This Fourth of July weekend was special for theater enthusiasts across the country. After years of waiting, Hamilton, the hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, was finally made available for all of us who couldn’t afford to see it—thanks to our benevolent Disney+ overlords. The show, a runaway hit on Broadway in 2015, tells the story of the American Revolution from the perspective of Hamilton through singing, dance, and the occasional rap battle. It is the second stage piece by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote and starred in In the Heights, a musical that was turned into a film whose summer 2020 release was pushed back a full year due to the pandemic.
There are two people at Jezebel who are unabashed lovers of Lin-Manuel/In the Heights/Hamilton: Julianne, who saw the latter production live the way the good lord intended; and myself, Shannon, who rages with jealousy over anyone who got to see it in person. Since no one else on staff was as enthused about spending their day off sitting at home watching an almost three-hour movie adaptation of a stage musical, Julianne and I virtually got together and dragged our reluctant partners along for an emotional rollercoaster ride through history.
Shannon: I have never seen any version of Hamilton, aside from their Tony Awards performance in 2016. I have, however, listened to the original cast recording and know just about every word to every song. Daveed Diggs does some of my favorite work in the cast, and I was excited to see him actually perform. So many of these songs take on a really different feeling, given the current national uprising, and the fact that most of the singers are people of color does a lot of work in divorcing the original historical figures from their roots and making them seem more human? Or at least not total scumbags.
Julianne: I agree with you, and I have to say that when I saw the original stage production in 2016, it simply hit differently than it does now. At the time, we had recently learned that Donald Trump was the Republican nominee, and he was in the middle of putting his hatred of Mexicans and Muslims on front street, a clear foreshadowing of what was to come. At the time, the concept of casting majority players of color seemed like a revelation to me (and, apparently, to the largely white world of Broadway), and an effort to remind the audience that the actual and material work of building America as we know it was done by enslaved Black people and immigrants, largely of color. When they said the line, “Immigrants: we get the job done,” I remember feeling a rush of pride, and a lot of what Hamilton was putting down at the time, I really needed to hear as a Mexican American.
But now we’re in the middle of an uprising—statues across the world being torn down and thrown into rivers and harbors, an act meant to symbolize the fundamentally racist and otherwise inequitable tenets upon which this country was built—and certainly, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, upon which Miranda’s work was based, is historical but also does the work of glorifying Alexander Hamilton.
And so as a work of art, I still think Hamilton is phenomenal, but I’m personally at a different place in 2020. The critiques upon its release, most notably by Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed, that it could engender further pedestalization of the founding fathers while being ahistorical or glossing over important facts (like that most of them were slavers), continue to be warranted. (In 2019, I also saw Ishmael Reed’s The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Nuyorican Poets Café, which critiqued Hamilton’s approach to liberal ideas of inclusion and assimilation.) Watching it this weekend, I was a bit less dazzled than I might have been the first time around while squaring my instinct to sing along—Renée Elise Goldsberry, come through—with these facts. For instance, while Daveed Diggs is charming and hilarious in Hamilton, his character Thomas Jefferson is still framed as a hapless, carousing lout, with only one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Sally Hemings—the 14-year-old enslaved girl who the real Thomas Jefferson raped. (The line, in “What’d I Miss,” goes: “There’s a letter on my desk from the President/Haven’t even put my bags down yet/Sally be a lamb, darling, wontcha open it.”)
As art, though—I still fuck with Hamilton. I just don’t think it should be taken as the beginning or end of one’s education on the grisly truth of American history. Like you, though, watching it almost led my cis male partner to divorce me, before he finally came around, calling it something like “an OK piece of musical theater infotainment.” (He also said, “In a fair world, this would be touring elementary school gyms”—as a diss.)
Shannon: So it’s interesting you mention the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Hemings because I completely missed any reference to that in any of Diggs’s numbers as Jefferson. My third eye must not be open enough.
Also, not to throw dirt on one of my own, but I still don’t get why it had to be Alexander Hamilton that got the play. Especially considering that Miranda’s ultimate desire was to put an “immigrant story” front and center. I get that he read that book on vacation and was so stirred by it, but if he’s creative enough to glorify people like Washington and Jefferson, where is the play about Pedro Albizu Campos? Or literally any historical figure that didn’t traffic in enslaved people? Why isn’t the history of Puerto Rico as interesting a topic as the history of the states?
