Lin-Manuel Miranda’s world-changing musical comes to vivid life on Disney+, but can’t escape the complexities of its cultural dissonance.
Just in time for the Fourth of July, Disney has brought a recording of the smash-hit musical Hamilton to Disney+. In case you’d somehow missed it, Hamilton follows the life and death of the eponymous Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States, here brought to life by a cast of Black and Brown actors and a rousing hip-hop songbook that led it to win an astounding eleven Tonys and establish itself as one of the most impactful musicals in American history.
It’s probably impossible to overstate the cultural impact of this musical, which launched Lin-Manuel Miranda to stratospheric heights and put actors like Daveed Diggs on the map in a real way, whilst also managing to break into popular culture in a way that’s rare for Broadway shows. With its mostly Black cast and use of Black music, it, on the surface, feels like the perfect musical for this moment. However, its reverence for these historical figures (the same ones whose statues activists are tearing down, for good reason) feels dissonant in a way that Hamilton fundamentally can’t resolve.
A lot of recordings of theatre shows don’t translate well to the screen. The uncanny valley between theatre and film often brings with it dodgy audio, awkward angles, and lighting that doesn’t work on screen. This recording of Hamilton, from the original 2016 Broadway run, manages to avoid those problems and portrays the show brilliantly. We move from portrait shots to aerial, shifting to different angles and moving right along with the action. While obviously limited by the format, Declan Quinn’s dynamic cinematography really makes this work well as a film.
Outside of the camerawork, the audio is crisp, arguably even better than what you’d actually hear in the venue. David Korin’s production design is also phenomenal; shifting sets and ever-changing lighting adds real energy and grandiosity to the whole production. There’s a real sense of spectacle, which catches you even when you’re watching it on your couch. From the joviality of the parties to the drama of the combat scenes, all of this comes together with a fantastic ensemble. With Thomas Kail‘s direction, it moves like a well-oiled machine. It’s a sprawling visual delight.
At the centre of Hamilton, both creatively and on stage, is Miranda himself. Years after the show’s premiere, it’s nigh impossible to detach his stardom from his performance. (He seems to pop up basically everywhere, whether it’s for a new film he’s directing or his involvement in his father’s political machinations in Puerto Rico.) Putting all that aside, Miranda is a great performer and a fun stage presence, but the people around him repeatedly outshine him in both vocals and acting.
He doesn’t have the power of Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angela Schuyler or Christopher Jackson as George Washington. Neither does he have the flow of Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette / Thomas Jefferson or the sheer badassery of Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan / James Madison. This becomes especially apparent whenever he has to hold the stage on his own. He gets an overly sentimental spoken-word monologue towards the finale, and his performance feels strained, almost weightless. None of this is to say he’s bad, but it feels like he never reaches the heights of his co-stars.
Even when plot and narrative framing repelled me, I kept getting pulled back in by these phenomenal numbers.
Performance-wise, the real star of the show is Diggs. His energy and rhythm are unmatched, and he tackles the rapid “Guns and Ships” with ease, making it one of the most memorable numbers in the show. Diggs brings endless bombast to every scene he’s in and immediately steals your attention every time. Everybody in this show bounces off of each other really well, imbuing Hamilton with a consistent sense of life, especially in the first half.
As expected, the songs are all phenomenal. The seamless moves between genres are slick and effective. Even when plot and narrative framing repelled me, I kept getting pulled back in by these phenomenal numbers. Whether it’s Goldsberry owning the stage in “Satisfied” or Diggs’ charming and fun entrance in “What’d I Miss”, the songs rarely hit a false beat. One of the few weaker spots includes the Cabinet Rap Battles, which, whilst being fun as a premise, end up being quite corny (a trait that isn’t exactly foreign to musical theatre).
But with all this, there’s a problem. No matter how much I wax lyrical about the hypnotic songs or the incredible performances, I could never fully give myself to Hamilton‘s thrall, given how it handles the people it represents and America as a whole. This is a production about the establishment of the American republic that never once mentions Native Americans – not even in passing. Even slavery only gets a few mentions, each getting more grating; they feel more like hollow applause moments for mostly white Broadway audiences rather than reckonings with America’s construction on the backs of slaves.
Within this, the production frames Alexander Hamilton as an ardent abolitionist when at best he was a lax one and was still entirely complicit in the system. It is also just optically weird when Miranda (who’s Latinx) is dissing Diggs (who’s Black) about his state’s use of slaves, even more so when Washington (who also owned slaves) is meant to be a hero.
Obviously, any piece of media which recreates history leaves some things out and has inaccuracies, but the gaps left here form a weird liberal fantasy which softens the rough edges of these morally despicable people and allows for shallow, “progressive” patriotism.
The casting of an almost entirely Black and Brown cast as these historic American figures adds an extra layer of complexity to the issue. Cynically, it feels like hollow representational politics at their most grotesque. Black and Brown people, as well as culturally Black music, is used to launder a reverence for genocidal slavers. Instead of America being a racist settler-colonial project built on stolen land, it becomes “young, scrappy and hungry” like Hamilton, and therefore more palatable for a largely white liberal audience.
This is especially grating when you remember that Hamilton is written by someone who isn’t Black or Native American. As a result, this doesn’t even work as a (deeply flawed) reclamation. Instead of reckoning with the past and present, we get a colourblind presentation of history which erases the racialised dynamics on which America is built.
Hamilton tries to reframe the history of its hero and the founding of the American republic as a universal fable about “immigrants who get the job done” — and it almost works. There are phenomenal performances and a brilliant sense of spectacle that keeps drawing you in. But ultimately there’s an unresolved tension at the centre of the musical which no duel or rap battle can resolve.
Hamilton is currently streaming on Disney+.
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