Illustration by Tabitha Underhill
Perhaps it is tragic, or perhaps it perfectly sums up the way things are right now, but Disney + releasing a filmed adaptation of the original Broadway production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was certainly one of the most exciting things to happen to me this year. I am unashamed to say that the instant the film was released, my TV was on, my ice-cream safely stored for the interval, and my packet of tissues poised at the ready for It’s Quiet Uptown. We might not be able to go to theatres, but I was going to do my level best to ensure I brought the experience to my living room.
The film certainly didn’t disappoint. While Hamilton might praise himself on his status as ‘young, scrappy and hungry,’ there was certainly nothing scrappy about this production. It was as though the camera took on an identity as a character within the piece, working in harmony with the ensemble and the actors to capture the characters’ highs and lows as they fought desperately to stay afloat amidst the revolutionary (and later, governmental) chaos. Seeing the show through the lens of the camera also made me look at moments in the play differently. I had always seen Angelica’s song Satisfied, where she sings of her and Hamilton’s missed opportunity for a future together, as an angry (but completely justified) attack on a patriarchal system that offered her no freedom. However, when the camera focussed only on Renee Elise Goldsberry’s face, you saw the tears in her eyes. Angelica became so much more than her anger. The film added a subtlety to her character that you simply would not be able to pick up on the stage. Angelica is a victim of a system that demands all women define themselves by their domestic duties. Her line ‘I love my sister more than anything in this life,’ is simultaneously beautiful and biting. Angelica’s selfless sacrifice for her sister’s happiness is both a powerful expression of familial loyalty and a reminder that America still had a long way to go in the struggle for true female autonomy.
Of course, I watched the production again, and again, and again (I had to make the most of my new Disney + subscription…) The first watch was an emotional rollercoaster: like many Hamilton fans, my knowledge of the soundtrack is word perfect, so it was strange to be seeing the people behind the voices I was so familiar with. The second playthrough naturally became a karaoke session (trying to sing all the voices in Non-Stop is a challenge – I would not recommend it). However, by the time I had recovered my oxygen supply, I began to notice details that I had previously missed, such as Ariana DeBose’s sensational performance as ‘The Bullet’. Her significance to the production has been enthusiastically analysed (I am sure there is an interesting essay in there somewhere!) but to explain it briefly, she comes to represent the way death looms over each character. Sometimes, she takes on the role of an actual bullet, assuming it through physical theatre during duels. Watch closely for her personal interactions with characters – more often than not, these same characters are dead by the next song.
Are aspects of Hamilton as it would be on stage, lost? Perhaps – there is a tendency for the camera to focus too much on the main characters. Sometimes we find ourselves missing details in the ensemble, such as Angelica watching Hamilton’s decisive annihilation of Samuel Seabury’s reputation from the balcony in Farmer Refuted (a necessary detail that reminds us her intense attraction to Hamilton did not just emerge out of thin air to suit the plot), or Lafayette and Mulligan downing their hipflasks upon hearing of their friend John Laurens’ untimely death. Of course I’m nit-picking here, because I’m such an aficionado. If the camera was to focus on every little detail in this complex production, we would probably get a headache!
Nominations for the Golden Globes were announced recently, and the decision to place Hamilton in the running for ‘best motion picture – musical or comedy’ has caused controversy. Many have argued that because it is simply the recording of a stage show, it should not be judged by the same criteria as the other productions. It was shot over three different performances, one without an audience altogether. This means it lacks the unpredictability that makes theatre so exciting – at times I did yearn to be back in the Victoria Palace (#theshowsmustgoon). Producing it as a film, and cutting away parts of the sequence, perhaps makes the line ‘I am not throwing away my shot’ a little ironic. It may not win its category (and I haven’t yet seen The Prom, so cannot comment on which deserves the upper hand in the battle of the movie musicals) but I do feel this version of Hamilton still makes for a wonderful experience. We cannot deny the sheer impact the show has had on theatre, politics and America alike, especially in this more accessible form.
This is part of the series ‘Beyond the Frame,’ in which writers explore the relationship between theatre and other mediums of art. Please be in touch if you would like to contribute your own!