“Hamilton” Thrills Fans Again on Small Screen, Just in Time for July 4
The hotly-anticipated film version of the groundbreaking musical “Hamilton” literally could not have come at a better time.
Directed by its original Broadway helmer Thomas Kail, over three days in June 2016 (with and without audiences), the 160-minute film dropped in the early morning Friday on Disney Plus, just in time for the Independence Day weekend.
After four months of deeply isolating quarantine, a horrifying pandemic that’s killed 130,000 Americans, over a month of protests regarding racial injustice, millions unemployed and confused, and a divisive, often hurtful president, this brilliant, heartfelt musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda comforts and inspires on many levels.
While March 2020 feels like years ago, 2016 can seem like eons ago. With a ravishing, eclectic score that ingeniously blends hip-hop, rap, R&B, pop, classic Broadway and classical influences, “Hamilton” famously is the origin story “of America then, told by America now.”
The lily-white (many slaveholding) Founding Fathers were transformed on stage by a furiously energetic, multi-racial cast – with the leading roles all embodied by actors of color. Miranda (a 40-year New York native) is of Puerto Rican descent, originating the iconic title role. Hamilton’s bitter rival, Aaron Burr; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were all played by African-Americans.
In a recent New York Times review of the film (which gives you close-ups and angles you’d never see in the theater), A.O. Scott wrote that the people onstage, in their breeches and brass-buttoned coats, belong to the New York of 1776. That’s when a 19-year-old freshly arrived from the Caribbean — the “bastard, immigrant, son of a whore” who shares his name with the show — makes his move and takes his shot, joining with a squad of anti-British revolutionaries and eventually finding his way to George Washington’s right hand and the front of the $10 bill, Scott wrote.
“But this Hamilton, played with relentless energy and sly charm by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, book and lyrics, also belongs to the New York of 2016,” and is a document of its moment, the review said.
Since Donald Trump has made it his goal to undo all the progress, intelligence, and empathy of the Obama administration (of our first black president), it’s impossible to watch “Hamilton” and not yearn for that kind of sober, careful, articulate leadership – both exhibited by the musical and Barack Obama, who was a fierce advocate of the show, with his wife Michelle.
Could you imagine Trump and Melania hosting Miranda at the White House or attending a Kennedy Center Honors (which they never have, though it’s custom)? The Obamas included Lin-Manuel in an evening of poetry, music and the spoken word May 12, 2009, during which several acclaimed musicians, rappers and poets performed exclusively in front of an intimate Who’s Who audience in the East Room (remember when the White House had culture and class?).
Already a Tony-winning playwright and creator of the Broadway musical “In the Heights” (2008), a 29-year-old Miranda performed the opening freestyle about a man he strongly believed was an embodiment of hip-hop culture: Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and an immigrant from the West Indies who had a prodigious intellect, ego and talent for writing.
Inhabiting the role of Vice President Aaron Burr, Miranda encouraged audience members to “snap along” to the song, which would years later give birth to a whole hip-hop compilation album and “Hamilton,” based on the massive 2004 biography by Ron Chernow.
Just imagine the freaking genius of Miranda to conceive of embodying the Founding Fathers – who kept blacks as slaves and said they were only three-fifths human – in contemporary colors, with the electrifying language of today. We can immediately identify with these characters – history comes blazingly alive, and no one lived a wilder, roller-coaster life than Hamilton, who had and realized big dreams.
In the tense, bitter climate of “Black Lives Matter,” hyper-partisanship, exhausting political debate, with so many artists out of work, and Broadway shuttered, “Hamilton” continues to pulse with fiery, passionate relevance.
The show premiered at the Public Theater, Off-Broadway on Feb. 17, 2015, where its run was sold out; it won eight Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical. It then transferred to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, opening Aug. 6, 2015.
“Hamilton” deservedly swept the 2016 Tony Awards, winning 11 – though Miranda won for Best Score, Book, and Best Musical, he was denied Best Leading Actor. His on-stage rival, Leslie Odom, Jr. – as Burr, who re-enacts the famous duel in 1804, in which he fatally shot Hamilton – earned that honor.
The musical also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and its original cast reunited in March 2016 to give workshops and performances in Washington D.C., including at the White House. The songs “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot” and “The Schuyler Sisters” were put on video, as well as parts of President Obama’s remarks about the whole experience.
The production withheld one last video for an achingly appropriate time, in January 2017. In honor of Obama’s farewell address, the “Hamilton” cast released the video of Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time,” about President George Washington stepping down and saying goodbye to the country he fought to create. Following Trump’s election, it was bittersweet to say the least to see that stirring number, and hear the humble words Hamilton wrote for Washington’s farewell in 1796.
