NOV 1, 2018: Hamilton (The Broadway Musical)
Live, on stage, it’s founding father Alexander Hamilton, now a Puerto Rican rapper!
“Hamilton” is the first blog review I’ve done of a non-film. Due to the fact that it’s a musical stage show, I ended up getting myself a recorded copy of the show, and watching it at home on DVD. I almost never see live musical theatrical shows on stage (I remember I had to see several for a college assignment, was looking forward to seeing A Chorus Line, then came away disappointed and thought it sucked), but Hamilton has “near universal acclaim” from both critics and audiences alike, despite the premise sounding god-awful. It’s an example of the old “You gotta SEE it yourself to understand how awesome it is” mentality, and so I decided to “give it a chance”. So fine, let’s take a look at this “sensation” and give it an honest review.
For starters, “Hamilton” IS a lot of fun. That being said, I can’t say I “loved” it, and I’d have to disagree with people who say it’s great to take your kids to so they can “learn history”. The show is an attempt to take real life historic events and make them fun and sexy and “relevant” to “modern audiences” by having song and dance numbers done in a “hip” contemporary musical style, and “updating” the dialogue so there are some f-bombs and so on. Before seeing the show, I asked myself how Lin-Manuel Miranda could convincingly play Alexander Hamilton. The answer is that he really doesn’t. Rather, he plays Lin-Manuel Miranda experiencing the events of Hamilton’s life. This means we get his character saying lines like “Aw, shit!” and “Are you outta yo’ goddam mind?”
To be fair, the show does contain a lot of accurate details about historic events, and I give it credit for providing audiences with some very good information about an overlooked founding father. I will also admit a lot of the show is genuinely moving – the dire circumstances the American colonists were facing during American Revolution is conveyed quite well in a moving number called “The World Turned Upside Down”, and the fact Hamilton didn’t live to an old age like the rest of the founding fathers and had his life tragically cut short after being murdered by Aaron Burr in a duel really hits home in the show’s final monologue. Still, much of the show was simply annoying to me and felt like an insult to make colonial era figures “cool” to “modern” audiences, such as one particularly cringe-worthy moment at the start of Act II where Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (played by a black guy with an afro) have a rap battle over policy differences.
The truly “fun” parts come from a lot of the clever dialogue and over the top characters. I couldn’t suppress a laugh when “George III” first came on stage, and the actor really made him a ridiculous caricature of the stereotypical image of George III as an elitist, smug, out-of-touch, aristocratic ruler. When snootily he refers to America as a so-called “country” after their independence, it’s very amusing, although the real George III probably wasn’t nearly as bad as the play’s interpretation of him. In many ways, I found it reminiscent of musical plays I enjoy like “Jesus Christ Superstar” (which also attempted to make it “relevant” for then contemporary early 1970s audiences by making Jesus out to be a hippie like figure, making it a “rock-opera” with disco numbers, and having some color blind casting). George III’s ridiculous image in this play is very much in the vein of the King Herod scenes in Jesus Christ Superstar (where Herod is portrayed as a goofy, fat, filthy rich, flaming gay Hollywood type figure, and has a very singable number testing Jesus that was condemned by the BBC as ‘sacrilege’). They are effective and memorial scenes, though very much nothing like the real life figure, and invented for the benefit of amusing a live audience.
Still, “Hamilton” never reaches the levels of Jesus Christ Superstar – partly because it doesn’t’ have any type of genuinely emotional and heartfelt moments like Jesus’s sincere “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” number, where you can really feel his anguish and torment at knowing he will die in a few hours (Ted Neeley very effectively sang this in the movie adaptation). “Hamilton” is more along the lines of the 1996 “Romeo + Juliet”, where the classic Shakespearean characters were re-imagined as contemporary figures fighting in present-day southern California “Verona Beach”, whipping out machine guns while saying classic Shakespearean dialogue about “drawing my long-sword at thee”. It’s fun, but ultimately feels shallow.
I also feel “Hamilton” is flawed in that it’s pretty much in the vein of Robert Benigni’s “Pinocchio” from 2002 (which, unlike “Hamilton”, got awful reviews). In that respect, it’s because while the creator DOES truly want to “honor” the original story, he has no interest in being FAITHFUL to the original figures – rather he wants to make it a vehicle for showcasing himself and his OWN message, and something gets lost in the translation because he doesn’t fit the role at all (In Benigni’s case, he was a 50-something balding comedy actor playing a little wooden puppet child who longed to be a real little boy). I simply disagree with Lin-Manuel’s assertion that he cast the characters to “look like America today”. Rather than to “color blind” casting, Manuel seemed to deliberately cast as many minorities as possible to basically thumb his nose as what he perceives to be the status quo. There are a handful of white actors, mainly cast as authoritative figures like George III. “America is the 21st century” is still majority white, whether Lin-Manuel likes that fact or not. As a result, his casting decisions give us a portrait that looks more like “Brazil today” than the United States. I think his ideology hurts the play’s overall effectiveness. While I can say the show overall had some good musical numbers, great chorography, and solid history lessons, I can’t say I really drawn into the show or that I would want to see it again. It seems to me critics and audiences fawn over this show simply because they want to be perceived as being “cool” for having “liked” such a trendy thing. I did read one more down to earth review that gave Hamilton a more subdued 7 out of 10 score, and that sounds fairly accurate to me.
On a final note, I will note one very interesting side effect of “Hamilton”. There was a movement a couple years back to replace the figure of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill with a woman or minority figure from American history, as it was thought we needed more “diversity” on our money since it was all white men, and Hamilton, being a non-President and lesser known figure, was an ideal target to go. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show had the odd timing of showing up right in the middle of that debate, reigniting interest in the historic figure of Alexander Hamilton, and swelling public interest in keeping Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. In many ways, then, the Broadway musical “Hamilton” seems to have the exact OPPOSITE effect on present day society that Lin-Manuel Miranda would prefer. That makes me smile, in much the same way that the increasingly downgraded budgets and cast and box office numbers of the three “Atlas Shrugged” movies taught Americans about the free market and supply-and-demand economics – just in the opposite way that Ayn Rand cultists hoped they would.
** 1/2 out of ****