Disney+ UK review: Hamilton
Translation to screen10
Nathanael Smith | On 13, Jul 2020
Hamilton is a work of art that attracts all sorts of hyberbole. So comprehensive and effusive is the love for this hip-hop-history musical that you’ve almost certainly heard about it and you’ve probably already seen it. So here’s an extra-outsized statement to try on for size: Hamilton is the Hamlet of the 21st century. “Now hold on,” you cry out, “Hamlet is one of the greatest works of literature of all time, you can’t be serious.” Well, we can.
There are surface similarities (apart from the consonance in the names that once led a confused fan to describe writer Lin-Manuel Miranda as the “the guy who wrote Hamlet”): both used history and politics to comment on the era in which they were written; both are verbose to the point of being overwhelming; both are critically adored; and both end with the title character getting killed – that’s not a spoiler, they announce it in the first song.
Watching a great production of Shakespeare’s magnus opus shares another attribute with Miranda’s work: the sensation that you are witnessing a work of true genius. These are plays that are dense with multiple layers of meaning, embedded into the narrative through a total mastery of language. Imagine both plays as a tapestry of themes and ideas; you can pull at one thread and follow it through the entire play, a seam of colour that contributes to the dazzling overall picture. It’s why Hamlet has inspired centuries of scholarship and why Hamilton has created legions of obsessive fans.
You could watch Hamilton and pick up the thread of writing. This dominant theme is right there in the first song, as Alexander Hamilton discovers his prodigious talent with the pen. You then follow the idea through his job as a writer for George Washington and his defence of the constitution all the way through to his devastating pamphlet that destroys his marriage. In Hamilton, words can shape nations, break hearts and stir up revolutions. It’s a theme that’s validated by the incredibly lyrical dexterity of Miranda’s own writing; picking one line as an example can never be fully representative of all 20,000 words here, but it’s hard not to grin at the audacity of “a bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists, give me a position, show me where the ammunition is”.
Yet that’s just one of many threads you can trace throughout the musical. Some viewers will pick up on the through-line of nationhood and America, and how you define these difficult concepts. Alternatively, you can make a case that Hamilton is a musical about ambition and making a name for yourself. Or it’s about ideology and how much you make a stand for what you believe in. Perhaps it’s about obsession versus satisfaction. Or any number of themes that each viewer is invited to delve into. Ideas are stitched into every phrase and they weave in and out of the writing throughout its hefty 160-minute runtime. This is a musical that doesn’t just survive repeat consumption, it demands it.
The filmed version, dropped onto Disney+ in a valiant effort to make 2020 slightly less terrible, is remarkable. Recorded performances of theatrical productions have been popular for a while now, both in cinemas and as a moment of escape during the lockdown – see our weekly digital theatre reviews and recommendations here – but this is one of the most impressive efforts yet. The team behind the camera recorded three performances, bringing in cranes and zoom lenses for total flexibility of shot choice in the edit suite.
This ensures an experience that is simultaneously theatrical and cinematic. You get the thrill of live performance, the feeling of unvarnished, electric now-ness that comes with seeing actors treading the boards. Yet alongside this, we get close-ups, crane zooms, aerial shots, even the view from the back of the stage. Delightfully, for the show’s countless fans, you can now also watch it multiple times without having to fork out hundreds of pounds, and relish in smaller background details or the nuances of Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. There are minor issues – some lighting that doesn’t translate to the screen so well, selective use of crowd noises – but the overall transition is flawless.
There is, undoubtedly, something incongruous about watching Hamilton in 2020. This version was filmed only four years ago but, well, what a four years. This is a musical of the Obama era, there’s hope about what America can become, especially if it has leaders of integrity and unshakeable belief. Cut to the world today and it is hard to be as bullishly optimistic about a nation that appears to be falling apart before our very eyes. But, much like the Bard’s greatest play, this is a work of stagecraft whose meaning moulds to the moment. Viewed in an era of chaos and tumult, the more nuanced, ambivalent grace-notes come through. There’s still the cheer of “immigrants, we get the job done”, but it’s about good things being hard won. In 2016, it could have read as a pat on the back for how well America has done. Today, it becomes a call to action and a cry against complacency. One suspects that it will have an entirely different resonance in 4 years or 40 years’ time. Like Hamlet, this magnificent show may well prove to be timeless.
Hamilton is available on Disney+, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription or a £59.99 yearly subscription.