Notes on Hamilton: An American Musical #HamilFilm

What does it mean to watch Hamilton in a country with an immensely challenged sense of democracy? This is the question I was left asking after watching the world streaming premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s cultural juggernaut last 3rd July. It was over two hours of singing about freedom, legacy, and independence. And while watching a musical show is the last thing one must concern himself with during these trying times, art has an established ability to address crucial issues in society. Hamilton raps its point across by encouraging people not to throw away their shot.

General Commentary

The Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical based on the biography by Ron Chernow relates the rise to power [and the decline] of one of the Founding Fathers of America. Alexander Hamilton (Lin Manuel-Miranda) was George Washington’s (Christopher Jackson) immigrant right-hand man who is hugely regarded as the architect of America’s banking and economic system. The conception and progress of the revolution against England were presented in the early parts of Act I. It also featured significant events in the life of Hamilton including his first encounter with Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who later became his accidental assassin, and his marriage with Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo).

Photo courtesy of Disney+ official Twitter account

The cause Hamilton and his comrades were trying to advance was more inspired when they knew who their enemy was. In Act II, things took a strange turn after America won its war against England, with everyone including King George left wondering “what comes next?”. Heated cabinet debates and infighting ensued, which proves “it’s much harder when it’s all your call”. The freedom that America had worked so hard for brought greater challenges, but it also granted Hamilton an opportunity to rise up and demonstrate his unstoppable zeal to do more. Hamilton, along with James Madison and John Jay, authored a series of articles to advocate the ratification of the United States Constitution. Out of the 85 essays included in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton wrote 51 in the span of six months: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Being the only immigrant among the Founding Fathers did not stop Hamilton from becoming the legend that he is today. Although one can argue that he owes his current worldwide renown to Miranda’s masterpiece, there is no lie in saying Hamilton left a huge legacy for his country. The Reynolds Pamphlet tells us that the ten-dollar man was not a blameless saint. His extramarital affair is a detail of the narrative I find interesting. Exposing the less appealing traits of Hamilton added texture and layer to his personality, allowing people to get to know him as a human being and not just as another name in history books. He was humanised in the show, and it helped us forgive him and even feel sorry for his death. The audience was invited to extend the same grace that Eliza offered to her husband, knowing he is both a hero and victim of his story like everybody else. What Hamilton went through was more than a basic character development; it was an exhibit of the malleability of the human soul. Hamilton’s humanness took many forms all throughout the show but his core remained untouched.

In an unfortunate happenstance, the Anti-Terrorism Bill was signed into law in the Philippines on the same day Hamilton premiered on Disney+. This comes after a series of oppressive acts against civil rights and press freedom in the country. What makes the situation even more problematic is the lack of concrete plans for mass testing to combat the ever-growing cases of COVID-19. People had lost its confidence in the administration and there is no denying that the said law is highly susceptible to abuse. As a ‘Hamilfan’, I think people can learn a thing or two from the story of Hamilton on how they can confront implicit threats against liberty.

Photo courtesy of Disney+ official Twitter account

 

In the musical number Wait for It, Burr speaks of his desire to make sense of his life’s purpose. He knew there is an important reason why he is still alive while many of his loved ones have already died. The line ‘death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints’ accurately describes the nature of the pandemic that the whole world is now trying to defeat. Hundreds of thousands of people, regardless of their wealth or social status, have already died of the coronavirus. Survivor’s guilt is becoming a more and more common condition among those who recovered from COVID-19. The same feeling of anxiety is being felt by those who may not have contracted the virus, but suffer from a sense of insignificance because they feel they are not doing enough. I am not a mental health expert, but I am in the firm belief that all of these feelings of helplessness are valid. Everyone deserves to receive the support they need during this crazy age we all live in. What I learned from Burr, however, is the attitude of eagerness to know one’s purpose. I am still here and there must be a sublime reason why. This message encourages me to engage more with the discourses concerning the plight of my people, and exercise extra vigilance to protect my country’s spirit of democracy.

‘Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away’—Hamilton acknowledges the importance of people’s voice. At the same time, the show suggests just how difficult it is to keep freedom. Liberty can be a tricky business to manage but we must always choose it for the future generation. Every small thing we decide to do for the benefit of the abused will add up and eventually create a massive change. And it does not matter if we manage to see the fruit of our fight in this lifetime or not, for legacy is about ‘planting seeds in a garden you never get to see’.

The Brilliant OBC

Hamilton on Disney+ presents the original Broadway cast which means viewers are truly in for some musical treat. The casting promotes diversity and equal opportunity for artists of various ethnicities. I cannot blame young people if the image of Hamilton that will be buried in their head as they grow up is a long-haired Puerto Rican from Manhattan. The Broadway show honoured some of the greatest talents in the performing arts, including (of course) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony Awards Best Actor in a Musical), Philipa Soo (Tony Awards Best Actress in a Musical Nominee), Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson (Tony Awards Best Featured Actors in a Musical), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Tony Awards Best Featured Actress in a Musical).

Although his spit-showering performances made me gag, Groff is my favourite performer in the company. His interpretation of King George is honest in terms of the allegorical representation of how Americans viewed England at that time: spoiled, overbearing, and messy. Groff created a perfect caricature of a colonial leader whom people hate for the best reasons. King George receives the least amount of exposure in the show, despite being one of the main characters, but Groff managed to make each of his appearance worthy of thunderous applause.

Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler is another genius of the production. Her musical number Satisfied is the best-choreographed segment of the whole show, and it reminds me of the flashback scene of Miss Saigon. Even before seeing the film, Satisfied is already in heavy rotation on my Spotify account. The song is itself a whole different story, taking place inside Angelica’s head. By simply singing it or reading the lyrics, one can immediately gain an idea of how emotionally demanding the character of Angelica is, and Goldsberry deserves every bit of her Tony Award for giving justice to the role.

I am also impressed by the talents of the actors who had to play (and originate) two different roles in the course of the show. Diggs is an absolute favourite of the crowd for playing both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Like Groff, he adds life to the stage every time he enters, with everyone waiting to witness his excellent rapping prowess.

Photo courtesy of Disney+ official Twitter account

Meanwhile, the adorable Anthony Ramos made a great transition from the playful John Laurens to the naïve Philip Hamilton. Both of these characters died and Ramos made me cry for each. His real-life girlfriend Jasmine Cephas Jones also originated two roles in the show: Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. I knew Jones was a great actress because I honestly did not notice her change of role, I was left wondering “What happened to Peggy?” since she went complete MIA pretty much after the first act. Her portrayal as the home wrecker of the Hamiltons is powerful and sensual.

I did not know Hamilton is a sung-through musical until I watched it; no wonder why it is often considered as the Les Misérables of the modern age. I will save everything else I have to say about the show for when I can finally see it live here in Manila. I, therefore, appeal to all the local impresarios to make #HamiltonManila happen so that more Filipinos can get the chance to be inside the room where it happens. And I’m willing to wait for it.

 

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