Debating ‘Hamilton’ as It Shifts From Stage to Screen

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A report by Stephanie Goodman for The New York Times.

Five critics wade into the controversies (like its treatment of slavery) and examine the performances (especially Lin-Manuel Miranda’s) five years after the show debuted.

 

“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revisionist take on our founding fathers, was the subject of conversation, debate and argument at The Times when the musical premiered Off Broadway in 2015 and again when it moved to Broadway. Why should the filmed version, which started streaming on Disney+ over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, be any different? I asked the critics at large Wesley Morris and A.O. Scott, the co-chief theater critic Jesse Green, the chief pop music critic Jon Pareles and the arts critic fellow Maya Phillips to discuss the show in changing contexts: onscreen not onstage, and as protests over racism and police reform are forcing the country to face up to its history. Here are excerpts from their round table.

WESLEY MORRIS It really struck me watching at home that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a camera actor. The nights I saw “Hamilton” onstage, Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, was the dominant emotional presence. He was wily and sly and combustive and smooth, playing a person desperate to matter. Miranda seemed less dynamic by comparison. What came through was effort. In this filmed version, it’s the opposite. He’s a star. The close-ups reveal character detail — arrogance, lust, anguish — and his physical and facial wit; how electrically present he is. He’s now funnier and more moving in my house than in one of Broadway’s.

JESSE GREEN For me, the biggest difference between the stage show and the live-capture — it’s not a movie! — was emotional. But unlike Wesley, I didn’t find the weight shifting so much from Burr to Hamilton as from both men to both leading women: Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Phillipa Soo as her sister Eliza. Miranda had given them a lot of the more expressive emotional material anyway — more expressive, often, because unspoken, and also nonpolitical. So the work of infatuation and dissatisfaction and fury and eventually grief is almost entirely done by them, for themselves and also as proxies for the men. Onstage, that dynamic was somewhat flattened by compositions that tended to highlight the men or put everyone in an undifferentiated swirl. Onscreen — it is a movie! — the cameras could pick out their faces, and did, whenever their moment to bring emotional weight to the drama was needed. Eliza’s final shocking gesture at last made sense to me.

A.O. SCOTT What I remember most about seeing “Hamilton” on Broadway was arriving at intermission thinking it was a pretty good show and then being knocked out by the arrival of Daveed Diggs’s Jefferson. The whole revolution was like a warm-up for this guy’s star turn — Mick Jagger with Okieriete Onaodowan’s James Madison as his Keith Richards. This time I knew what was coming, but even so, in the streaming version “What’d I Miss” isn’t quite the kick-out-the-jams coup de théâtre it was onstage.

Daveed Diggs, left, and Okieriete Onaodowan as Jefferson and Madison.

The first time around, I found that after “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” the personal aspects of the story lost a bit of focus and intensity. The politics seemed to be Miranda’s main interest, and Hamilton’s family life and the women in it drifted to the margin. I assumed that the writing was the reason, but I think Jesse is right. The camera, moving among the performers and cutting between close-ups and wider shots, creates zones of intimacy that a theatergoer doesn’t experience, so that the streaming version seemed to strike a better balance between political passions and domestic emotions. Before, I understood conceptually what Eliza was doing at the end. This time, like Jesse, I felt it dramatically.

MAYA PHILLIPS But the show drops the ball on its women. Angelica is such a fascinating character, and in their opening number the Schuyler sisters are framed as smart, feminist, contemporary women. But one sister is the patient, doting wife; one is the fiery match for Hamilton who only sporadically appears; one is introduced and then forgotten completely. It does a disservice to the actresses (especially Goldsberry, who is capital-s Stunning). If we are already taking on the revisionist task of recasting our problematic white founding fathers, then why not do more for these women? Miranda self-consciously lets Eliza put herself “back in the narrative” as a final gesture, but it read so bald to me.

Can I admit my big, shameful theater-critic secret I’ve been holding onto for the past several years? I never got to see “Hamilton” onstage. I had heard many of the songs, but this was my first time seeing it. No one told me it was so long and so incredibly packed! I have to admit that as I watched this on a screen, I wasn’t emotionally invested, and the show seemed overlong and wearying by the end. The performers all know what they’re doing, of course, and Miranda himself is so charming and appealing to watch, and yet, perhaps because I wasn’t buoyed by the energy of a live performance, I found his less-than-stellar vocal abilities totally distracting.

