Two Cents Joins the Revolution with HAMILTON!

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

An overnight success seven years in the making, Hamilton: An American Musical shook the Broadway world when it debuted in 2015. A musical comprised of largely hip-hop numbers (though numerous other musical forms represented) with virtually no dialogue, about one of the more obscure Founding Fathers was in no way predetermined to be successful.

And yet, Hamilton became a smash sensation, crossing over from just being the toast of New York City and into a full-fledged mainstream hit. The cast album went platinum (six times over) and the ensemble quickly began appearing in numerous other shows and movies.

Much of this success can be attributed to composer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, who first debuted the earliest version of Hamilton at a White House event celebrating the arts, held by the Obamas. Early audiences laughed at the very concept of a rap opera about the Revolutionary War and the later exploits of Alexander Hamilton, a historical figure at the time largely only remembered, if at all, for being killed in a duel by Aaron Burr.

No one’s laughing at Hamilton these days. At the apex of the show’s original run on Broadway, the show’s director Thomas Kail filmed a live performance with the intention of releasing it…at some point.

Miranda and Kail sat on that footage for years before striking a deal with Disney to distribute the ‘film’ theatrically in 2021. But with Covid-19 shutting down all of Broadway and most of Disney’s other cinematic exploits, the decision was made to release the film almost a year early, direct to Disney+.

The release of Hamilton for the public has been another major moment in the life of the show, stirring up not only fresh adulation for Miranda and the entire ensemble and creative team, but also new rounds of controversy and debate as audiences wrestle with the show, the history it portrays, and the show’s portrayal of that history.

But is Hamilton just another Broadway sensation doomed to irrelevance and mockery when it crossed into the harsh light of the larger culture, as so many have before, or is this a show built to be watched and beloved for years to come?

Let’s see what Two Cents has to say.

Next Week’s Pick

Based pretty much solely on the strength of the tweet above, The Lost Bullet, available on Netflix, is our next pick!

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests

Chris Chipman:

A preempt: Aside from knowing the basic idea behind the story and musical style, I knew practically nothing about what to expect from Hamilton prior to this viewing. I have since watched it TWICE.

Lin Manuel Miranda is the John Williams of Broadway. With Moana and now Hamilton, I found myself completely manipulated by the songs, both lyrically and in how they were performed. Miranda understands emotion in a way that Williams does. Williams has his orchestra, Miranda has his performers.

I openly wept at least 3 times during Hamilton. I expected it to be funny, I expected it to be topical and tongue in cheek using current music and winks to current events to make the material more approachable. I didn’t expect it to cut so deep on a personal, emotional level for me.

At first order, it’s the Father and Son stuff that really got to me. I am admittedly an easy target for this. At second order it was the way it seemed to mirror my own journey with politics. Up until recently (I’d say 2016 was the tipping point), I had carried myself much like Aaron Burr (Sir — sorry). I was a people pleaser, a keeper of the peace. Often I wouldn’t engage and wouldn’t speak my mind. Since 2016 I have found my voice and have learned to speak up and advocate more. I now see more of Hamilton in myself and less of Burr. If the recent protests in our nation / around the world are any indicator, many more people have found their voices as well… Talk MORE! ALWAYS let them know what you’re against and what you’re for!(@TheChippa)

Trey Lawson:

Hamilton is that rare show that managed to transcend the niche of Broadway musicals and become a genuine pop culture phenomenon. It is also one of the most interesting and important works of the last decade. By casting people of color as the founders of the nation, and by filling the score with hip hop, R&B, etc, Lin-Manuel Miranda invites us to revise our understanding of these people, their relationships, and their motivations. It’s not pure historical fact, but rather a mediation of history through the lens of contemporary American diversity, and it’s every bit as radical as it is entertaining. Much ink has already been spilled about the cast, but suffice it to say that they are fantastic, with Daveed Diggs, Chris Jackson, and Phillipa Soo in particular giving standout performances.

But is it a movie? ABSOLUTELY. Yes, it is a filming of a live performance (sort of). But so are concert films and stand-up comedy films. Plus it’s worth noting that the cinematography by Declan Quinn and the editing by Jonah Moran are far more interesting than the typical filmed stage production. Hamilton was pieced together from three different performances (including pick-ups for close ups and other more difficult shots), and the choices made in cuts, compositions, and framing add to our understanding of the narrative and the characters. Is the experience the same as seeing a live staging of the show? Of course not — because it’s a movie! It’s not a question of the experience being better or worse, merely that the medium is different. The movie brought to my attention things I missed when I saw this cast live, yet a recording can’t really capture the energy of the packed house when you’re in the room where it happens. That said, it is genuinely thrilling that so many more people now have the ability to see a version of Hamilton. For representation, for democratization of the arts, and yes even for entertainment, Hamilton: An American Musical is an essential must-watch. (@T_Lawson)

Austin Wilden:

In its initial burst of Hamilton’s popularity in 2015–2016, I was at a transitionary stage in my life. My last year at college and the last year I’d work my first job. Under those circumstances, lyrics like “For the first time I’m thinking past tomorrow” and “I am the one thing in life I can control” hit especially hard, but there was more to what it meant in that moment in my life. As a fan of musicals in general for as long as I can remember, Hamilton was the first time the hype around one was a communal experience. At college and my job, I had friends who I’d never gauged as musical theater fans getting excited over this show and singing along to the cast recording at parties. It was only fitting that this period in my life came to an end, I got to see a Chicago production as a graduation gift.

