Full, slightly braggartly disclosure: I managed to score $10 tickets to see Hamilton in Toronto on Feb. 22. Full house, electric energy on the stage, and nary a whisper of the coming pandemic that would shut the theatre a mere three weeks later. It was a helluva show, one for the books before the books were closed.
So I have a recent memory of composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s opus to compare with this, the filmed version of the original Broadway production. In 2016, stage director Thomas Kail brought camera crews into the Richard Rogers Theatre – the room where it happened! – to film two live performances, then came back in an empty house for close-ups and a few trick shots. (Check out the Ten Duel Commandments number for some examples.)
The results were put in the can and shelved until the live show had run its course – the plan was for Disney to release the results on the big screen on October 21, 2021. It had paid $75-million for the privilege; apparently, cozy relations with Miranda – who worked on the studio’s Moana and Mary Poppins Returns – didn’t translate into a cost break.
But COVID-19 closed productions in New York, London, Toronto and Los Angeles – the last on opening night – and so Disney decided that online was the way to go. And by a fortuitous coincidence, Disney+ had gone live just a few months earlier. It’s as if someone had opened a brand-new mask factory last December.
It’s no surprise the show was and remains such a crowdpleaser. It’s light on history and heavy on emotional beats
The results are the next best thing to being there – which, given the state of the world, makes it the actual best thing. As wonderful as was Toronto’s touring cast, it’s great to see Miranda in the role he originated, alongside Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton née Schuyler, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr.
The strong ensemble also features Anthony Ramos in the dual/dueling role of John Laurens/Philip Hamilton, and Daveed Diggs doing double duty as Frenchman Lafayette and Francophile Thomas Jefferson. Scene-stealing and comic relief comes from Jonathan Groff as King George III, singing You’ll Be Back .
It’s no surprise the show was and remains such a crowdpleaser. It’s light on history – a few facts about revolutionary battles, constitutional amendments and backroom deals – and heavy on emotional beats, including romance (Hamilton is torn between two lovely sisters, Eliza and Angelica, plus others) and camaraderie, not least between Hamilton and Burr, though that will come to a tragic end.
It’s also anachronistically cheeky, whether it’s Hamilton and Lafayette high-fiving while declaring: “Immigrants: We get the job done,” or a number that imagines 1770s New York as not unlike the social melting pot it is a quarter-millennium later. Not to mention the rap battle between Jefferson and Hamilton.
Even better is the sound quality, which trumps what any live theatrical venue can produce. Any lyrics that might sound muddy from the cheap seats come across as crisp and clear: “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot” rings from the screen. Or listen to the back-and-forth when a crier for King George raises the ire of the republican Hamilton.
Being a filmed version, Hamilton follows the stage production to a tee. We even hear the roar of the crowd as the big numbers come crashing to a close. The intermission is a mere 60 seconds with a countdown timer on the screen, but feel free to pause it for as long as you like, and for a you-are-there experience line up with your family for the washroom, and buy the most expensive popcorn and drinks you can find. It’s worth it.
Hamilton is available on Disney+ on July 3.
4 stars out of 5
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