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‘Hamilton’ musical a success even off the stage

Dan Webster

Now that Disney+ is streaming the filmed version of the Broadway musical "Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning work is available to all of us. Following is my review for Spokane Public Radio:

Near the end of the musical “Hamilton,” following the fateful and fatal 1804 duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the ensemble company comes together to pose three questions in song that could stand as a summation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s whole play.

“Who lives,” they sing, “who dies, who tells your story?”

Miranda, who spent seven years writing “Hamilton” and was just 35 when it opened on Broadway on Aug. 6, 2015, famously became interested in Hamilton while looking for a book to read on vacation. The tome he chose was Ron Chernow’s 800-plus-page biography of the man who, though not born on American soil, became one of the staunchest supporters of the U.S. Constitution and the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.

Broadway extravaganzas don’t typically come via a hip-hop, racially and gender conscious format that blends magically realistic constructs with a page taken directly from American history. Yet as with all great art, Miranda was able to find a way to tell a story of yesterday and yet imbue it with a sense of style and substance that is purely today.

How high is the quality of that style? “Hamilton” was nominated for a record 16 Tony nominations, and it took home 11 of them, including Best Musical. Its success made tickets to any show, on Broadway or those of the various traveling productions, both hard to get and expensive to buy, 

Now, though, anyone interested in seeing “Hamilton” has only to go online and spend as little as $6.99 for a subscription to Disney-plus. It won’t be the same experience as sitting through a live production, of course, but it is the next best thing. Filmed over three consecutive nights in June 2016, with the middle show performed before an empty house, the film version of “Hamilton” features the original cast of talented actors, singers and dancers, augmented with something only movies can offer: camera shots that capture intimate moments even those sitting in, yes, thousand-dollar seats, couldn’t experience.

Miranda – who wrote the music, the lyrics and the book, plus cast himself in the title role – splits his musical into two acts. The first loosely follows Hamilton after his departure from his birthplace on the Caribbean island of Nevis to his arrival in New York, through his acquaintances with the likes of Burr and the Marquis de Lafayette, his falling in love with Eliza Schuyler – later Eliza Hamilton – his serving as aide-de-camp to Gen. Washington and the Continental Army’s victory at Yorktown.

The second act involves Hamilton’s quest to get the Constitution ratified, his serving as Treasury Secretary, his conflicts with Burr and Thomas Jefferson, a couple of personal tragedies and his final confrontation – the duel with Burr.

Throughout, the music has the big pulsing rhythms of Broadway, punctuated by the rat-a-tat hip-hop lyrics delivered with such skill by Miranda and his Tony Award-winning castmates, including Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr, Reneé Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler (Eliza’s sister) and Daveed Diggs playing both Lafayette and Jefferson.

And though recently Miranda has been criticized for not focusing more on the Founding Fathers’ imperious yet impersonal attitudes toward slavery, his musical as a whole offers a more honest and enduring look at the origins of the United States than a whole shelf of standard American histories.

Because Miranda’s “Hamilton” does far more than just tell the tale of one ambitious, arrogant yet well-meaning man. His casting of mostly black and latinx actors to play the roles of such real-life figures as Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton, is a statement of irony all by itself – one that says those who have been largely ignored by history will not remain so.

Yes, Goldsberry’s Angelica sings, “Every other founding father story gets told, Every other founding father gets to grow old.” And Odom Jr.’s Burr rejoins, “But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”

Lin-Manuel Miranda says “I will.” And the story he tells extends to all of America, but especially to those whom history has so often overlooked.

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