During Trump’s administration, in December 2018, four creators of “Hamilton” accepted a special Kennedy Center Honor for a “transformative work that defies category” nearly four years after its Off-Broadway debut. It was the first time an entity, rather than an individual, was honored. That’s what makes America great again.
All four men who received special medals for “Hamilton” — Miranda and Kail; Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer; and Alex Lacamoire, the music director — remain eligible in the future for their own individual work.
Tours of “Hamilton” have criss-crossed the U.S. and in London 2017, including a long, landmark engagement in Chicago, from September 2016 to this past January. Having sold out its Des Moines run in summer 2018, “Hamilton” is scheduled to return to the Des Moines Civic Center this Dec. 1 to 27. Broadway is closed until January 2021.
It was the most financially and, arguably, artistically successful theatrical attraction in the history of Chicago. By the time Miguel Cervantes, its star from the beginning, took his final bow as Hamilton at the sold-out CIBC Theatre, the Chicago company of “Hamilton” pulled in more than $400 million in gross sales at the box office.
Just the Broadway and Chicago productions alone grossed over $1 billion, and Disney – forgoing a planned 2021 theatrical release – spent $75 million to bring the film version to its new streaming service. With well over 55 million subscribers (the total from May), you can pay just $7 a month for the service (which not only includes the vast Disney film catalog, but Pixar, Marvel, and “Star Wars” movies).
Miranda and his team showed tremendous foresight in filming the show four years ago, including in an empty theater on their day off on a Monday, part of a three-day indie film shoot, financed themselves. He said in a recent interview it was captured in part because the original cast was so special, and they wanted to provide affordable access to as many people to eventually see it as possible.
“I’m so grateful we got it, because in this moment when there’s no theater, we have this gift for the world,” he said in the TV interview, “and it’s the show itself.”
I reached out to Quad-Cities fans who’ve seen “Hamilton” live to get their take on the show and film, and what keeps them so satisfied.
Moliners on opening night
Cherie Lyman of Moline, and her daughter Olivia, saw the show in Chicago twice – including its opening night, Sept. 30, 2016, and Aug. 2, 2017. She had season tickets to Broadway in Chicago, three seats, first row mezzanine, costing about $1,800 for each season.
“If I couldn’t make a show I sold the seats, usually on Stub Hub. It made it easy to see shows like ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at a reduced price with a guaranteed ticket,” Cherie said. “We usually saw the shows, but either sold them or gave them away if we couldn’t. We absolutely loved having them.””
“It was amazing,” Liv (a veteran Q-C actress) said after the movie. “I plan on watching it many more times. I would say similarly to seeing it in Chicago, obviously the leads were amazing, but I love the ensemble. I wish the camera panned out a bit more so we could see more of the choreography. The ensemble is amazing! Seeing it live gave me the opportunity to see the entire company shine throughout the show. But
seriously… the film was incredible. It was everything I hoped for.
“It was the next best thing to seeing it live. Lin-Manuel Miranda is just a genius,” she said.
Davenport choreographer goes back for more
Steph DeLacy, who’s choreographed for Moline’s Music Guild and Spotlight Theatre, saw “Hamilton” first in October 2016.
“When it was over, I told my sister, ‘I either need to stay in my job so I can afford to keep buying tickets to see this show, or I need to quit so I can work on shows like this for the rest of my life,’ ” she recalled Friday. DeLacy did quit her job the following May at the Family Museum in Bettendorf.
She decided to become a full-time freelance choreographer last December, just months before the Covid outbreak. DeLacy has seen “Hamilton” live four times – including in July 2018 in Des Moines.
“It’s one of the best pieces of art I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I get something new out of it every time I see it, and as a choreographer, the intricacies and detail in the choreography are just magical. It takes a lot for me to get fully sucked into a show and forget about the world, but Hamilton does it every single time.”
She was pumped to see the film, posting Friday on Facebook – “Knowing that people all over the world are having their first Hamilton experience today is so exciting! But please remember — the creative world that made this masterpiece happen is on hold right now. I’m on hold right now. We don’t get to share our art right now. We don’t get to create our magic. We don’t get to inspire, to transform, or to help people take that next step toward “I want to work on shows like this for the rest of my life.”
“So, as you experience your own magical Hamilton moment this weekend, what can you do? Support local theaters. Reach out to your artist friends. Find an arts organization you’re passionate about and make a donation. Put in the work now, so that when we come out on the other side, we can still give the world some theatre magic.
“Also, black lives matter. Love is love. Wear your damn mask this weekend,” she added.
