s great for us. It’s great for Odom Jr, whose screen career will surely be galvanised by such exposure.
Disney paid $75 million to stream this. The famously family-friendly corporation insisted on Miranda removing two (out of three) uses of the f-word. But kids will know exactly what’s missing and will be delighted that the s-word is used liberally and that an enemy can be dubbed a “prick”. How sensible of Disney to realise that populism often needs to be potty-mouthed. Thrill-seeking young ’uns, who might otherwise have run a mile from “the first secretary of the treasury”, will now be as keen to witness him trade insults with Jefferson as they are to watch Baby Yoda.
The fate of Hamilton’s son Philip (Anthony Ramos; excellent) is devastating, but chuckles dominate the proceedings. It’s pointed out, repeatedly, that Hamilton (born in the Caribbean) was an immigrant. And the biggest laugh of the night comes when he and the French-born Lafayette concur that “immigrants get the job done”.
Miranda — the son of Puerto Rican immigrants — has smuggled radical theatre into our homes. The job’s been done, to perfection.
Hamilton is available to view on Disney+