Lockdown may have closed the theatres for the time being but in the last few months we have been treated to a wealth of titles to stream and keep up our theatre fix. Yesterday, undoubtedly the biggest title there could possibly be arrived and the world turned upside down ready to watch it. No, I am not talking about Michael Flatley's Celtic Tiger but rather the global sensation that is Hamilton.
Before we get into it, I should advise that I've been writing like I'm running out of time and this could well have been one of Alexander Hamiltons essays. You have been warned.
So let's start with the basics. Hamilton was created by Lin Manuel Miranda and first premiered off Broadway in 2015. Since then it has gone on to sell out night after night, get critical acclaim and be regarded as one of the greatest shows to hit the stage in decades. Strong words. I bought tickets the day they went on sale for the West end run and waited exactly one year to see it for the first time. In my head, there was no way this show could live up to the expectations as it was ridiculously overhyped. Not only was I completely wrong, it went on to become one of my favourite shows (sometimes my number one fave depending on the day, don't make me choose between my top 3) and I have gone back to the Victoria Palace time and time again to be blown away.
When the filmed production was first announced, I was like a kid at Christmas. When it was announced it was being pulled forward a whopping 15 months, it was one of the only good things to come out of this pandemic. I was also nervous about this version - could it live up to how incredible it is in the theatre or would it be missing something? I can be incredibly nitpicky as well when it comes to cameras focusing on the wrong things so there was a good chance this was going to drive me insane. Like Alexander Hamilton, I will never be satisfied... or will I?
(Admittedly as openings go that didn't pack as much of a punch of 'Alexander Hamilton' but short of someone travelling in time and admitting to killing me, it's practically impossible to live up to that)
Hamilton's strength is in its staging. The choreography is so slick and intricate, it always blows me away watching it. This is one of the few shows I prefer watching in the circle so I can take everything in. Thankfully, this is all captured on camera perfectly. Filmed in the theatre during several few performances as well as a special filming on stage with no audience, the choices of shot (Don't throw it away) are flawless. From close ups to characters in crucial moments to panning from one to another as they mention that character, it is beautifully filmed and brings new depth to the show. Close ups focusing on the emotion in characters face brings an intimacy and personal connection you can't get watching it in the theatre (even in the front row) and provoked different emotional reactions in me than I experience watching it in person.
There are some standout moments in the staging in the show. Any Hamilton fan will pinpoint 'Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down' as one of the highlights - it is presented beautifully in this film, with 'Hurricane' being equally spectacular. One of my favourite bits of the show is 'Satisfied' where the show literally rewinds and sees the cast repeat the staging of 'Helpless' as Angelica sings like her life depended on it. If my jaw drops at this performance at the theatre, it completely dislocated watching this filmed version. The lights, the camera, the action - this was a moment. I am incredibly thankful this has now been immortalised on camera for generations to come Let future historians study this for theatrical perfection. See for yourself in this clip:
Another testament to Hamilton is in its songs. While people often refer to this as a hip-hop show, its musical styles are much more varied than that with R&B, soul and even The Beatles style pop. It even references other musical shows with a little nod to The Last Five Years on 'Say No To This'. Songs such as 'Helpless', 'You'll be back', 'Burn' and 'Wait for it' are up there with some of the greatest songs in theatre. The fact they come thick and fast one after the another leaves you no time to catch your breath and is a big factor in what makes this show so special.
Now let's talk about the cast. I've seen some incredible cast members perform the roles in the West end but in this production we are talking about the best of the best. First, let's talk about the elephant in the room - Lin Manuel Miranda. The man responsible for the very existence of this show (though admittedly that man would be Alexander Hamilton) originated the title character and plays it here. I have seen a lot of mixed comments about his performance so let me add my ten dollars to the mix. Admittedly Lin doesn't have the strongest voice in the world. Watching the three different actors I have play Alexander in the West end you do really miss some of the vocal chops they deliver. That doesn't mean Lin is bad in the role at all. What he lacks in vocal ability he more than makes up for in acting and emotion - some of the close ups on his face during the more upsetting moments in the show were an acting masterclass. You also have to remember this is his baby and nobody can embody the role in the same way as the man who created it.
The beauty of Lin not stealing every scene he's in as Hamilton means the rest of the cast get to shine. And boy, what a cast they are - not one weak link in there. Christopher Jackson delivers vocals as Washington, Daveed Diggs steals every scene he's in as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson with a truly sensational opening to act 2, Anthony Ramos will break your heart twice as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, and Jonathan Groff spits out his words with such passion as King George III, it's easy to forget he's not really the King. When he stares down the camera, it is like he is staring straight into your soul.
I would be remiss to not give the Schuyler sisters there own paragraph as what a trio they are. Phillipa Soo delivers one of the best performances I've ever seen as Alexander's devoted but suffering wife Eliza. Her 'Burn' is one of the highlights of the show, but what makes an Eliza performance powerful is a good scream, and boy does she deliver with hers. If you don't get shivers when she lets rip, you have no soul!
Then there's Renee Elise Goldsberry as the sassiest Angelica you will ever see. I've already mentioned how ridiculously out of this world her 'Satisfied' was but literally every moment she is on stage, she commands all eyes are on her. I would single her out as one of the two strongest performers in this show (the second is still to come).
Jasmine Cephas-Jones might not have too much to do as the third often forgotten sister, but she more than makes up for it in act 2 when she reappears as Maria Reynolds (R.I.P Peggy). Her 'Say No To This' is truly stunning, particularly the belt she does midway. Her performance is so believable and iconic, you never doubt why Alex can't say no to her.
There is one more performance I want to single out. Step forward Leslie Odom Jr. Playing a tricky and conflicted role such as Aaron Burr can't be an easy job but he really rises up to the occasion. His 'Wait For It' and 'The Room Where It Happens' (clip below) are two of the most memorable performances of the entire show. Whether he is singing about his love for his daughter, raging about his enemy or seething with jealousy, Odom Jr captures the character perfectly. It would be easy to hate the man portrayed as a villain but the way the character is written and acted by Odom Jr means you also feel conflicted as you fall in love with him during the show. As much of a main character to this show as Alexander Hamilton is, Aaron Burr is a real star in this show and the way Leslie Odom jr portrays him is a stroke of genius.
The ending of the show isn't the big joyous song and dance finale you've come to expect in musicals. The show tells the story of a legacy asking the question who tells your story? Eliza's gasp at the end of the show has been subject to debate and can be interpreted in different ways but from watching the filmed version, it seems clear to me the intention is for her to break the fourth wall as Alex leads her to the front of the stage to see that she has done enough and his story is still being told centuries later. That makes the end takes on a whole new meaning and always gives me chills, especially in this version with the incredible way Phillipa Soo takes on the role of Eliza.
This professional filmed version of the show had a hard job to live up to the atmosphere created by seeing the show in the theatre but it more than managed it. Not only did it match the brilliance of the stage show, it added new depth by adding more intimacy and emotion in moments. 'It's quiet uptown' gets me at the best of times but add close ups of the Hamiltons faces and I was more of a wreck than ever before. With a cast featuring the most talented people you could possibly find on this planet, an amazing songbook and potentially the greatest staging on the West end and Broadway, Hamilton is a triumph in the theatre and even more so in this filmed version. Absolutely flawless - I'd go as far as saying it's the best professionally filmed show I've seen. So I am definitely more than satisfied by this production and judging by the reactions on social media, I'm not the only one. This is one show that really did blow us all away.
Hamilton is available to watch with a subscription on Disney+. £5.99 for a month which is a lot cheaper than you'd pay to see it in the theatre!
What did you think of this version?