JON PARELES “Hamilton” must have registered as sensory overload in the theater, with not only the usual Broadway song-and-dance but also all those words rushing by. As a stream on the screen, it allows replays, and that means the chance to double-check Miranda’s polysyllabic wizardry: “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists/Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is.” Replays also help bring out how deeply hip-hop aesthetics are embedded in what Miranda created, even when the music leans toward old-school Broadway show tunes. It can’t be an accident that the centerpiece of the stage set is a turntable.

MORRIS JP, the turntable. Daaaaamn. And you’re right: The songcraft is dense. One woman at my intermission complained she didn’t understand what was going on. This was foreign to her. But you often have to chase Sondheim as much as you do Busta Rhymes. The chase is integral to the experience. At home, Jon’s right, you can play with this thing; stop it and rewind it. To paraphrase both Brand Nubian (who’s quoted in the show) and that dissatisfied attendee at intermission: At home, you can slow it down. The application of movie technique demands that you really notice how everybody is operating with every molecule of their being, how Goldsberry, as the Schuyler sister who pines for but doesn’t marry Hamilton, performs with an opera singer’s heaving woe, how Jonathan Groff’s seething is evident in the spittle on his lips. I hadn’t forgotten the degree to which the show’s DNA is hip-hop; a thousand encounters with the soundtrack makes that indisputable. But watching the actors perform the transition among styles to express not simply character but circumstance — you’re reminded all over again at the many formal achievements of this thing.

Phillipa Soo, front, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, right, as Schuyler sisters. Does the show do right by them?

PHILLIPS I wasn’t surprised by the fast hip-hop, but the lighter pop numbers and the more traditional musical fare were unexpected, in a good way. King George’s songs — and Groff’s performance — were utterly delightful.

PARELES Frankly, I wouldn’t have picked the “Hamilton” album as the hit it became, six times platinum in the United States alone. Its songs aren’t stand-alone pop or hip-hop; they’re determined to advance the plot with knotty specifics, and the production doesn’t try to make Broadway music into radio fare.

But Miranda is as cunning a tunesmith as he is a wordsmith. The score is a cross-generational anthology, from swing to quasi-gangsta rap. Even better, it has hooks; with Miranda’s descending phrase for the words “Alexander Hamilton,” that song became a platinum single. And many of the songs have clear pop shapes; on “The Hamilton Mixtape,” singers like Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson and — best of all — Jill Scott strip away the Broadway specifics, rewrite what they want and pump up the production to contemporary styles. But “The Hamilton Mixtape” is only a gold album. Somehow, it’s the old-fashioned Broadway score that’s a megahit.

GREEN I defer to Jon’s encyclopedic pop knowledge and will interrupt just long enough to fuddy-duddyize myself by mentioning Miranda’s frequent samplings from squarer genres as well, including operetta and of course musicals themselves.

PARELES Definitely! The lyrics have very deliberate shout-outs to Gilbert and Sullivan and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

GREEN What’s important about that is the way the recording, for all its novelties, sits perfectly in the tradition of cast albums, particularly the kind that in reproducing nearly all of the music reproduce nearly all of the show. People who learned “The Most Happy Fella” by heart from its 54-cut 1956 cast album will recognize the experience newcomers to “Hamilton” are having today: the joy of having their imaginations confirmed and expanded.

PHILLIPS I’m a music philistine, so I’ll also defer to Jon’s knowledge, but I do want to capitalize on a point he makes about the function the songs serve here. They are so utilitarian, almost, in the way they’re delivered — just an onslaught of information. You don’t often get that in big Broadway numbers. So, while I find “Alexander Hamilton” and many of the other songs exciting on a technical level — the way they demand so much of their performers in the delivery and also the way they playfully cross genres — I don’t find them particularly appealing out of context.

MORRIS What a moment to watch a show about both the thrill of dignified national leadership and a show about historicized men whose legacies are in flux all over again, men whose monuments have been defaced and toppled and justly argued as worthy of removal, a show whose cast — playing these white men, the founding fathers — resembles the nonwhite muscle at the heart of the topplings. Here’s an occasion for wonder about what or whom this show stands as a monument to: these white men or art’s capacity for subversion? It’s true that biracial and Black and Puerto Rican folks are playing the “fathers” and their wives, mistresses and daughters. But “Hamilton” is a faithful reimagining of history, according, at least, to Ron Chernow’s biography, with some of the complexities of the record shaved down, especially with respect to the matter of their relationships to slavery.

PHILLIPS I won’t go off on the near-erasure of slavery, since that has been the topic of much social-media discourse lately, but I did find the throwaway mention of Sally Hemings — who opens a letter for Jefferson and then gaily dances off — indelicate and careless.