Of the first part of the film, DeLacy said: “I’m just as excited as I was seeing it live. It’s so fun to see the actors who originated the roles and to see the up-close shots.” After “Satisfied,” she said, “I definitely cried.”
Up early to see the film
Celia Hadden of Davenport saw the show twice in 2017, and already watched the Disney film by 9 a.m. Friday.
“I had extremely high expectations, which were met,” she said by e-mail. “I have dreamed of seeing the original cast perform the show and
know that this is the closest I will get. There are many humorous scenes that were enhanced by close-up cameras; from balcony seats, I hadn’t seen a few subtle moves that were really funny. The original cast performances were mesmerizing. ‘Satisfied’ was stellar, although I did not care for the camera stop action feature in the song.
“I certainly miss the excitement of a live performance, but the film is incredibly satisfying” Hadden said. “I broke out my Hamilton libretto book (on iPad) to follow the story and lyrics.”
I would love to see other great musicals follow this film concept. This truly is a great gift to the world – I hope that many who never could see the stage play will grow to love this show and be fascinated by the story behind it.”
“I loved the show as much as any play/musical I have seen (I have seen many in the past 45 years) — enough to invest in a second trip, too,” she said. “Both times were very moving, although the first time seemed funnier in a few places since it was just a few weeks after the Trump inauguration. From the soundtrack that I listened to before the play, I had no idea of the range of emotions that the play invokes.
“It’s relevant at any time, to understand the complexities of our Founding Fathers and to understand the profound impact of one very driven, yet flawed, individual who could easily have never made it to America in the first place,” Hadden said.
The next best thing to seeing live
Katia Anderson of Rock Island, who saw the show the day after July 4, 2017, said that spirit wasn’t quite there on TV, “but it offered a few features that added to the experience.”
“It was fantastic to see the original Broadway cast in action,” she said of the film, noting Miranda “has made such a name for himself, and it was great to see him back where it all began. The other original actors have so much talent as well, and I was not able to see this cast originally, so I loved this aspect.”
“I’ve seen televised live theater before, but the camera work with ‘Hamilton’ was so dynamic, it made me feel like I was onstage,” Anderson said. “The camera covered so many parts of what was happening, the editing was very well thought-out. The camera was also able to get many great close-ups, and it’s impossible to get that close in the audience, so this really brought me into the experience. I actually forgot I was watching from home at first, and clapped after one of the songs.”
After buying her Chicago seats six months in advance, on the day of the show, “excitement was in the air, every person there to see the show seemed to be glowing with anticipation in front of the theater,” she recalled. “I have never seen a crowd so ready to see a show, the audience was cheering with unbridled enthusiasm when the voice actor who portrayed King George announced the house rules over a speaker. The crowd presence was a huge factor in the live show experience. I felt like I was at a sporting event, the crowd reactions were like nothing I’ve ever experienced at a theatrical production.
“The leading actors were superb, and really brought the soundtrack to life,” Anderson said. “The Chicago cast was not the original cast, but each actor brought lots of vocal talent, emotion, and intensity to the performance. We had first row mezzanine seats — our view was slightly from above, so that added a bird’s eye component, but we were close enough to view the expressions of the actors, and this really drew us into the experience, we felt like we were really there.”
“We were close enough to be able to focus on the expressions of the actors, and I remember that the costumes and choreography were amazing,” she said. “The actors made a few changes from the soundtrack in how they sang and spoke, they didn’t perform an exact replica of the soundtrack, which made it refreshing. Seeing ‘Hamilton’ live added an element of immediacy, and the emotional scenes tugged at my heart. I had tears in my eyes at the finale.”
$500 a seat at the start
When Julie Hummel of Port Byron saw it with her husband Joe, first on Oct. 12, 2016, tickets cost $500 apiece, and she went back two more times in Chicago, when they were under $200 each.
“For me, knowing the music as well as I did what really made the experience was the complexity of the staging,” Hummel said. “Every movement was precise and the whole stage was part of every scene. Being able to see it more than once live I find a different small moment away from the main character each time. There is no throw away anywhere in this show.”
“There is so much going on, I definitely wanted to see it a second time to catch more of it. The third was really a bonus when friend asked if we wanted to go before it closed in Chicago,” she said.
“My biggest fear was that because they could do closeups, there would be too many and you’d lose the best part of the show (to me), which is all the detail in the staging,” Hummel wrote after the film. “I feel they used closeups for maximum effect and sparingly. The interplay between cast members was so much more than any time I saw it live. However, the energy of seeing it live adds something to the experience that makes it all so much more.”
