*Review based on the “film version” of Hamilton released on Disney+.”
One of the more popular contributions to popular culture during the 2010s, Hamilton is the story of America Founding Father Alexander Hamilton told through an ‘unorthodox’ musical created by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Broadway production became an instant hit, garnering massive critical acclaim and commercial appeal. Audiences seemingly couldn’t get enough of Hamilton’s unique mix of American history and contemporary musical styles such as Rap and Hip Hop. The show quickly became equally infamous for its
overpriced expensive tickets, which became difficult for people to procure.
After over five years on Broadway, Hamilton finally became accessible to a wider audience when it was given a streaming release exclusive to Disney+ in early July 2020. Considering the streaming “film version” of Hamilton is also a 2016 recording of the original Broadway cast, its Disney+ release was all the more hyped. But now that Hamilton is available to everyone (well, everyone with a Disney+ subscription), does the ludicrously-praised Broadway production live up to its lofty reputation?
Hamilton is presented in two acts (separated by a minute-long intermission on Disney+): The first act follows Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, humbly casting himself in the lead role) as he arrives in New York in 1776 and becomes a personal aide to General George Washington (Christopher Jackson) during the American Revolution, and how he met his eventual wife Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo). The second act, meanwhile, depicts Hamilton’s life post-war, when he served as the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, and chronicles the unraveling of his personal life through his affair with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) – an affair that cost him his own opportunity as US President – and the loss of his son Philip (Anthony Ramos). Both acts also showcase the escalating tension between Hamilton and Aaron Burr (Leslie Olson Jr.), which is destined to culminate in the fateful duel that cost Hamilton his life.
The production also includes historical figures like America’s third and fourth Presidents Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), whom also frequently butt heads with Hamilton. Periodically, the play will shift its focus to King George III (Jonathan Groff), who recaps what’s transpired so far (and brings up certain details that are otherwise skipped over) in a fit of passive-aggressive megalomania.
For the most part, I rather enjoy the cast, with each member giving their respective characters a distinct personality. Jonathan Groff as King George is a particular highlight, playing the part like a Saturday Morning cartoon villain hopped-up on sugar and caffeine. Similarly, Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan transform Thomas Jefferson and James Madison into something akin to a duo of comical Disney villains, with Jefferson being eccentric and Madison his stoic straight man.
I’ll probably be hated for this, but I feel it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda himself as Alexander Hamilton who feels the most misplaced. He lacks the charisma and presence of many of his costars, and feels small in their shadows.
Hamilton is one of those Broadway musicals that tells the entirety of its story through song. There are no pauses from the singing before a character breaks into their signature number, instead having one song lead into another throughout its entire running time. As mentioned, Hamilton utilizes contemporary American music to tell a story within American history, and while hearing Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson having a rap-battle may have its appeal, I have to admit that, after a while, it feels a tad exhausting.
I can’t help but feel that many of the songs sound too similar to one another, and I’m not talking about the reprises and callbacks. But after you’ve heard Alexander Hamilton rhythmically rhyming to a catchy beat one time, you’ve basically heard it every time.
Extinguish your torches and put down your pitchforks for a second: I’m not saying that any of the songs of Hamilton are bad per se, but they lack variety. Compare that to something like Les Miserable, which also tells its story through song, but the songs (mostly) sound distinct from one another. Some might say I just don’t get rap, and while I admit I’m no expert on the subject, I don’t think I’m hearing things as all rap sounds the same, so much as rap written by Lin-Manuel Miranda sounds the same. One of the reason King George’s trio of solos stand out so much (along with Jonathan Groff’s manic performance) is that it sounds different than the rest of the music.
Look, I hate to be Mr. Contrarian, I really do. I admit that the songs of Hamilton can be quite catchy, but after a while it really does start to feel repetitious. Things pick up a bit during the later half of the second act, with songs that are more willing to break away from the production’s formula. But the first act can kind of blurs together amidst its overly similar songs.
The production as a whole can come across as a bit self-righteous, probably due in no small part to the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda not only made himself the star of the show, but lionizes the man he portrays (though historical accuracies are perhaps a discussion for another day). Hamilton can come across as a work that buys into its own hype, lacking in any semblance of self-awareness. There’s an underlying arrogance to the show that’s hard to ignore.
Again, I hate to sound like I’m merely raining on everyone’s parade by having a less-than glowing opinion of something acclaimed and popular, but if I’m being completely honest, at its best of times, Hamilton is really just okay. There are some great performances here, and towards the end of things, Hamilton does start to hit the right emotional notes. But the lack of variety in the songs and music really makes the appeal of the show short-lived. After a while, hearing these key figures of American history dropping a beat loses its luster. And for all the hype and acclaim, it seems like no one is a bigger fan of Hamilton than Hamilton itself, as it seems to exude a profuse amount of self-worship throughout.
At two and a half hours in length, Hamilton is on the shorter side for a Broadway musical, but the longer side for a film. The show looks great from a visual standpoint, with the costume and production design standing out, and the whole thing is shot in such a way that Hamilton feels right at home on a streaming service like Disney+. You may even forget what you’re watching is the Broadway production and may feel no different than you would when watching one of Disney’s own theatrical films on the service (only a handful of audience reactions are made audible in this “film version”).
As someone who detests the seemingly lustful desire for contrarianism of today, I kind of hate to admit when I happen to not be a fan of something popular. And though I certainly won’t say Hamilton is an outright bad production, I can’t help but admit I find it to be an overrated one. With a few exceptional moments that stand out from the rest of the show (such as King George’s solos, and the final musical piece), you pretty much get the gist of the show after the first couple of songs, with little effort being shown in the ways of variety or surprise.
I’ve heard some proclaim Hamilton as a revolution of Broadway. I have even heard some – and I kid you not – refer to Hamilton as “the single greatest work of art in history.” But when all is said and done, the best way to sum Hamilton up would be “eh, it’s okay.”
Maybe if I could tell more of the songs apart from one another, maybe if Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t miscast himself in the lead role, maybe if the whole show didn’t feel so narcissistic, maybe if it didn’t tweak history so conveniently to fit its own narrative (“Everything Hamilton did was just! And anyone who disagreed with him on anything was either a buffoon or a villain!”) then maybe perhaps I could understand what all the fuss is about. As it is, Hamilton is worth a watch for those curious. But don’t be too surprised if you’re left feeling like it isn’t half the show it’s been made out to be, or even a fraction of what it thinks itself to be.