Plenty of musicals have come along since that I’ve loved on the same level personally, Hadestown is a major one in that regard, none of them came with the level of mainstream acceptance that could create that sense of community around them. Getting to see people online discover the show all over again, or even for the first time, brought some of that sensation back to me. Watching Hamilton again, rediscovering the ways the choreographer adds to the storytelling of the music and getting to see the original Broadway cast in action, all those memories came flooding back into my mind. The fact it’s managed to recreate a sense of a communal cultural moment while many of us are still stuck indoors is a feat that goes beyond what I’d expect any piece of media to do, let alone a stage musical.

Even as this new wave of attention has brought about the expected popularity backlash and more thoughtful criticism about how the play mythologizes American History*, I can’t help but love how this play has continued to break through into the mainstream the way few musicals do.

*(Though, if you’re in the business of finding a musical that dives headfirst into the messier and unpleasant aspects of early-American politics through satire, there’s always Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. A musical even more bizarre than that title suggest that actually predates Hamilton.) (@WC_Wit)

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

It’s more than a little surreal having nostalgia for a thing that A) isn’t especially old and B) I’d never fully experienced until this year — but like Burr says, Hamilton changes the game.

My official introduction to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pop art musical masterpiece didn’t come until it was already in the midst of its cultural saturation during the run-up to the 2016 election (around the time this recording was made, appropriately enough), so my associations of this particular piece of art with The Before Times is…strong. While many smart folks have written extensively on the (fair enough) point that the play is myth-making with some Problematic subjects, finally watching it — apart from finally getting to experience the insane performance marathon the actors are running alongside the dynamite set and choreography work — felt (even on a super-capitalist streaming service run by one of the biggest corporations in history) a little like reclamation.

Not just because more people getting to finally see this is good for the wider availability of the art-form, and not just because the simple act of creation in this case is literally rewriting history to put undervalued groups of people “back into the narrative” (but that’s A Big Deal), but simply due to the easy the story goes all-in on showing the cracks in the myths of the Founding Fathers even as it celebrates their passion. Because showing America as messy, racist, and foolhardy from jump street is every bit as important as telling about those who want it to live up to its own self image.

Because Hamilton is, at its core, about hope, and these days? Hope is an act of rebellion. And really I needed that just then. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Justin Harlan:

I wasn’t going to sound off on Hamilton, but I decided that I’m not throwing away my shot.

Seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda will always make me think of his appearance on How I Met Your Mother as a rapping bus rider who raps a rhyme with a seemingly unrhymable word to help Marshall keep his baby son calm. Of course, he’s gone on to do huge things, but that’s always where my mind goes first. Nonetheless, he’s kinda outdone that little cameo role with this epic Broadway show, so I may need to start thinking of him as Hamilton first… but we’ll see.

The entire cast here is stellar. Miranda is joined by a personal favorite actor of mine, Daveed Diggs, and a cavalcade of talent. While I can’t say the rest of the cast was entirely known to me, they left quite an impression. Of course, the writing and songs here do much of the heavy lifting, as well.

The music, in particular, is something that sets this apart. As a writer and actor, Miranda shines. As a composer, however, he’s on a completely different level. The vibe often reminds me of recording artists Black Violin, who weave hip hop and classical together with ease and style. Similarly, the music of Hamilton blends Broadway show tunes, classical instrumentation, and hip hop in a way that feels seamless. The music was so inspiring to the pop and hip hop world that a mixtape of covers and tunes inspired by the musical not only exists, but straight up rocks.

Glad I finally caught this. It tugged at my emotions, got me dancing, and left one hell of an impression. It surely won’t be the last time I check this one out. (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

Everyone’s already written so beautifully (and so extensively, Jesus) about this one that I don’t feel the need to belabor the point. Just as an album, Hamilton was a brilliant symphony of story and sound, a hugely moving experience that I’ve gone back to over and over again.

Seeing the actual show only adds more layers and notes to that symphony, as the extraordinary performances milk the songs for every bit of emotion they contain, while the eye-popping set design and choreography makes the experience all the more captivating. I’ve already watched the whole show twice and individual pieces and songs repeatedly.

I expect to come back to this film with the same frequency I do the album, delighting in every tongue-busting turn of phrase and every ecstatic moment of performance.(@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I generally don’t much care for musicals, but it’s clear why Hamilton, so seemingly effortlessly, has risen to its place in our popular culture. Who could have that the most vital and vibrant exploration of the American Independence movement in recent memory would have come in the form of a musical, from the perspective of Alexander Hamilton, or with a cast of people of color?

The runtime is rather long (though if you were paying $300 for a Broadway ticket, I imagine you’d want it to last) and there’s some relative downtime with some of the lesser numbers, but overall, Hamilton greatly impresses as a complete experience, reminding us of the passion and fury of the founding fathers, not as stiff politicians in stupid powdered wigs, but revolutionaries, firebrands, outsiders. Men with histories, families, and perspectives — often in conflict with each other, but in service to the fragile peace of a newly birthed nation.

And the rap battles are dope af.

Next week’s pick (yeah don’t ask why the preview is Cpt Underpants):

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