Rebecca’s Take

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, viewers cooped up at home received a gift for the Fourth of July holiday weekend: the debut of the film version of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus. Originally slated to bow in theaters in 2021, the movie’s early release on streaming brings the Broadway phenomenon to a wide audience.

With movie theaters largely still shuttered and Broadway closed for the rest of the year, “Hamilton” gives home viewers the best seat in the house. Featuring the original Broadway cast headed by scribe and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” is electrifying and dynamic. Never having seen the musical, I was completely swept up in the visionary retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father and nation’s first Treasury Secretary whose face appears on the $10 bill.

With its catchy songs, plainspoken lyrics and energetic performances, the musical makes our nation’s history accessible to audiences of all ages. The powerful and relevant film recreates the spirit of the stage production for a homebound audience unable to see it live.

Spanning decades, “Hamilton” is joyous and tragic, tracing its protagonist’s rise and fall in the young country he helped to build. The outspoken Hamilton (Miranda) is a self-made immigrant who climbs the ranks of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, becoming the right-hand man of George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and ascending the ladder of the new nation’s government. The show delves into the loves of its leading man’s life and the scandal that prevented him from being president, building to his infamous demise in a duel at the hands of his frenemy, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr).

“Hamilton” rewrites the story of the white Founding Fathers with a diverse cast of Black and Latino actors, representing today’s multicultural society. It uses modern language and references to contemporary rap music to tell a slice of our country’s history, coming out at a critical time for our nation as we reevaluate race relations. Some of the show’s colorful language is bleeped out, a likely effect of Disney Plus making the film adhere to its family-friendly standards.

The film is a digitally shot recording of a 2016 stage performance. Normally when audiences see a Broadway show, they’re seated rows back or in the orchestra, taking in the performance at the distance. Under director Thomas Kail’s steady hand, “Hamilton” the film makes the musical experience more intimate for viewers. The performances are filmed at eye level and the cameras zoom in on the actors’ faces, giving audiences an up-close view of the action. You can see the spittle dropping from King George’s (Jonathan Groff) mouth as he mocks the American Revolution in “You’ll Be Back,” and the fear in Hamilton’s eyes when he’s at death’s door.

The soulful songs are a pleasing mix of Broadway, rap and R&B, with lyrics that include revolutionary rumblings, political discourse and wistful regrets. The show compares Hamilton’s ambition to make a better life for himself with the revolutionary spirit of a new nation on the brink. The bombastic “My Shot” captures Hamilton’s hunger to rise. The musical choices contrast Hamilton’s loud-mouthed approach to politics with Burr’s quiet, subtle maneuvers. The soft-sounding “Wait for It” showcases Burr’s gentler side.

Miranda and Odom are dynamite as their rivalry takes center stage. They play off each other beautifully as their own personal battle plays out among the Revolutionary War. They start out surprisingly friendly, then increasingly find them themselves at odds before their fates tragically intertwine. Before their historic-making duel, the cast fans out in a stunning display of choreography during Hamilton’s intense final moments in “The World Was Wide Enough.”

The film’s show-stopping number is the heartbreaking ballad “Satisfied.” In a gorgeous stage flourish, the production slows down dramatically to rewind time, with the actors retaking their places in the previous scene. Renée Elise Goldsberry belts her heart out as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law and lost love, reveals her regret over introducing Hamilton to her sister, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), his eventual bride. The song blends musical genres as Goldsberry alternates between rapping, riffing and singing.

Though “Hamilton” centers on a male protagonist, I was really impressed with the representation of its female characters. With Goldsberry’s fiery demeanor, Angelica comes across as the wittiest and smartest woman in the room. But Eliza (Phillipa Soo) turns out to be the film’s pillar of quiet strength. In the ballads “Helpless” and “That Would Be Enough,” Soo’s stirring soprano voice demonstrates Eliza’s devotion to Hamilton. But after scandal rocks the couple, “Burn” shows that despite the constraints on women at the turn of the 19th century, Eliza can control her reaction to Hamilton’s illicit exploits, choosing to take herself out of the narrative.

Besides its leads, the film features excellent supporting performances. Daveed Diggs is full of life in the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Groff delivers the right amount of uppity attitude as King George. Anthony Ramos embodies the pinnacle of loyalty in the dual roles of John Laurens, Hamilton’s best friend, and Philip Hamilton, the statesman’s son.

In a flawed approach to history, “Hamilton” glosses over the issue of slavery during its time period. The most memorable mention is a critique of Jefferson for owning slaves. Considering that some of the Founding Fathers – including George Washington – were slave owners, it seems odd a forward-thinking musical that made a point to cast its main roles with people of color doesn’t tackle the issue as aggressively as it could have.

