Hamilton on Disney+, Revisionist History and Reclaiming Power

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Want front row seats to watch Hamilton? Disney+ has got you covered. The global phenomenon hit the virtual platform on 3rd July, allowing audiences to sing along with the musical in their own homes.

It is a trying time for the theatre industry in the UK. The arts are in a crisis with freelancers facing the worst outcome of indefinite unemployment and 3000+ individuals at risk of losing their jobs according to the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union. The COVID-19 pandemic is crippling theatres financially forcing many to possibly close their doors, uncertain if they will host audiences again. Hundred Fringe theatres may have to shut down if they are not supported financially by the government. Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is failing the culture industry, especially when compared to European counterparts who have pledged billions to help sustain the arts.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is testing out the Korean model of performance at the London Palladium giving some hope to productions across the UK. Sam Mendes has proposed Amazon and Netflix to invest in the theatres to save the talent pool that makes the film industry. Theatres have begun advertising donation links to save the spaces. The lockdown is further threatening diversity with BAME practitioners facing the brunt of the situation.

Hamilton’s release is profound at a time like this. It makes us question the future of theatre in terms of the stories we will watch and how we will be watching them. Choosing to film the show live rather than adapting it maintains Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vision and allows us to view it as it were with the best seat possible. Sure, we wouldn’t be able to have a bird’s eye view of the stage in real life, but director Thomas Kail is judicious when it comes to close-ups and frames the entire stage for the most part. The performances of each person make the musical what it is and Kail understands that. Each dancer and performer get their due. Just make sure to watch it on the biggest screen you find with your speakers blasting the recording.

Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks about how Alexander Hamilton’s childhood in the Caribbean allowed him to view history with a different lens bringing in ideas of immigration and historical revisionism to the musical. The debates flying around regarding casting remind me of those for ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’. Both categorically irrelevant. Being British is not just white. Being American is not just white. Why should these stories be limited to white actors? Miranda’s casting comments on American history: the nation was not made by white founding fathers, it was made by immigrants, it was made by Black people, by Latinx people and watching the cast on stage reminds us of that.

Though I am in awe of the writing, composition, and stage direction, I do believe Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) was robbed of a story arc. The musical achieves a lot in the 2 hours and 40 minutes it gets, but it compromised when it came to Eliza’s story. I do not think the last few minutes were sufficient to explore all that Eliza Schuyler achieved and would definitely watch a spin-off in any shape or form. Eliza’s character in the first half feels tropey, only existing in the realm of Alexander Hamilton. The definition the character lacks is poorly made up for in the end. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’” Eliza plunges back into the narrative when we watch her re-telling her husband’s life, building Hamilton’s legacy. We learn about her speaking out against slavery and opening an orphanage in a matter of seconds which is of course not enough. I want more!

The ensemble had spectacular performances with Jonathan Groff providing comic relief and angering me all at once as King George III to Daveed Diggs’ reimagined Thomas Jefferson who is not a hero but rather a problematic hypocrite. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics juxtapose Jefferson being a slave owner with his so-called ideas of equality, “Hey neighbour. Your debts are paid because you don’t pay for labor”. The film is a way in for us to re-tell history.

I still hope to watch Hamilton live someday but at least I won’t be envious of those who get to sit front and centre. Is it necessary to film theatre? Doesn’t it defeat the whole purpose? I don’t think so. We need more performances available to us that put BAME stories at the forefront now more than ever. Do we really want to screen Frankenstein or One Man, Two Governors? And I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’d rather watch CATS filmed live than the live-action ‘no cat noses’ stuff made of nightmares movie that cost 95 million dollars to make. We could have saved the arts by now.

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