September 28th, 2020

book cover humor

Movie review: Hamilton: An American Musical

My initial reaction when hearing about the Broadway musical Hamilton was surprise that all these historical characters were being played by non-white actors. How was this better than having a white actor play a real black person? How would black people feel if they did an all-white version of Roots? Pissed, that's how they'd feel, and with good reason. (There are white actors in Hamilton, my favorite being the guy who plays the sometimes villainous, but mostly confused King George III.)

But that comparison is not the same. Stay with me; I'll get back to that.

Hamilton is not a movie version of the Broadway musical. It's the Broadway musical itself, filmed for release on Disney's very own streaming thingy that I got because I wanted Star Wars stuff. (The Mandalorian, see it!) In addition to my initial issue, Hamilton seemed over-hyped, had a lot of that rapping and hip hop stuff I never cared for, played fast and loose with history, and seemed a pale, puny thing beside my favorite musical, "1776". (Which also plays fast and loose with history, but never mind.)

But I watched it.

It is not over hyped. Oh, it is so very not over-hyped.


Spectacular, energetic, emotional, and wow. Sure, if you hate musicals you won't like it, but what kind of monster are you, anyway? (Sorry, William--inside joke.) I don't ever recall watching a musical that had me sitting on the edge of my chair. I don't recall the last time a movie made me tear up--more than once. And, having left drama club myself many years ago, I'd forgotten about the pure joy of a stage show.

Oh, and what's the show about? Well, shame on you if you don't know your history. (Which is why inaccuracies shouldn't be an issue--you people should already know this stuff.)

It's all about the life of future first U.S. Treasurer Alexander Hamilton, who as an orphan worked his way up from his dirt-poor beginnings and arrived in New York at an interesting time--just before the outbreak of the American Revolution. He meets future statues such as Aaron Burr, the Marquis de Lafeyette, and those Schuyler sisters, and eventually becomes the right hand man of the Continental Army's steel-willed commander, George Washington.

You've heard of Washington, right?

That's all covered in the first act. After all, there's a country to build in the second.

The story, in the end, is about Hamilton trying without much success to balance family and his own ambitions, which are pushed by memories of his impoverished childhood. His chief nemesis is future Vice-President Aaron Burr, and their power struggle fuels much of the conflict until an ending that you should have seen coming, if you cracked that history book. On the other side we have Eliza Schuyler, whose love for her husband Alexander causes her joy and pain over the course of their lives, and who provides much of the emotional center for the show.

Which is spectacular. Did I mention that?


 Hamilton is mostly sung (or rapped) opera style, and there never seems to be a moment when the cast, and even the stage, isn't on the move. It's almost exhausting, while also hilarious, heart-tugging, and engaging. Maybe it'll even get some people to pick up a history book.

And what about the color of the actors' skin?

Well, in short order you just don't notice it. Still, I think my comparison of white actors playing the black parts in Roots is unfair. There's a thread here, of people freeing themselves from the chains of another power, of the underprivileged trapped by their surroundings who fight to bring themselves up. Sure, lots of white people have been slaves through history, but rarely here, on the American continent. That's the story of black people, and it has its parallels with both Hamilton himself and the drive for American independence. Maybe someone at first just wanted to hire the people they knew for this play, or maybe to some it was a great gimmick, whatever ... but it works.

It hasn't pushed "1776" out as my favorite musical, but it's an apples and oranges thing anyway--and Hamilton is a solid number 2. And regardless of whether it makes you think, it sure makes you want to dance in your chair.

On a related note, keep this in mind for your Christmas list: I want the soundtrack.