“I’ve seen other filmed live shows and this really is exceptionally well-done,” she added.
A first Broadway show
Grace Phares, a sophomore at Rock Island High School who performs at the Center for Living Arts, paid for her $260 ticket with Christmas money.
“When I saw the production, I was already a big fan for about a year. Of course, the concept of a hip-hop musical was fairly new back then,” she said. “The appeal was there to almost everyone, besides actual people I knew in my school. So when going to see the show, it was a change of pace to see people who also happened to enjoy the show in the same room.
“The lady who sat next to me shared the same love for the show as I did and I think it was very beautiful to see her reactions,” Grace said. “It was interesting to see how they played everything on stage. Somethings were different than what I was expecting when I first initially stepped into the theater. It was my first Broadway show and I was going alone, so navigating was quite the adventure.”
“It was quite a treat to see people do what they love and to tell such an impactful story in such a creative way,” she added. “The costumes, set and lights and sound design were really unique to the story.”
A niece graduation gift
Cheryl Reger of East Moline first saw it live in September 2017, and again in May 2018, as her niece’s Alleman graduation gift, since she was in every play in high school.
“There is so much to take in in this play that I pick up something more each time I watch it,” she said Friday. “I learned more about the development of our government and early history than I remembered from school. It was masterfully written and acted.
“I am glad that I saw it on stage first,” Reger said after the film. “I really loved the way that they put it together and I felt like I had a front row seat at the theater. Obviously, a theater ticket is not nearly as affordable, so I am glad for the opportunity for more to see it. I will undoubtedly watch it again. Of all of the subject matter he could have used, I am not sure what possessed him to write about Alexander Hamilton, but I am glad that he did.
“A poignant subject for our time,” she added. “And what a contemporary way to present Hamilton’s story.”
First time on screen
Chris Tracy of DeWitt, Iowa (another frequent actor), said he didn’t see “Hamilton” live, but was “grateful to live in this time where this phenomenal piece of American art can be shared by millions in the comfort of their own homes. It is brilliant. The talent is stunning.”
UT students got their shot
In December 2017, I talked to then-United Township juniors Itzel Rivera and Betsy Muniz about their once-in-a-lifetime experience with “Hamilton,” getting to see it for just $10 (through the “Ham4Ham” program from the generous production team).
They channeled their inner Lin-Manuel that fall to create a two-minute rap and song based on Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” — a pamphlet published in 1776 advocating American independence — for a U.S. history class.
As part of a national education program inspired by “Hamilton,” the girls (both Mexican-
American) were picked to perform their routine Nov. 29, 2017 in Chicago, before 1,900 students and teachers who attended the matinee.
“It was amazing,” Rivera said at UT the day after their whirlwind tour, which began at 5 a.m. On the historic Broadway in Chicago stage, she was really nervous, noting “I had to compose myself really quickly.”
After she rapped her first word — “America” — “everyone started screaming. It was cool,” Rivera said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
“It was a nice experience, to be able to show our talent,” Muniz said. Of “Hamilton” — which uses a diverse cast and musical styles, she said: “It was amazing; I love this show. It made me understand everything he went through. It was so modern, too.”
“I do like history, but sometimes it can get a little boring,” Rivera said. “To see his life shown on stage in such a way, it’s like, this person did have feelings. He did do things from his personal conflicts. It put the human into history. The music was so captivating, you wanted more and more.”
The 45 UT students and accompanying staffers got to go thanks to the Hamilton Education Program of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
A partnership between The Rockefeller Foundation, “Hamilton,” Gilder Lehrman and the New York City Department of Education launched it in 2015 to bring 20,000 public school students — mostly those eligible for free and reduced-price lunches — to see the Broadway sensation. Students in New York benefited from an integrated curriculum developed by Gilder Lehrman that touched on their experience of the play.
The program was such a success that The Rockefeller Foundation funded the partnership nationwide.
Fittingly, a new “EduHam at Home” was created in March 2020 in response to the Covid outbreak that forced school closures throughout the country. It is an extension of the Hamilton Education Program (EduHam), which has served 250,000 students (for 10 bucks each!!) across the country since 2016.
Through EduHam, students study primary-source documents from the Founding Era, learn how Miranda used such documents to create “Hamilton,” and finally create their own original performance pieces based on the same material. EduHam at Home will be available through August.
Profanity scaled back for Disney
In order to serve Disney’s family-friendly bona fides, the “Hamilton” film contains every single scene and song from the original Broadway show — with two small exceptions. According to Miranda, they had to make two edits to song lyrics in order to maintain a PG-13 rating in the Disney Plus version. There are three uses of the word “f–k” in the original musical, so two of them had to go.
