Two years ago, the Connecticut Critics Circle created a Mentor Program so that undergraduate college students could train to become theater critics. One of the 2020-2021 mentees is Sydney Reynolds of Quinnipiac University.
She is a Media Studies major, Film minor, and will be pursuing her Master’s in Journalism next year. She is currently part of the Communications Honors Society with a 3.93 GPA. At just six years old, Sydney was already becoming involved in community theater as an actress and would continue this passion throughout her whole life. She is now heavily involved in Quinnipiac University’s television station, Q30, and is an actress and a writer in their live comedy show “Quinnipiac Tonight!”. She is very excited to be involved with this community of critics and will do all she can to learn from their combined years of experience.
In a pandemic world, where in-person attendance is on hold, our Mentor participants will be focusing on live stream and taped shows. The following is Sydney’s review of the Disney channel’s presentation of the mega-hit, Hamilton.
The lights dim. The audience quiets. The phones are silenced. And the show begins…except, there are a few differences. My family and I are not enjoying the show from padded red seats that cost $200 each, nor are we enjoying refreshments that took twenty minutes to purchase due to a long line. We are sitting on our couch, viewing the show through a membership that costs $7 a month, and are enjoying refreshments that were found from our cabinets and refrigerator.
Is this the future of live performance art? Is COVID-19 the catalyst for this new age of digital performance? If so, it’s an exciting time to be able to see it form and take shape.
As all theatre-lovers do, I have had previous experience viewing “Hamilton”. I had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway in 2017, albeit without the original cast. I was already familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton and the other founding fathers as they founded our nation as well as the untimely death of Hamilton in a duel against Burr. I had memorized every word, aware that this show did not conform to the usual genre of what many believe defines “Broadway music”. I knew that it was a new sound, a mix of rap, hip hop, and more. I knew it had set the world aflame. But this would be my first time viewing a professionally-shot version of a Broadway show. If this is to be our new normal, it is important to review what is more or less impactful when a show has transitioned to a screen rather than being viewed live.
Subtitles are one of the biggest additions to “Hamilton” that can only be viewed on-screen. While Broadway stars are trained to enunciate, it can be difficult to understand even the best if they are instructed to rap quickly — especially during the song “Guns and Ships”, when at the fastest parts, the character of Thomas Jefferson is singing 6.3 words a second. When viewed live, it may be difficult to catch all of the lyrics auditorily. However, if viewed with subtitles, the wordplay can be read on screen, making it easily digestible and better appreciated.
The ability to edit pro-shots also works wonders for “Hamilton”. When taking your seat in a theater, you are only viewing the performance from one angle. Choosing between the orchestra or mezzanine can make a huge difference. And, of course, the best seats are reserved for those who are willing to pay the highest price. However, when an entire film crew is set up to capture every part of a show’s beauty, the most impactful bits and pieces are chosen. Most notable is the end of “The Room Where it Happens”, when Aaron Burr ends in a pose illuminated by the spotlight. It was an unforgettable shot that I conversely forgot when I saw “Hamilton” live. The battle scenes of “Yorktown” are also assisted by fast-paced editing as the cannons sounded; the song felt more chaotic, and this feeling enhanced the scene.
Cameras can also come in handy to provide a closer look at the actors’ faces. If an audience member is seated in the back of the theater, it can be difficult to take in the intricacies and small details an actor adds to his or her performance. But with close-ups, these can all be absorbed. Specifically, I was able to notice the role of “The Bullet” even more. Played by Ariana DeBose, “The Bullet” is a wordless part that signifies what will strike Alexander Hamilton one day in his fateful duel. As many viewers have already noticed, she was last to greet Philip Hamilton and John Laurens before they met their death. She acts as a soldier who is murdered by King George. She even once makes a grazing motion over Hamilton’s head…she’s just missed him, but always lingering in the shadows. Because she is viewed more closely, she is much more noticeable. Death can truly become a character.
There is one downfall to this editing, and it is that everything is not constantly shown. When viewing a Broadway show in person, an individual can see the entire stage (of course, unless that individual has paid a cheaper price in exchange for an obstructed view). “Hamilton” has a large ensemble which heavily contributes to its choreography. As I viewed “Hamilton” on my television, I wondered if I was missing any special moments from the ensemble that the camera did not catch. An ensemble truly adds to the environment of a show, and it felt as if that special element had been dulled.
