This is how capturing live theater experiences needs to be done.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing, revolutionary stage musical “Hamilton” arrives in cinematic form with a pitch-perfect ability to harness a moment in American pop culture history and preserve it for the annals of time.
Filmed in June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, this nearly three-hour extravaganza is a compilation of several performances of the Broadway show mixed with closed door footage of the original cast performing privately for cameras on the stage itself.
For the millions of people worldwide unable to see the 11-time Tony Award winner in person, it’s a front row seat and intoxicating look at the iconic musical that places audiences right in the heart of the non-stop whirlwind of emotions, music and theatricality.
A hip-hop biography of the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, “Hamilton” follows his innocuous rise from abject poverty in the Caribbean through his time serving under George Washington in the American Revolution as well as his political life post-war culminating in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr.
Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for the musical, doubles as the title character and star of the show, bringing his dynamic energy and passion to the screen with wide, emotional eyes that captivate a film audience in ways that one wouldn’t get fifteen rows deep in a Broadway auditorium.
Yet for as much as “Hamilton” is synonymous with Miranda, the show itself isn’t even about his performance with an array of mesmerizing talent littering the ensemble including three Tony Award winning performances from Daveed Diggs in a dual role as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, who narrates the story.
There’s so much life brought to every single character within “Hamilton,” which isn’t surprising given the cast had been performing together eight times a week for nearly two years at the time of filming.
It’s a perfect balance of styles from Christopher Jackson’s John Legend-esque turn as a stern but loving George Washington to the wonderfully comedic Jonathan Groff bringing levity as King George II to Phillipa Soo’s warm, emotional Elisa that grounds the narrative with heart.
But translating one of Broadway’s best musicals of all-time to a static, feature film format is exceptionally challenging.
Pulling off a movie version of “Hamilton” that’s not stagnant nor overly documentarian requires a director with great skill and vision.
In this instance, it’s invaluable to have an expert stage director like Thomas Kail at the helm of the feature film version of the Broadway experience. Kail, who also directed the stage show, keeps his eye trained on the simplest of moments and the subtlest of nuances that he, Miranda and the entire team put into the production.
There’s a kinetic energy to the camera work that reflect the frantic pace of the musical and wonderfully substitutes for how audience members might be constantly turning their heads to try and catch everything the stage show has to offer.
Tight shots that pull in from all angles on individual performances heighten the cinematic quality, but it’s in the wider moments that truly encompass the full spectacle of the “Hamilton” experience and allow audiences to reflect in awe at the theatricality of the musical.
This is never more present than in the staging of “Satisfied,” a first act retelling of the whirlwind romance of Hamilton and his future bride Eliza as seen through the eyes of her envious sister Angelica.
Lighting cues, a rotating stage and spectacular choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler take a two-dimensional song performed by Goldsberry from a static position and create a relentless and hypnotizing visual spectacle that enhances both the song itself and Miranda’s narrative as a whole.
Depth is key throughout Kail’s interpretation of Miranda’s musical as every performer including the ensemble chorus members have distinct purpose scene to scene; technical elements supplement the action and the totality of the Broadway monolith almost necessitates multiple viewings to understand the intricacies, especially for those who haven’t had the soundtrack on rotate for years.
Editor Jonah Moran had an immensely painstaking and thankless job crafting the film as audiences watch it in their own homes, choosing from a variety of angles and performances to sculpt a viewing experience that equally balances the traditional Broadway stage with intimate closeups, two-shots and reverse angles to that will allow those who’ve seen the production countless times a fresh perspective on the extravagance.
Cuts occur on a dime and often alongside musical cues within songs, phrases or melodies, with Moran and Kail being exceptionally particular about keeping viewers’ eyes on exactly what their perspective should be in any given moment.
“Hamilton” could easily make its way into the conversation come awards season as a previously planned theatrical release makes the film eligible for Academy Award consideration and there is some precedent for filmed performances to earn Oscar nods with Laurence Olivier’s staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello” earning several nominations.
In reality, “Hamilton” will have a much better chance at success at the Golden Globes where it will easily play into that group’s comedy/musical categories.
Miranda’s other Tony Award winning musical, “In the Heights,” was slated for its major motion picture release this summer but moved back to 2021 amid the coronavirus.
In its place, audiences are treated to “Hamilton” in all its glory and spectacle, conveniently released over the Fourth of July weekend on Disney+ which makes it widely accessible at a low cost and essential summer viewing for anyone in need of finely crafted entertainment.