I remember, while watching Disney's 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns, being underwhelmed by the performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shuffled about apologetically playing an anaemic descendent of Dick Van Dyke's ebullient 'cockney' chimney sweep, Bert.
Little did I know that Miranda was the lion of Broadway, America's musical theatre wunderkind, having conceived, written and starred in the massively successful historical show Hamilton, which won 11 Tonys and broke box office records during its original run.
This movie, directed by Thomas Kail, was filmed during a live production at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City in June, 2016. It was originally supposed to form part of a documentary, but when Miranda and Kail decided to turn it into a movie instead, a bidding war ensued, which the deep pockets of Disney won. If watching it proves anything, it's that Miranda was miscast in Mary Poppins Returns, because all his formidable creative talents are on display here.
He plays Alexander Hamilton, soldier, scholar, statesman, economist, influential founding father and the man often given credit for designing America's uniquely aggressive brand of laissez-faire capitalism. During a brief but busy life, he helped establish the primacy of the US Constitution, reorganised the army, founded a political party (the short-lived Federalists), set up a national bank and mint, fostered friendly relations with Britain, opposed slavery and all the makings of a president.
It sounds like the stuff of an adventure novel, and one can see what attracted Miranda to this comparatively neglected tale. What makes his musical interesting, though, is his decision to tell it through the prism of modern America: the use of hip-hop, R&B, street dances and a mixed race cast forces the past to speak to the present in a compelling, if not always entirely convincing, way.
Through song and dance, Miranda makes the point that Alexander Hamilton was a classic American rags-to-riches story. Born on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis to a Scottish father and a half-French mother, Alexander was, in the parlance of his time, a bastard, with few prospects and a sketchy education when he first arrived in America in his late teens. He's bright, pushy, ambitious: "In New York," he sings during the musical's opening number, "you can be a new man."
Indeed you can, and things look up for the illegitimate wanderer when he arrives in Manhattan and enters the orbit of Aaron Burr, a go-ahead lawyer who's become a big cheese in the revolutionary movement. Young Hamilton has a flair for oratory and enchants a gathering of radicals with a stirring state-of-the-nation speech: "Meanwhile," he warbles, "Britain keeps shitting on us endlessly."
Fighting words, and Hamilton's rise through the revolutionary ranks is rapid. Before long, he's been appointed George Washington's aide-de-camp, but Burr (Leslie Odom Jr) is not thrilled about this development, and will become a powerful enemy. "Hamilton's skill with a quill is undeniable," Burr bitterly raps, before suggesting that his impetuousness may be his undoing.
Hamilton, meanwhile, concludes his good fortune by marrying into money. "We'll get a little place in Harlem and we'll figure it out," he winningly tells his bride Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), but her role will be that of a faithful and long-suffering spouse, secondary always to Hamilton's ambition and his wandering eye.
As the Revolutionary War nears its climax, Hamilton's importance will grow, and Miranda's commendably ambitious production does its level best to keep up with the history. This necessitates rambling songs packed end to end with dense and rapidly delivered lyrics: this can become tiresome on the ear, and makes the songs blend into a blandly forgettable whole. But overall, the musical is very watchable in a surface-skimming sort of way, and the performances are terrific, particularly Odom Jr's portrayal of the watchful, jealous Burr.
Using actors of colour to play Burr, Washington and Jefferson is an interesting move, but as all were slave owners, it's a bit mind-bending. And watching Hamilton's frequent soliloquies is a bit like enduring a Revolutionary War re-enactment starring Eminem.
I'm sure the effect of all this would be greatly magnified if you were watching it in a theatre, but in a film, it's all a bit busy, and there's nothing remotely cinematic about the endeavour. Hamilton is undeniably dynamic, but a little vacuous, which, as a summary of the American experiment, sounds just about right.
Rating: Three stars