With its bold casting and inspired songs, “Hamilton” serves up an epic, larger-than-life musical and history lesson for audiences stuck at home. Seeing it for the first time, I now understand the show’s widespread appeal and the phenomenon surrounding it. The songs will be stuck in my head for days – and I’m totally OK with that. Thanks to the availability of Disney Plus, “Hamilton” transports the Broadway stage to our living rooms, a welcome 4th of July present amid the coronavirus pandemic.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays Alexander Hamilton, left, and Phillipa Soo portrays Eliza Hamilton in a filmed version of the original Broadway production of “Hamilton.” (Disney Plus via AP)

Joe’s Take

In November 2018, I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre In New York City. Before the show, I bought the album and listened to it several times and I’ve played it in the car several times since. Nevertheless, I was still excited when Disney Plus announced it would release the original production of “Hamilton” on July 3. I always wanted to see it live again, but with Broadway shows closed until 2021 the filmed musical gives everyone an opportunity to view the phenomenon. The question was, for people like me who were lucky enough to see it live, what would I get out of it. Anything new? Anything better? Anything worse? I suppose the answer to those questions are yes and no. However, the real answer is that it was different. Still phenomenal, but every actor makes the character his or her own. It was fascinating to watch the original cast (in a June 2016 performance) who inspired the actors in 2018 when I saw it, much like George Washington did for the presidents of the United States.

It’s tough to go from actor to actor and say who was better, because again I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. Each actor made his or her character its own. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton did a better job handling the emotional scenes, while Jevon McFerrin’s portrayal brought a unique exuberance to the first act. Okieriete Onaodowan’s Hercules Mulligan is tough to top and Wallace Smith was certainly unable to do so in 2018. However, I enjoyed Smith’s James Madison more than Onaodowan’s portrayal. All right, I have to walk my statement back a little. From the original cast, Jonathan Groff will probably always be the best King George and Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) blew me away.

On the other hand, Carvens Lissaint portrayed George Washington better in 2018 than Christopher Jackson from the original cast. His stage presence and booming voice proved difficult to match. On a side note, I saw Lissaint after the play and my sister, friend and I told him how great he was. He thanked us and then walked across the street for a slice of pizza. That man deserved a steak dinner that night for his performance. I’m just saying. But I digress.

Let’s focus on the Disney Plus version. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal performances of Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr). I also adored Phillipa Soo (Eliza Schuyler). She has a gorgeous voice and she made it look so easy and natural. She perfects emotional sequences.

The real advantage of the Disney Plus version over seeing it live is the intimacy. The camerawork proves phenomenal as director Thomas Kail puts the audience on stage. It allows the audience to see the emotion on the actors’ faces close up. It also provides shots from the back of the stage and a beautiful overhead shot that I wish the production utilized more. I would compare it to watching a sporting event on TV. While it’s better to see a game in person, TV gives the audience a more intimate view of what’s happening.

The only thing that bothered me watching it was the Disney Plus version kept the production at PG-13, which means two f-bombs had to be cut. I think our rating system is a mess, but that’s a conversation for another day. Some movies add f-bombs aimlessly. They’re not necessary, but they’re just there. The f-bombs in “Hamilton” are written into two songs for emphasis. One is written for Mulligan in the song “Yorktown.” As the audience has grown to learn, the character doesn’t have a lot of stage time where he’s front and center, but when he gets the spotlight he comes in firing. Dropping the f-bomb captures the pulse of that moment and the heart of his character. Removing it takes away from the integrity of the scene.

The second comes during “Washington On Your Side.” Democratic-Republicans Jefferson, Madison and Burr are struggling to gain an edge over Hamilton and Washington. Their frustration builds and they decide to take stronger measures and challenge Washington for the presidency. The f-bomb again gives the scene more power. Instead, Disney Plus gives the audience a record scratch. It lacks pop and takes away from the scene. I’m not advocating that children should be watching films with f-bombs in them. I’m saying you’re probably not watching “Hamilton” with your 6-year-old anyway. It’s an adult play with adult themes. It already has one f-bomb in it as the PG-13 rating allows. What’s two more that are used artistically?

The only other aspect Disney Plus has going against it is it’s not like being there. Audiences watching at home don’t become part of the musical. During the two cabinet meetings, the actors actually break the fourth wall and tell the audience to chime in with cheers as if they’re watching a rap battle. The surround sound of the theater gave me goosebumps. You feel the music. It’s more emotional. It’s a life-impacting experience. It’s one of the greatest experiences of my life. Right up there with trips to Lambeau Field, watching Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in person and seeing some of my favorite bands. I hope everyone who wants to is able to be as lucky as me and see it live.

That being said, I’m ecstatic to have the Disney Plus version at my fingertips. I still want to see it again live, but this makes it easier to wait for it. Now, I can open the App and smile more. From album to stage to television (or whatever electronic device you prefer), “Hamilton” still stands among the greatest works of art. Although I want to give it a perfect score, I had a better experience in 2018.

4.5 out of 5 stars