PARELES I don’t think slavery is erased. It keeps popping up: in that “abolitionist” line I quoted, in “Cabinet Battle #1” where Hamilton taunts Jefferson for delivering “a civics lesson from a slaver” and in the character of John Laurens, who insists in “Yorktown” that “There’ll never be freedom till we end slavery,” eventually to be silenced by Washington saying, “Not. Yet.” Miranda did cut out “Cabinet Battle #3,” a debate on slavery that he later revealed (in its demo version) on “The Hamilton Mixtape.” But the fact of slavery nags repeatedly at any simple heroic narrative.

PHILLIPS Yes, it does come up, but Miranda dips into it only very briefly, and when it’s convenient to how he’s trying to shape/reshape these characters. He himself said this week that he recognizes that these criticisms of his work are valid, so I don’t want to make him out to be a villain — I do admire him as a creator! I just think that the work makes a choice to engage with race in one very large, visible way but doesn’t engage as thoughtfully with it in this other substantial, historical way.

MORRIS This show has always held powerful answers for what to do about an ugly American history whose highlights we tend to send valentines. We treat it the way those people do who had their way with that statue of Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue: You graffiti the hell out of it. You turn it not into alternative history but alternative art.

An image of Harriet Tubman projected onto a statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va.

Maya, onstage, Sally Hemings flew right by me. The camera reveals her now, and having her come and go as if she’s a smoochy Fly Girl introduces a moral speed bump that the show treats like the winking punchline of a joke it doesn’t have the nerve to tell. And yet the irony of having, say, a biracial man play, in the person of Thomas Jefferson, the father of many Black children isn’t reparative (and I don’t think Miranda means it to be). But the cocky, jiving, flouncy way that Daveed Diggs interprets the role feels, in its way, close to an electric kind of minstrelsy.

The characterization is a rebuke, one that Miranda trusts we have the capacity to absorb. The show advanced a conversation that we’re now having more vociferously than even four or five years ago, when we didn’t have a president who openly mourned the removal of Confederate iconography as though his toys were being confiscated.

SCOTT I like the idea — implicit in what Wesley says — of “Hamilton” as a kind of constructive vandalism, a rebuke that’s also a repurposing of the founders’ legacy. In 2016, the most striking aspect of that reimagining was its optimism. We could fight about this history, as we had from the start, but we could also have fun with it, and expand the “we” who were conducting the fight and having the fun.

The national mood, to understate the obvious, is different now. And since Friday, when “Hamilton’s” Disney+ premiere coincided with Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech, the discourse around the show has shifted. There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.

MORRIS You’re right. It’s a shockingly rich text. And copyright notwithstanding, I look forward to the reception of future all-white productions!

SCOTT What makes the show great — and enduring, I suspect — is that it can’t be shoved into a neat ideological slot. It’s destined to be one of those works of historically minded American musical theater, like “Oklahoma!” or “Fiddler on the Roof,” that will be perpetually revived and eventually reinvented as the times change.

GREEN Does it matter that “Oklahoma!” portrayed an all-white prairie and indulged in vaguely Middle Eastern stereotypes of a kind found amusing in 1943 but not now? Does it matter that “Fiddler” turned a character who was a nasty piece of work in the “reality” of its source — Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman” — into a lovable liberal-in-training? Well, it matters that we keep that in mind, even as we treasure the musicals. Same for me with “Hamilton.” The slavery dodge is hard to swallow, especially now, but how can you not? One show can’t do everything. Miranda tweeted that “all criticisms” of his work are valid and I take him at his generous word. It’s a great musical but, as Wesley and Tony suggest, time must annotate it.

PHILLIPS I think what my colleagues have said points to something really interesting that has happened; theater has so long been an inaccessible space for so many people, but “Hamilton” has seeped into the culture in a way that has now also opened it to this renewed critique from a much wider audience. It seems like everyone has been weighing in — not just the critics and people who had the money (or connections, or whatever other means) to see it live, but now people at home who have it readily available to stream. It brings a sense of democratization to the material; “Hamilton” doesn’t feel like it is just a removed artwork, sitting on the stage. It belongs to everyone. That’s something we don’t often see in theater.

One thought on “Debating ‘Hamilton’ as It Shifts From Stage to Screen

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    STAGE VS SCREEN? … ““Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revisionist take on our founding fathers, was the subject of conversation, debate and argument at The Times when the musical premiered Off Broadway in 2015 and again when it moved to Broadway. Why should the filmed version, which started streaming on Disney+ over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, be any different?’

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