EXPECTATION VS. REALITY: “HAMILTON” ON DISNEY+

This article is part of a new Untitled Magazine series called “Expectation vs. Reality,” where we examine the hype surrounding popular projects before and after release, and examine whether they ultimately meet the general public’s expectations. The first part, “Expectation,” was written prior to release, while the second part below, “Reality,” was written after release.

The Richard Rodgers Theater, where “Hamilton” made its Broadway debut. Courtesy of wallpaperflare.com.

EXPECTATION

To the average American consumer, the idea of speculating on the upcoming Hamilton live-captured Broadway film probably seems perplexing: of course it will be good! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 magnum opus, documenting the story of one of the US’s formative figures from humble beginnings in the Caribbean to first Secretary of the Treasury and Founding Father, was to put it lightly, one of the biggest runaway sensations in Broadway’s history. So popular in fact, that the year it hit the stage the U.S. Treasury reversed a decision to redesign the ten dollar bill by replacing Hamilton’s face with a woman’s. To bring the magic of that historical 21st century success story to the big screen (figuratively speaking at least; in a sans-COVID-19 world the film would surely have gotten a theatrical release alongside or before its airing on Disney+) in its original stage form without alteration would surely leave no room for additional criticism.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? Hamilton, in all of its glory, has not been altered in its five years  in the spotlight, as it shouldn’t be. Had a direct filming of the Hamilton stage show been brought to screen a year after (or even as late as last year) its stage debut, there would be no doubt that its quality would at least match that of the original. But in the course of just a few months, in the midst of an international pandemic and protests for racial equality, the America (and indeed the world) we live in is not the same as it was five short years ago. So the question of expectations is not only “what are we expecting from Hamilton on Disney+?” but “how well will Hamilton sit with Americans five years down the line, in a wholly different climate?”

Hamilton is a quintessential product of America during the Obama Administration. It is a microcosm of a time in the United States where the general political feeling was democratic, and the humble stories of immigrants and American minorities began resonating with those who had not be adequately exposed to them before. Hamilton, in that moment, was an instrument of change, for racial and economic progress.

Even in 2016, at the tail end of Obama’s two terms, Hamilton was a poster child of counterculture, despite its incredibly American subject matter. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, then Vice President-elect Mike Pence was infamously confronted by the show’s cast at a Friday night performance, following a mass booing from the crowd. Predictably, President-elect Trump demanded an apology on Twitter. In a nutshell, the musical was the means by which many in opposition to Trump felt their voice being heard.

However, despite all it stands for philosophically, many simply cannot separate the sentiments of Hamilton from its subject matter. A now popular piece in the Harvard Gazette outlined many of the historical inconsistencies Hamilton displays. While Alexander Hamilton maintained abolitionist views in writing, many historians believed he, along with President George Washington, did indeed own slaves, and did not support the immigrant population in the way the musical depicts. The show’s setting of New York City was, at the time depicted, largely a slave-owning city. While slavery is mentioned in the play, its presence is somewhat negated, and the show in large part sweeps aside its role as a fundamental institution in the founding of the United States. Our country was built on white supremacy, and the full story of the founding of our nation explains how those sentiments have survived hundreds of years later.

But the majority of supporters could argue that these inaccuracies are part of the point of Hamilton: not to simply recount our racist history, but to intentionally tweak it as a means of protest. The paratextual elements of Hamilton, like its diverse cast, use of hip-hop as its chief musical medium, and emphasis on the immigrant story, all serve to highlight this theory. The show makes a point to not glorify or tacitly condone any of its characters’ actions, but instead to simply document them while devoting focus to issues relevant to present-day America.

Promotional poster for “Hamilton” on Disney+. Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

So, while opinion is surely mixed regarding Hamilton’s upcoming film treatment, it is not split equally. Most remain hyped for Friday’s release, and the few who stay skeptical are largely those who had gripes with the original work in the first place. It remains to be seen how Hamilton will be received by the public, but frankly it is hard to imagine it will be anything other than a slam dunk.

Overall Expectation: Hype amongst fans, with a minority voice of skepticism

REALITY

In contrast to how it was perhaps churlish to disregard established patterns and hope the absolute best for Lady Gaga’s Chromatica only to be disappointed, in hindsight it seems almost reasonless to debate Hamilton’s historical status in 2020, even in movie form. To parrot the American populace’s general opinion: of course it was going to be good!

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the titular Alexander Hamilton on Broadway. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On a technical note, the perfectly executed cinematography serves the production very well, highlighting the more subtle facial performances of the cast. Watching the spit erupt from King George’s (Jonathan Groff) mouth during fan-favorite number “You’ll Be Back” and the changing smirk that Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) gives Hamilton each time he tells him to “smile more” truly adds a new dimension to the already dynamic experience. It may not fully make up for not seeing the spectacle in person, but it surely adds the much needed theatricality that watching the show from home erases. That, coupled with the excellent sound mixing which allows every syllable to ring clear, make for a very tight production.

Some worried that Disney’s censorship of the musical would detract from its overall feel, but frankly the cuts are so minimal and negligible that its sentiments remain in tact. Lin-Manuel Miranda went to great lengths on Twitter to assure the asking public that the spirit of the original work would be unharmed, going so far as to list the exact instances of swearing in the script that needed to be cut to keep the film suitable for Disney+:

The adeptness of the adaptation was much expected however, and as we have established, it’s how loud Hamilton’s sentiments ring in 2020 that is the real measure of its success. If anything supports the aforementioned argument that Hamilton’s historical inaccuracies are intentionally included as a means of protest, it is the official description of the film on Disney+: “this revolutionary moment in theater is the story of America then, told by America now.”

Frankly, the fact that potential censorship was the loudest concern from the public majority regarding Hamilton’s movie treatment should probably tell you all you need to know about how much people were actually concerned about its overall quality. The fact of the matter is, there was very little chance of a cultural juggernaut like Hamilton aging badly after five years because it was ahead of its time to begin with; written almost specifically for a time in American history like the one we currently live in in 2020.

The statement of Hamilton is more important than its contents. Subtle moments like Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) stating that she will compel Thomas Jefferson to “include women in the sequel” to the Declaration of Independence and Hamilton’s announcement of “immigrants, we get the job done” speak volumes from the show’s writers.

Hamilton starts with Aaron Burr stating that “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead;” almost a warning to those who bravely began the Black Live Matter movement that has surged so significantly, and ends by shattering that fearful sentiment by proudly featuring the voices of those previously silenced. The best way to get away with that they thought? Broadcast their voices through the disguise of the most respected people in America: our founders. That is a statement in itself, that the only way to bring our attention to issues of racial justice was to frame them in a historically white context. And it worked.

We need Hamilton now to remind us what matters, and to release it now instead of the originally planned October 2021 was an important decision on Disney’s part. So don’t fixate on what Hamilton choses to not highlight, like slavery, and focus instead on what it stands for. Alexander Hamilton is not the hero of the story, the cast and production is. They write history as they see it should have been: with women’s stories that aren’t just relegated to the sidelines, and voices of color at the forefront.

Overall Reality: as expected, a perfectly timed slam dunk

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