Monday, July 20, 2020

Musical Watch: Hamilton (2020)

Watched:  July 3, 2020
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2020/ 2010
Director:  Thomas Kail

Certainly the most discussed musical in decades - and with far better reason than most (whether you like it or not) - Hamilton had become a cultural event well before Disney+ released a recorded version of the show on the platform on July 3rd.  This was not a film adaptation like we've seen in the last few years - like Les Miserables or even Cats.  Movie stars who can carry a tune were not swapped out for the Broadway cast, and we're not decades away from shows debuting, making a splash, touring and becoming so ubiquitous, you might as well make a movie because why not?

Instead, Hamilton (2020) as released is the version shot on stage roughly four years ago, starring mostly the original cast, which - since 2016 - has since scattered to the four winds, seeking their Hamilton-derived fortunes (I actually like Leslie Odom Jr's new record, Mr., for whatever that is worth to you).  The film existing is a wonderful change for Broadway, who has told themselves lots of stories about the need for the immediacy of theater's live experience and has usually only dropped original cast recordings as documents of how a show was conceived and presented.  Directed by the show's actual director, Thomas Kail, the "film" of Hamilton is thoughtfully, and, indeed, artfully shot.  Heck, last week "One Perfect Shot", a twitter account with the best in cinematography, included a shot from Hamilton.

I have my opinions about the lack of enthusiasm for live theater outside of high school auditoriums and the often very high cost of tickets ensuring that theater, the symphony, opera, etc... remain the domain of the 1%, and how this impacts what gets produced.  Show creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has famously worked to ensure cheaper tickets were available to the Broadway show, worked to bring kids into the theater and to do what he can to democratize and demystify theater - but nothing is going to do that quite like making it something freely available to anyone in the public with $8 in their pocket and an internet connection.

But that democratization of theatre is in the DNA of Miranda's career and what drove the creation of Hamilton from concept to off-Broadway to Broadway to Disney+.  And, in fact, the play exists to  democratize how we (and who gets to) see and tell story.  Now apply that to the democratization of our democracy.

Released at a particularly dynamic cultural moment, a lot has been read onto the musical.  That's the nature of art.  Asking how any art speaks to the viewer at the time of viewing is entirely what viewing a movie, theatrical production, a sculpture or, really, even a nice tapestry - is about.  But it's both bone-headed and disingenuous to ask why it wasn't written to speak to the exact conversation occurring today when the show was happening in 2015 and taped in 2016.  Further, The Youths(tm), I'd suggest that if it doesn't speak directly to the thing you absolutely think it should - maybe stop and say "why do I think that?" and, maybe, "why doesn't it?".

And, like, seriously interrogate that question.  You might figure out what the play is doing.  While not part of your specific list of issues, you might find out the play does have something worth checking out.

Art!  It's a whole thing!

Honestly, I was nervous to finally see Hamilton, much the way I often get the jitters these days before I sit down for anything I *hope* will be good.  It's a learned behavior.  We've all been there when an Indiana Jones movie gives screentime to Shia LeBouf to swing along with monkeys.

The stage-show both benefited from and was set on a pedestal by massive build up.  In the years since the play started making headlines, the former FLOTUS threw some wild hyperbole at the show as one of the best pieces of art she'd seen.  Tickets are impossible to obtain in NYC.  The show's star and creator has become a household name, and all the usual hype notched up well beyond anything that seemed reasonable.

Sure, I'd very much enjoyed the soundtrack.  And, when my habit was to spend my commute listening to Very Long History Books via Audible, aware of my blindspots on this part of US History, I got through the 800-page Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton and followed it near immediately with Chernow's Washington biography.

Only after reading both did I ponder - when wasn't the book better? Did I just tank how I'd feel when I did spend hundreds of dollars to see the stage show?

But, hey, who knew...?  The show is actually incredible.

While I was aware of the story, the strength of the music and what I assumed would be strong performances dramatically and from a dance perspective, etc... What you aren't going to get from a listen to the soundtrack is the strength of the individual performances and how they weave together to elevate the emotional resonance.  The story is infinitely stronger for how each performer breathed life into their, often, multiple roles.

Can you make Aaron Burr - one of the biggest heels in American history - understandable and perhaps even sympathetic, even as he's the antagonist (I won't say villain) of the plot?  Leslie Odom Jr. is, frankly, mind-blowing in this part, taking the bad-guy of the piece and everyone's American History 101 textbook and, in relief against Hamilton, we get a version of Burr that's his own Greek tragedy.  "Wait For It" always made sense to me where it fell on the soundtrack, but seeing how it lands in the play, and the sincerity - especially counterbalanced with his change of tactic in "Room Whee it Happens" - is some remarkable stuff.

But, look, there's too many characters to go through, one-by-one, detailing what they did right, even if I want to spend paragraphs on all of them.

Hamilton reminds us that our founding fathers were flesh and blood fallible humans, who bickered and argued.  They had universally recognizable flaws.  They battled each other - not at all operating with single-minded solidarity and high ideals that K-12 history books would suggest.  That's hard stuff for all of us to overcome and deprogram, especially as - frankly - very good movies have come out to give us some iota of sympathy about many of them (I'll stand by the John Adams series on HBO any day).

Hamilton is a history lesson, but it isn't here to necessarily talk in detail about what internecine conflicts were occurring, the horrorshow slog of the Revolutionary War, the challenges of the new Republic, the necessity of the Constitution (or the battles over why many didn't want one), or even the details of the establishment of the Treasury Dept. Instead, it's an American story, like so many, of someone who came from nothing, accomplished world-changing feats, but in this story - they are loved unconditionally, and still let old habits and pride intervene.

It's a remarkable achievement, and I am sure every producer in New York would love to figure out how to retro-engineer how it accomplished what it did.  In a way, Hamilton is more modern American opera than musical - there's scant dialog.  No one goes from a conversation into an "I want" song.  Miranda found his way to tell the story entirely in song - in the music of the moment (which will, inevitably, make this show as dated as when Andrew Lloyd Webber retold the story of Christ as rock opera - but that still works) - and that's no easy feet. 

Anyway - yeah, I watched it.     

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