What made In the Heights so enjoyable is that the characters, actors, and the musical style were reflective of Latinx culture, focusing on this Dominican diasporic community in Manhattan. It was a great day-in-the-life musical that made me and my entire family feel seen, but now that I’m older I want a lot more out of content that’s meant to be representational. I want the period piece!
Certainly, with Miranda’s name behind it, there’s room enough for another project that is loosely based on the history of somewhere else. Did I enjoy Hamilton? Of course, it’s well done and I fucking love musicals. But when it was over, I was still left with the same gap that I’m left with after consuming most other period pieces: That my history—history of the Taínos and colonization of Puerto Rico—isn’t important. The larger history of the Caribbean islands is trapped within books and texts used for elective courses but no matter where I turn the history of America from the perspective of its white architects is foisted upon me.
Julianne: So, as a work of art Shannon, did it live up to your expectations, having been a voracious listener of the soundtrack leading up to this moment?
Shannon: It was absolutely everything I wanted and needed. I loved the choreography, I loved seeing Seth Stewart, and I loved the facial expressions of all the actors. I thought that since I knew all of the songs already I wouldn’t really be that emotional about it, but there were definitely a few moments where I was holding back tears because I didn’t want my partner to judge me for crying. My one big critique related specifically to the show is that the lighting was not conducive for television and I think that they should have reshot the show with a different lighting plan to make it easier to view. But that would have been insanely expensive.
(Shannon’s Partner: Lin isn’t like Spike Lee-bad [at acting], but he’s surrounded by a lot of better talent. If he didn’t write it, he wouldn’t be cast in this.)
Shannon: I saw a tweet from Miranda that he “gave two fucks” so that this movie could be on Disney, and I really think the loss of the first “fuck” from Hercules Mulligan in the “Battle of Yorktown” wasn’t a good choice. It’s my favorite “fuck” in the whole show, what do you think about the lack of “fucks,” Julianne?
Julianne: I personally don’t think the “fucks” benefit or detract from the show, mainly because we are talking about a fairly wholesome piece of musical theater about American history.
Shannon: Did you think the Disney+ version did justice to the original stage version?
Julianne: Weirdly enough, I liked it better, or if not better, I liked that I could see the actors’ faces close-up, to see how expressive they were and underscore just how great everyone is at acting. For instance, I missed a lot of Jonathan Groff’s nuance in my 38th row (or something) seats during the production. And Anthony Ramos, and Philippa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas-Jones, who has one of the best songs as Maria, Hamilton’s lusty sidepiece. It was also nice to see the choreography from different angles, which was a feat.
What was your favorite scene? Now that you’ve seen it, do you think about the soundtrack differently?
Shannon: I actually think my favorite scene is when Philip, Hamilton’s son is having his last breaths with his mother played by Philippa Soo. The way she emoted in that scene and her shriek when she realizes he’s gone is so powerful. I really think that she steals the show whenever she’s in a scene because her facial expressions are so incredible.
Julianne: I agree, and Soo carried a majority of the emotional resonance. One thing I do like a lot about Hamilton is the way that the women in it are the actual stars—the main driving narrative of Hamilton’s life, outside of all the writing and fighting and president bullshit. Again, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas-Jones are, along with Soo, the best in the play. My final question for you, Shannon: If a person likes rap but hates musicals and nationalism, do you think they should watch Hamilton? What’s your main takeaway here?
Shannon: Oh that’s tough. I actually think that if someone really enjoys the artistry and intricacy of rap and its rich history as a genre they absolutely should NOT watch this show. I think that the rapping in the show is good and fun, but I also recognize that it’s designed to be as digestible as possible to a largely white audience, and to people like myself who have to sort of listen to a song five times before the full meaning of it all sinks in. I think these songs are meant to be understood immediately upon first listen so they’re broken down to basics as much as possible and it’s on repeat listens that non-hip hop aficionados pick up on some of the rap history easter eggs left behind. What I would recommend is the Hamilton Mixtape which is a less Broadway-y version of the original cast recording.
My main takeaway: While the beauty of live theater remains nearly impossible to capture on camera, Hamilton on Disney+ shows that bringing theater into the home and making it more accessible is a worthwhile endeavor. Since its debut, it’s been a dream for many to watch Hamilton in the comfort of their own homes either for the first or fourth time. Now fans finally get to witness what the hype is about and love it or hate it, four years after its debut we are once more embroiled in the Hamilton discourse.
This post has been corrected to reflect that Renée Elise Goldsberry is not named Renée Elizabeth Goldsberry. Jezebel deeply regrets the error!