Theatre is the oldest form of entertainment, delighting the aristocracy down to the proletariat. In Shakespeare’s day, the poorest citizens sat in the pit, which was the floor in front of the stage. Now, the seat closest to the stage is reserved for those who can afford the higher ticket price. Or if it is the Broadway hit Hamilton, any seat at the Richard Rodgers Theatre seems to only be for the bourgeoisie. Since its Broadway debut at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6, 2015, Hamilton has been a worldwide phenomenon. Audiences connected with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s innovative musical vernacular and non-traditional casting.
I have been a fan of Miranda’s work since his first Broadway hit In The Heights. I entered my name every day for the Hamilton lottery. I tried to snag tickets whenever a new block of tickets opened up. I would never get to enjoy the show, especially the original cast. It thrilled me when I learned that a filmed performance would come to the theatre’s in 2021 and planned my cosplay for the event. Then Tinkerbell sprinkled some pixie dust on this dreary pandemic, and they announced the 2016 filmed performance would come to Disney Plus.
The live performance gives us a taste of how the actors bring these characters to life that we hear on the cast album. Before the show even starts, King George (Jonathan Groff) gives the pre-show announcements. Groff is absolute perfection as King George and steals the entire show in his 9 minutes of stage time. His walk on stage is because of a combination of trying to walk while balancing his crown and costume. Despite the difficulty of getting on stage, the result is hilarious. He has a commanding presence, summoning the chorus and changing the lighting to blue to match his mood. Or a laugh when he refers to our country in air quotes.
One downside to working with Mr. Mouse is that the lyrics needed to be amended to keep a PG-13 rating. Miranda gave two “fucks” to bring us, Hamilton. Thomas Kail made a lot of brilliant choices transferring the staging to film. They shot two performances in front of the audience, and it filmed one performance in an empty theatre. This gave Kail two variations of each song to choose the best “takes” and one specifically to get closeups and dolly shots. Three different performances to piece together can cause some continuity errors. During “Satisfied,” Angelica’s (Renee Elise Goldsberry) dress will either gain or lose the flowers depending on the angle and which footage they switch between.
I’m happy they filmed it this way rather than only shooting in an empty theatre. The audience is an active member of the cast. Actors feed off the energy of not only each other but the audience like how in sports there is home-field advantage, the fans hype up the players. Hearing the audience react to the same details of the show as we do at home adds to the experience that we are all “one” audience watching this monumental moment. They sing the songs slightly different; at the moment, the actors are making their acting choices and interpretations that aren’t captured in the cast album. During “My Shot,” Lin-Manuel Miranda acts out the burning sensation from swallowing the liquor.
The set design is something else you don’t get to enjoy on the cast album. There are nautical elements like ropes and pullies, in addition to the pre- and post-revolutionary area design of wooden scaffolding and brick walls. During intermission, the brick wall has eight feet added to the height. This represents the sea where slaves were carted to the united states and the ongoing work being done to the country, respectfully. The cast seamlessly moves around the set that it isn’t until you watch it a few times you notice the subtle details in the set.
At first glance, the choreography doesn’t seem to be much to write home about. After watching the film around the fourth time, I understood why Andy Blankenbuehler won the Tony for choreography. DeBose is part of the company, but she also plays the role of the bullet. When there are moments of gunfire, she pinches her fingers where the bullet is. This is the most obvious at the end when she pinches the bullet coming out of Aaron Burr’s (Leslie Odom Jr) gun. We can also find her near the character about to die.
The turntable on the stage is most apparently used to visually show the audience that Aaron Burr and Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) spiral and circle each other their entire adult lives. The turntable also emphasizes the way the characters move is connected to their personalities. Burr walks in straight lines, not being able to see any alternative movement. In contrast, Hamilton walks in an arc, seeing multiple possibilities for action. When the turntable is turning counter-clockwise, this is time passing, and the events are happening in a forward motion. In the opposite direction, it is resistant to the inescapable.
During the song, “Helpless” Angelica and Eliza (Phillipa Soo) are in Hamilton’s line of sight. By the end of the song, his eyes are in line with Eliza’s. During the song, the turntable is moving in the counter-clockwise direction. When the events of the song “Helpless” are rewound in “Satisfied,” Hamilton’s position changes to he is looking at Angelica instead of Eliza. The reverse motion of the turntable is apparent during this song. In this song, the turntable is used to show we are going backward in time but also going inside Angelica’s mind. The camera angles, cutting to unique perspectives, and choreography around her shows the conflicting emotions going on in her mind.
Another compelling use of the turntable is how they can use it to slow time down. When Philip dies, he falls backward, and then turntable is used to emphasize his death. The turntable is used interestingly when Hamilton talks about the hurricane that destroyed his town in the Caribbean. The company holds up chairs and doesn’t move to simulate that Hamilton is in the storm’s eye.
Tony award-winner Paul Tazewell was the costume designer. I have a deeper appreciation for the costume choices of the women in Hamilton’s life after watching the film. Angelica wears peach, which is a color associated with caring and friendship. Maria Reynolds wears red, which is a color associated with seduction and passion. Finally, Eliza wears blue, which is a color associated with stability and loyalty. The color choices for each woman is deeply related to their personality and what they were to Hamilton.
Hamilton has a lot more to unpack, we haven’t even gotten to the music yet. Come back when I conclude my Hamilton digest in part two.