Release Date: July 3rd, 2020
Director: Thomas Kail | MPAA Rating: N/A | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
I can’t help but feel–as one of the many people who were unable to see Hamilton in its original stage delivery–that I am somehow late to the party. Half a decade has passed since its debut at the Rogers Theatre in 2015, and given the rapidness of our news and content cycle, it would seem that any additional constructive thoughts on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seminal work would be superfluous. Yet in 2020, a year has been largely characterized by continued division and oppression, both of which have been amplified by a global pandemic, it seems that this production still has much to say to us in the present cultural moment.
Hamilton follows the life of its namesake, founding father Alexander Hamilton, as he navigates his own destiny and role in the American Revolution. It is clear from the outset, however, that this is not your 10th grade U.S. History textbook; its central characters are all played by people of color (minus a memorable turn from Jonathan Groff as the insufferably pompous King George), its music is largely a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, and its accessibility for a 21st century audience is evident from the title card on. Indeed, my wife–in the midst of watching–leaned over and mentioned how the show creators have managed to make history ‘not boring,’ certainly a feat in a world full of tedious texts on American origins. The result is first an excellent work of art, from start to finish, and second a reminder of the interpreted nature of history, and third a helpful re-examining of our origins to form our imaginations for a better now and a better tomorrow.
Perhaps the first noteworthy artistic choice from director Thomas Kail is his dynamic camera movement. It would have been simpler to opt for a static, wide angle view of the entire production, transporting the audience from their couch to a front row seat in the New Amsterdam, and would certainly be excusable – the play itself, after all, would certainly appease the masses by name alone. Rather than going this simplistic route, however, Kail uses the unique nature of the production (Is it a film? A play? A streaming TV special?) to bring to life images no theatre seat could adequately capture. While there are times where this is less effective–sometimes, for instance, it is difficult to know where our eyes ought to focus in a given musical number–it nevertheless proves to be a rewarding experience, for it allows the viewer to notice small subtleties in the performances that would likely go unnoticed otherwise. Whether this is in the spitting of King George, the excellence of the rotating-set choreography, or simply the occasional close-up on a particular performer (Leslie Odom Jr. shines particularly in this adaptation), new features of the production come to life.
While it is aesthetically rich in its costumes and set design, the work admirably navigates the simultaneously inspiring and often disturbing nature of America’s origins. Hamilton, for instance, is (accurately) shown to be driven and brilliant, and morally bankrupt and prideful. Aaron Burr is shown to be both cunning and cowardly, Thomas Jefferson both articulate and hypocritical, and James Madison diplomatic and scheming. These more realized characters ultimately serve as a critical reminder to all who watch, independent of their political leaning, that history–at its core–is always interpreted. To those who often over-glorify the founding fathers as outstandingly virtuous, the work is a potent corrective; to those who often over-degrade the origins of our nation, it serves as a reminder of the many righteous facets of the revolutionary cause. In this way, it walks a difficult tightrope in an increasingly divided time: it strives for a middle ground. In doing so, it certainly misses the mark at times; its overall failure to address the centrality of slavery to the early American machine sticks our glaringly, particularly in our present cultural moment. Yet the fact that it is not comprehensive, the fact that it tells stories from a specific angle, serves as an educational opportunity for us to remember that no person (or nation, or event) is just one thing. This is what makes history compelling in the first place: when done well, it does not pretend to tell everything, for it knows its limitations, and it can thus be examined from a variety of angles.
The result is a work that reminds us of a vital aspect of our shared humanity that has been largely lost. In the midst of a nation fraught with tribalism and enemy-making, Hamilton points us to a needed cultural focus: nuance. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wisely wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Indeed, we are implored to be smarter by Hamilton, not to perpetuate extremism to the degree that we alienate ourselves from one another. We are invoked to acknowledge the entire human experience, in all its complexity, by recognizing our nation’s grand achievements and faulty hypocrisy. When we engage in this type of storytelling, able to hold multiple powerful ideas at once, we find ourselves better equipped to handle our present moment, and the inevitable challenges we are to face in coming years as a people. We have been given an opportunity to learn and grow together by emphasizing this sort of self-examination: let’s not throw away our shot.