Review: ‘Hamilton’ arrives on Disney+ at perfect moment of American reckoning

After conquering the stage in every way imaginable, “Hamilton” premieres on Disney+. (CNN)
WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Hamilton' on Disney+

“Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now. History is happening … and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.”

D.C. audiences first caught a glimpse of “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center national tour in 2018, but we now, at long last, get to witness the original cast as the hit Broadway musical arrives on Disney+ this Friday, symbolically streaming over the Fourth of July.

It couldn’t arrive at a better moment of national reckoning where the historically voiceless are demanding to be heard while proud Americans purge their souls of original sins.

Lin-Manuel Miranda invites us to follow his lead, celebrating the visionary genius of the founding fathers in shaping democracy, but casting diverse actors of color as a reminder of the inherent hypocrisy of the line “all men are created equal” written by slave owners.

Based on Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography, the musical holds up Alexander Hamilton as the underrated founding father. He fights in the American Revolution, pens the Federalist Papers to gain public support for the U.S. Constitution and serves as the first treasury secretary, before losing his life in an infamous duel with political rival Aaron Burr.

Directed by Thomas Kail, the “movie” is a filmed version of the Broadway show at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016. For the most part, the editing allows the show to breathe in its original proscenium, but we occasionally punch in for key close-ups.

This allows us to see the facial expressions, teary eyes, sweat beads and hairline microphones of the now-iconic cast, who have all gone on to do big things since.

Christopher Jackson (“Moana”) is commanding as George Washington, Anthony Ramos (“She’s Gotta Have It”) is charming as John Laurens, Jonathan Groff (“Glee”) provides hilarious comic relief as King George III, and Daveed Diggs (“Blindspotting”) steals the show as both a suave Marquis de Lafayette and a cocky, strutting Thomas Jefferson.

The leading ladies bring the pathos as Renée Elise Goldsberry (“Waves”) belts with a truly powerhouse voice as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, while Phillipa Soo (“Smash”) garners sympathy as the scorned wife Eliza. Together, they create a love triangle that may be embellished for the stage, but a B-story that adds subplot drama.

Still, this one really comes down to its two leads. Leslie Odom Jr. (“Harriet”) turns Burr into a reluctant antagonist like Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” admitting that he’s “the damn fool that shot him,” while Miranda (“Mary Poppins Returns”) charts the title character’s inspiring rise and tragic fall, plummeting into scandal and fatal hubris.

You can imagine Miranda’s creative wheels spinning upon reading this juicy life account.

“Aug. 1, 2009, [Lin] sent me a G-Chat: ‘Hey, I’m reading this biography,” Kail told WTOP, his hometown station growing up in Alexandria, Virginia. “He told me how this book really sparked for him, that he wanted to meet the writer and he had an idea to write a song.”

Miranda tested that song in a White House poetry jam, which became a viral video.

“What happened that night is what happened in real life,” Miranda told WTOP in 2016. “They laugh because it’s a crazy idea, but then they get sucked into the story.”

Before long, “Hamilton” was the hottest ticket on Broadway, selling for over $1,000.

“You don’t mess with people on their ‘Hamilton’ tickets,” Odom Jr. joked with WTOP.

Unlike the stage production, the Disney+ version offers the added benefit of being able to turn on subtitles, which I strongly recommend to fully appreciate the rapid-fire lyrics of hip-hop, jazz and show tunes written by Miranda and arranged by Alex Lacamoire.

It opens with the title number: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter.”

The song also cleverly introduces all of the other characters we’re about to see during the course of the show, a cool trick from “Citizen Kane”: “We fought with him. Me? I died for him. Me? I trusted him. Me? I loved him. And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.”

Enter the antagonist in “Aaron Burr, Sir,” showing the origin of their rivalry as Burr offers unwanted advice: “Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you are against or what you’re for.” Hamilton retorts: “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Burr replies with ominous foreshadowing: “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”

Similar foreshadowing comes in “My Shot” as Hamilton raps, “I will lay down my life if it sets us free.” The upbeat jam plays like “Rocky” or “8 Mile” with underdog inspiration: “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot. … I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal, tryin’ to reach my goal.”

Meanwhile, the ladies deliver a pair of R&B gems with the swooning “Helpless” (“Down for the count and I’m drowning in him”) and the feminist “Schuyler Sisters” (“Listen to my declaration: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ll compel him to include women in the sequel”).

Still, the funniest tune is Britain’s King George singing “You’ll Be Back” in the form of a breakup song to the American colonies: “I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love.” Sitting at home, you will scat along to his catchy “da da da da da.”

Other highlights include Washington belting “History Has its Eyes on You;” Jefferson and James Madison snapping to “The Room Where It Happens;” and Lafayette donating French ships for the ensemble battle cry “Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down.”

In what other show can you hear cabinet meetings as rap diss battles? “Thomas, that was a real nice declaration. Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation. Would you like to join us? Or stay mellow doing whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello!”

It’s here that Miranda delivers his most stinging critiques. Jefferson: “Don’t tax the South … We plant seeds in the ground, we create.” Hamilton: “Your debts are paid ’cause you don’t pay for labor. … Yeah, keep ranting. We know who’s really doing the planting.”

Likewise, Miranda sings, “We’ll never be free until we end slavery,” while Diggs quips, “Immigrants, we get the job done!” While you’re watching, pinch yourself noting all the people of color in the cast. There’s a chance you’ll get so sucked into the story that you’ll forget all about it. Young viewers might not even notice at all, which is major progress.

The diverse cast isn’t the only striking visual. Precision spotlights and a rotating stage create dynamic choreography, particularly in the climactic duel between Hamilton and Burr as time stops while the fatal bullet travels in slow motion across the stage.

You’ll fight tears in the finale “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”: “Every other Founding Father’s story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old. When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”

In this case, Miranda just told Hamilton’s story to perfection, ensuring that the “10-dollar Founding Father” will live on forever, making history come alive for a new generation.

And yet, while it swept the Tony Awards four years ago, it now takes on a whole new context in our current summer swelter of Black Lives Matter. “Ocean’s rise, empires fall,” but should our statues? Confederate monuments have got to go, but where do we draw the line? The Washington Monument? The Jefferson Memorial? Mount Rushmore?

“Hamilton” shows us the way: don’t erase from history; present with subversive context.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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