My wife Barbara and I were looking forward to the July 4 release, on the Disney Plus network, of Hamilton. The movie of the Broadway show with its original cast, including Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role, was filmed in 2016. As you probably know, it was released earlier than its scheduled October date, because of the COVID-19 situation. We even sprung for a one-month Disney Plus membership: a whole $7!
We ran into problems, though, streaming it on our not-so-smart TV. (I sometimes joke with people, “We don’t have a smart TV, but we have our TV in a good school.”) Ours has a few “smarts,” but they don’t include the capacity to add Disney Plus. So I set about learning how to Screen-Mirror, downloading several apps that promised to do that.
In the end, I wasn’t able to make them work. Then, our friend who was going to come over for dinner outdoors so we could watch together, cancelled. So Barbara and I ended up going into my office after our current “bestie” old series, Veronica Mars (I give that Hulu show from 2004 at least four stars!) and watching the first half-hour of Hamilton.
A formative live theatre experience
Way back in 1991, in New York City, I was more or less dragged to see a performance of Les Miserables on Broadway. A friend offered me a free ticket after his Dad, whom he’d intended to take, had fallen ill. I had no clear idea what the musical was about, beyond “a long time ago in France.” I sort of prided myself in being immune to liking things that were currently “all the rage.”
But as I began to see the events unfolding on the stage, and to be thrilled by the music … such incredible Universality … my blood pumped more freely and I felt more alive! Leaving the theatre, I felt truly cleansed, having laughed, empathized, sung along on choruses and wept a great deal.
The drama was so real that I thought, “Wow, I must have been incarnated back there in 1840s Paris!” I realize now that this feeling may simply have been due to the brilliance of the writers, composers, actors, producers, directors and stagecraft people.
The inevitable mental comparisons
Inevitably, I mentally compared Hamilton with my memories of Les Mis. Some of the scenes, costumes, music and staging even seemed reminiscent of that musical.
I felt Hamilton was good—well-written and acted. The dancers were excellent, and Miranda adroitly pulled off the use of the hip-hop idiom. Having people of colour portray many of the white and even slave-holding “Founding Fathers” and others was another ingenious touch.
But I didn’t feel thrilled while watching! I didn’t feel I was actually there in that other time and place.
Am I just a more jaded person now than I was in New York City, in 1991? I don’t think so. Barbara and I watched the film of Les Mis just a few years ago, and I went through all the responses I had at the live stage production, all over again.
Other personal theatre landmarks
Since childhood, my life has included theatrical landmarks that transcended the stage and influenced my general attitudes. From early on, these included many musicals. The two pre-dating Les Mis that stand out the most in my memory are South Pacific and West Side Story, but there are others.
I’ve appreciated many non-musical dramas, as well—usually on film, but sometimes at the live theatre. Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and many others have left me deeply moved.
However, I think the magical/mythic capacity of musicals to hold a “larger-than-life” place in the psyche—possibly the way Opera does for its aficionados—has been paramount in my experience of theatre. West Side Story, which is somewhat unusual as a Broadway musical that’s actually a tragedy, practically plunged my entire high school into grief for weeks after the film came out!
Such theatrical events became as compelling for me as the ancient Greek dramas were for the people of their time. I’ve read that people would go on retreat for a period of several days, to see the tragedies of Aeschylus or Sophocles, filling their minds and hearts with such powerful input about the human condition that a real transformation of their attitudes could ensue.
This change had to be reinforced with new theatrical festivals from time to time, but the events were an integral part of the culture for certain classes. Aristotle fully described this power of drama in his classic work, Poetics.
A scholar might scoff at my attempt to make any comparison between Les Mis or West Side Story and Prometheus Bound or Antigone. However, I’m suggesting that real, life-changing artistic experiences are where we actually find them.
Final thoughts on Hamilton
The long and short of it is that I just didn’t experience that level of involvement in what we saw, so far, of Hamilton. I felt like watching it was kind of like a school assignment. In my mind, I really wanted to get back to Veronica Mars.
If you, watching Hamilton, did have the kind of profound quickening that I’ve described in relation to a few other productions, then I salute your experience and am happy for you!
So far, though, that hasn’t happened for me.
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image 1: Nathan Hughes Hamilton; image 2: Wikimedia Commons; image 3: Wikimedia Commons