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Revisiting ‘Hamilton’ in 2020

‘Hamilton’ on Disney Plus is as relevant as ever

'Hamilton' creator Lin-Manuel Miranda also plays the titular role in the filmed performance.
'Hamilton' creator Lin-Manuel Miranda also plays the titular role in the filmed performance.

The “Hamilton” film was released July 3 on Disney Plus, giving fans of the smash-hit musical the ability to watch an intimate 2016 recording of an original cast performance. A new piece of media for “Hamilton” lovers — beyond the original soundtrack, of course — the film also brings the magic of the original ensemble to those who may have never gotten the chance to see it on Broadway. 

Experiencing a Broadway production in one’s living room is not the same, however, as experiencing it first-hand in the Richard Rogers theatre — it is not even the same as a front row view. By releasing this version to the public at a much lower cost than the infamously expensive live show, the creators of “Hamilton” have expanded accessibility for theatre fans in a way that allows for both a more inclusive audience and an opportunity to explore the creative possibilities of recording live theatre. The film takes advantage of this difference, turning the original musical into a more cinematic experience for viewers, rather than a static shot of the stage for the full two hours and forty minutes. Any “Hamilton” fan could relate to the excitement of hearing the iconic line “my name is Alexander Hamilton” as the actor — be it “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda or another — steps into a spotlight during the opening track. The filmed version expands on the excitement, as we see Hamilton’s face in a close-up zoom as this happens, further dramatizing an already affecting moment. 

The camera creates this heightened intimacy with the cast throughout the film — close ups, shot-reverse-shot and birds-eye-view angles among several others serve to generate a cinematic quality. The cinematography, however, is not so overdone as to distract from the way the musical was originally designed to be visually enjoyed. The format of the musical is preserved — the majority of shots do give the audience a full view of the stage — but the experience of watching is peppered with detail that may have otherwise been missed in person by the human eye. The microexpressions of the cast are brought to light, particularly with actors such as Daveed Diggs, who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, delivering perfectly timed facial humor, and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Schuyler in “It’s Quiet Uptown” allowing a single tear to roll down her cheek — a heartbreaking expression that may not have been fully perceptible to a Broadway audience. The sensational choreography and set design are also highlighted in detail, two elements of the musical that give “Hamilton” its uniquely immersive quality.

Beyond detail, props and fantastic vocal and acting performances, the release of the “Hamilton” film was a special event in and of itself. Released a year earlier than anticipated, the film came at a pivotal historical moment for Americans — on the Fourth of July weekend during an election year in which American patriotism and history have been urgently confronted and challenged. “Hamilton” itself is a reimagining of white American history to better reflect and represent modern diversity, employing a cast consisting mainly of people of color and bringing to light revolutionaries who were also dedicated to the abolitionist cause as early as the 1770s. The musical also does not shy away from exposing figures such as Thomas Jefferson for their often contradictory ideals and participation in slavery, as Hamilton notes in act two that Jefferson’s “debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor.” Though some have questioned whether the musical does enough to acknowledge the complex and often problematic legacy of the founding fathers, “Hamilton” remains a source of conversation about how to approach historical figures from a modern perspective — a particularly relevant topic to the University community as an institution founded by Jefferson himself. 

The “Hamilton” film is relevant not only in its revisiting of the past but also in its spirit of revolution — the lyrics “this is not a moment, / it’s the movement” from “My Shot” are especially relevant in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. “Hamilton” reminds us that revolutionary change is the one of the most fundamental American values — and that the greatness of Hamilton and his contemporaries was rooted in the ability to seize the energy of a politically charged moment without fear or hesitation. America was the platform on which he could achieve this greatness, a country where “even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up,” as Hamilton sings in his last moments.

Meta-references to narrative storytelling — such as lines that ponder what “future historians” may write about Eliza’s reactions, and how Aaron Burr became the “villian in [our] history books” — resonate with a country that is still learning how to honor these lofty, idealistic historical figures while simultaneously grappling with their moral shortcomings. As many of us struggled with how to celebrate the Fourth of July this year, “Hamilton” reminds us that a valid form of patriotism lies in this grappling — that it is patriotic to want to finally realize our founding principles of equality, and to want to be better than our past. Lyrics call America “a great unfinished symphony” and reminds us that “black and white soldiers wonder alike if this really means freedom” following the “Battle of Yorktown.”

When we revisit our founding fathers in such a way, we’re reminded of the historical moment we are currently living through ourselves in the era of the divisive Trump administration, Black Lives Matter, the condemnation of Confederate monuments and a global pandemic. The actors sing “history has its eyes on you” as both a meta-reference to the writing of Hamilton’s story and our fascination and wrestling with our complicated past. Not only that, it serves as a sobering yet empowering reminder that our actions will be viewed and analyzed in retrospect — history does indeed have its eyes on us as well. There comes with this a certain optimism that the historical moment is ours to presently shape.