Hamilton barely qualifies as a film, losing much of what makes it a stage success in translation, and its historical revisionism feels much murkier in 2020 America.
In New York, during the 19th century, there was Broadway, which catered to New York’s more affluent citizens, and there was The Bowery, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, whose crop of theaters offered the neighborhood denizens (recently freed slaves, poor immigrants, jingoistic nativists, criminals and entertainers, etc.) grand spectacle (e. g. massive, special effects-heavy recreations of historical battles), as well as more modest plays. There was a consistent stream of badly written works now long forgotten, stories about lowlifes and the Bowery B’hoys and ordinary New Yorkers, all of those pauperized tenants desperate to spend a night away from the tiny fetid rooms they shared with 10 or 20 strangers, rooms without windows, befouled by sickness and the stink of death. The Bowery provided reprieve in its escapist potential and in the comfort of representation with plays written in the local parlance, every week another waggish work pandering to locals who just loved seeing people who looked and sounded like them on a stage (i.e. A Glance at New York, which introduced Mose, who quickly became the mascot of the area and its squalor). The Bowery also offered more respectable culture, too, such as the first production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, staged in 1852 at the National Theatre at 104 Bowery, and the impressive Bowery Theatre (also known as the New York, and later the Thalia), which had 3,000 seats, making it the biggest theatre in the country. In 1843, modern minstrelsy was born at the New Chatham Square. And in describing the Astor Opera House in 1888, Whitman wrote: “pack’d from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well dress’d, full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics—the emotional nature of the whole mass arous’d by the power and magnetism of as mighty mimes as ever trod the stage…”
In a way, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, one of the zeitgeist’s defining phenomena, belongs to this lineage of Bowery productions — “Immigrants, we get the job done” — and yet, in its cultural pervasiveness, its pleasant neoliberal notions of political dissent and its gleeful perversion of America’s shameful history, it is the epitome of Broadway. The average price of a ticket for Hamilton is $199, on par for big Broadway musicals, making the purportedly progressive show too expensive for many. While at the apogee of its popularity, in 2017, premium tickets topped out at over $1,200, and Hamilton made around $3.5 million per week that year. That a show whose cast mostly comprises people of marginalized backgrounds and ethnicities, a show that preaches the importance of diversity and tolerance, is, when you get down to it, just another commodity, a brand adorning tee-shirts and tote bags — it’s a vexatious, though it’s not all that surprising irony. The show remains immensely popular and has been widely, unwaveringly acclaimed, but it is, I dissent, a middling, intellectually vapid work, and those catchy, melodious verses cannot hide the awful absence of anger and passion at the heart of the show.
In rewriting historical figures we would now consider “problematic” to be more likable, upstanding people for whom you can cheer without feeling guilty, Miranda has made his characters horribly boring. From the opening number, he plays Hamilton as cool, indefatigable in his beliefs, a man who saunters into a bar and the patrons erupt into song, praising him, this eloquently rapping man who never has a moment of doubt or self-consciousness, and whose anti-abolitionist harangues are swapped out for funny verses. It’s a role that brings to mind the kind of thin-skinned egotist Miranda plays in a 2017 episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804, one of the most fascinating, befuddling men this country has ever produced, has been reduced to a one-trait character. (Fan favorite Renee Elise Goldsberry, as Angelica Schuyler, does belt her verses with aplomb, though.)
There is nothing inherently wrong with works of fiction rewriting history, if it’s done with purpose and conviction. (See: Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America.) The problem with Hamilton is its cowardice, its refusal to engage critically with the messy morals and often unpleasant gray area of American history. This is a country rooted in appropriation and bigotry, a country that some Janus-faced white men stole from indigenous people. (Hamilton eschews Native Americans entirely.) Miranda drew inspiration from Ron Chernow’s oddly adoring biography of the man in question, a book that rejects reality and likens the Federalist to modern Democrats. It’s Alexander Hamilton the swell guy that Miranda chooses to depict, not the man who ordered more than 10,000 troops to march because he was angry about taxes; the man who wanted to use guillotines to execute anyone who promoted democracy or criticized Federalism and, in a very McCarthy-esque act of petulance and paranoia, called Jefferson’s supporters Jacobins (which then meant something akin to “terrorist”); whose use of indefinite detention and mass arrests and the seizure of property to usurp or silence political opponents bears a disturbing resemblance to Trump’s tyrannical tactics; who was derided as “an authoritarian” by FDR; and who, in a 1947 study called Fascism in Action, was listed as one of the influences on the rise of fascism in the 20th century. Considering all of this, the question one must ask is: Why did Lin-Manuel Miranda make Hamilton into a good guy? What is Miranda’s agenda? Is the commanding romanticism of Broadway just a bad fit for his chosen subject? Hamilton is a work of populism, imbued with the optimism and blissful naivety of the Obama years that, after everything that has happened in 2020, now feels embarrassing. It’s already a relic of Obama-Era America. (Obama said it “reminds us of the vital, crazy, kinetic energy that’s at the heart of America.” Hillary Clinton even quoted it during her DNC speech during the 2016 election.)
But none of this matters to the droves of Hamilton fans, or dissuades anyone for whom the soundtrack has had to suffice until they could watch and rewatch the filmed version of Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail. The movie conflates three performances shot from June 2016 with six cameras at Richard Rogers Theatre, and supplements with a collection of Steadicam, crane, and dolly footage (shot separately with no audience) used largely to build varied compositions. (Jonah Moran edited.) Shots glide and swoop across the stage; close-ups reveal the nuances of the performers’ facial gesticulations, typically imperceptible from even good seats. But Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is betrayed by the cinematic format, the excessive cutting, and all those shots of Miranda’s pleased smile, interrupting and distracting not just from collaborative, performative movements, but also the kineticism of the set design’s constant morphing. Miranda’s lyrics are clever, sometimes acerbic and imminently quotable, and the musical’s revisionist whitewashing is in many ways in line with the longstanding tradition of theater’s spectacle and pageantry (moral objections aside). As musical theater, the show isn’t without its immediate, sensationalist pleasures, but the film version belies the experience of seeing Hamilton in a theater chockablock with other people, realized in its intended medium and reflecting its technical marvel. There is an implicit experience of theater, one that captured the The Bowery then and Broadway now, one that makes Hamilton enjoyable to the degree that it is, and one that does not translate, here, to film.
You can currently stream Thomas Kail’s Hamilton on Disney+.