In “Yorktown,” the F-word is muted in “I get the f–k back up again,” and in “Washington on Your Side,” you’ll hear “Southern *record scratch*kin’ Democratic Republicans” instead of the original lyrics. The F-bomb that made the cut isn’t a real one, but happens in “Say No to This” when James Reynolds says, “You see, that was my wife who you decided to fuuu….”
What’s next for Miranda?
The irrepressible, impossibly busy composer-playwright-lyricist-actor-genius has several new projects in the pipeline, and is continuing his rich, successful link with the Mouse House.
While working on “Hamilton,” Miranda contributed music for the Disney-distributed film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), writing a song for the scene in Maz Kanata‘s cantina, an homage to the classic Mos Eisley Cantina scene and song.
In 2016, Miranda wrote songs for the hit animated Disney adventure “Moana,” about a strong-willed daughter of a chief of a Polynesian village, chosen by the ocean itself to reunite a mystical relic with a goddess. The gorgeous film grossed $691 million at the box office and netted Miranda an Oscar nomination.
That year, he also played Jack the lamplighter in Disney’s live-action musical, “Mary Poppins Returns,” which didn’t feature his music (the songs are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), but a perfect title performance by Emily Blunt.
According to cinemablend.com, Miranda is partnering with “Zootopia” co-directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush on a new Disney film musical with a Latina princess (its working title is “Encanto”) Its story will focus on a Colombian girl who comes from a magical family but lacks magical powers herself.
Miranda has written lyrics to four new Alan Menken songs for the upcoming Disney live-action “Little Mermaid,” to star the African-American Halle Bailey as Ariel (though production dates are up in the air). The diverse cast will include Melissa McCarthy as the villainous Sea Witch Ursula, Javier Bardem as King Triton, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, “Hamilton” alum Daveed Diggs as Sebastian, and Awkwafina as Scuttle.
Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors”) has composed the scores for eight Disney films, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “Pocahontas,” and has won eight Academy Awards. Miranda’s older son, Sebastian (to turn 6 in November), is named after the crab in “The Little Mermaid.”
Miranda is slated to make his film directorial debut with Jonathan Larson’s musical “Tick, Tick…BOOM.”
The big movie version of “In the Heights” (which features a Latin American cast, set in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC, where Miranda grew up) was postponed from this summer to June 18, 2021. Director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) gave his son Jonathan – born in 2019 – the middle name “Heights,” since he was in the middle of directing the movie when he was born.
Coincidentally, Alexander Hamilton’s fateful duel was held in the Heights of Weehawken, N.J., a popular dueling ground across the Hudson from Manhattan, on the early morning of July 11, 1804. And according to history, he did “throw away his shot” by aiming into the air above Burr, and Hamilton died of his gunshot injuries the next day, shy of 50.
Angelica to “work” it in Davenport
A “Hamilton”-related treat to look forward to is May 15, 2021, when Renée Elise Goldsberry joins the Quad City Symphony Orchestra at Davenport’s Adler Theatre for an evening of Broadway, pop, and soul favorites.
Star of both stage and screen, and a 49-year-old California native, Goldsberry is best known for originating the role of Angelica Schuyler in “Hamilton,” for which earned a Tony and Grammy.
With the QCSO, she will perform selections from Broadway hits including “Hamilton” “Rent,” and “The Lion King,” plus songs by Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and more. Among Goldsberry’s theater credits was portraying the last Mimi in the Broadway run of Jonathan Larson’s smash “Rent.”
Since the Disney “Hamilton” is a unique creature – a filmed, edited, staged musical – what awards would it possibly be eligible for, come Emmy and Oscar time? It seems destined to win yet more laurels; it’s the singular, cultural phenomenon of our time.
And Lin-Manuel especially needs that Oscar to fill the only remaining gap the rarefied PEGOT. What??
Just 15 artists over their careers have earned a prestigious combined Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony (EGOT), including John Legend and Robert Lopez (of “Frozen” and “Book of Mormon”). Only have two of those have the Pulitzer atop that, or PEGOT – composers Richard Rodgers and Marvin Hamlisch.
Miranda’s got three Grammys (for “Hamilton,” “Moana” and “In the Heights”), and an Emmy in 2014 he shared with Tom Kitt for the great opening number “Bigger” for the Tony Awards then hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, among a staggering slew of other awards. As “Hamilton” sings, “just you wait…”
Lin-Manuel wasn’t kidding about “Hamilton” (albeit a deeply flawed hero) being a gift – and a priceless one for us and for America’s 244th birthday.