In terms of the cast performances, Lin Manuel Miranda is the star of the show. Yet somehow, in every scene, he was overshadowed by his counterparts. Miranda is not a strong singer, nor does he show off much splendor through choreography. However, when reflecting that the piece of art the viewer is watching was mainly written by him, this weakness can be pushed to the side. Still, I found myself wondering particularly during the song “Hurricane” how much better it would sound with a different voice singing it. Yet, Miranda still shows how much he cares about his art through his acting. Perhaps it is his lesser-quality voice that makes him seem more human. The pain he expresses after Hamilton loses his son, Philip, feels that much more real as his voice cracks, and notes are exchanged with spoken sobs. Overall, his performance was not a showstopper, but his genius can easily be admired.
And there is Hamilton’s counterpart who Lin Manuel Miranda argues is the main character of the show — Aaron Burr. Leslie Odom Jr. is tasked with having to showcase Burr’s gradual hatred towards Hamilton, enough to lead them to a duel. His frustration is highlighted in “The Room Where it Happens” as Burr slowly realizes how much power the government has over its people. He wants to be in charge, but Hamilton keeps getting in the way. Hatred soon morphs into sorrow at the end, and though he is a murderer, the audience cannot help but feel despair for him. He even breaks the fourth wall, addressing that he is “the villain in your history”.
The small spotlight character of King George, played by Jonathan Groff, would normally be brushed off as comic relief. And while this is true, Groff’s talent is so astounding that this trope is not the highlight of the character. The intense close-ups of Groff spitting, unblinking, shows he is dedicated to the part who many would brush off, and even foreshadows the eventual madness of the king. His seven minutes on the stage were so impactful that it even earned him a Tony Award nomination.
For the leading ladies, they each give stunning performances. One actress, Jasmine Cephas Jones, is double cast, playing both the role of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. In Act I as Peggy Schuyler, she does not showcase her raw vocals and mostly assists in harmonies. She acts like a teenager, and is a small addition to “The Schuyler Sisters”. However, she plays nearly her opposite in Act II as Maria Reynolds, a woman with whom Hamilton shares an affair. As stated before, the camera’s close-ups aid her performance. Her desperation is more evident as she begs Hamilton for help. And there are a few “money notes” in “Hamilton”, a phrase coined for a note which a singer is known. Jasmine Cephas Jones’ money note is in “Say No To This”, as she hits a D#5 with ease and soul.
The second sister is played by Renée Elise Goldsberry whose acting can also be more appreciated by close-ups. While it is easy to understand through lyrics that she was attracted to Hamilton, her stolen glances and body language is far more noticeable when it can be viewed more closely. Their looks at one another when drawing close shows there is clear, unexplored chemistry. It makes her story even more tragic when she tells him later on in the show that she will be entering a loveless marriage.
The close-ups also come to the assistance of Phillipa Soo, a powerhouse of a singer. She sings every note much like the professional recording, but her acting radiates through this show. Her shining moment is when she closes out the musical by emitting a single gasp. There are many fan theories to this, but no matter what, her realization that there is an audience viewing Hamilton’s legacy — a legacy she fought so hard to protect — sends shivers down the spine. It is a glorious, subtle breaking of the fourth wall. Her added scream as her son Philip died is also not found on the professional soundtrack, an unexpected dagger in the heart when included in the pro-shot.
And finally, there are the supporting male roles, many of whom are double cast. Chris Jackson takes on the monster role of George Washington, a name recognized by all. Much like Washington commanded the country, Jackson flawlessly commands the stage with his booming speaking voice and singing voice of butter. There is not one note with which he struggles, and his reading of Washington’s farewell address is enough to bring any history teacher to tears. Since departing from Hamilton, it is only fitting that he has covered the “Star-Spangled Banner” at many sporting events. Next, Anthony Ramos is gifted with a bonus track when he plays the role of John Laurens called the “Laurens Interlude”. This interlude was never released publicly on any streaming platform or included in the cast album, meaning it could only be heard when viewing the entirety of the show. But Ramos shines brightest in “Take a Break” when he must play the role of a 7-year-old Philip Hamilton. He tackles the challenge of an adult playing a child, using humor to convince any viewers that might be hard-pressed and prefer a younger actor. Okieriete Onaodowan, who plays both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, is given great moments in the show. A favorite is when his tough character Mulligan is assigned the role of the flower girl in Hamilton’s wedding. It is a quick moment filled with humor that will stick in the audience’s mind. Lastly, Daveed Diggs has become a fan favorite over the years as he plays both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. His sass as Jefferson is evident in the professional recording, but this attitude in his acting adds more to the character. Despite being seen as Hamilton’s rival and perceived as an enemy to the audience, Jefferson’s charm can easily win over the crowd thanks to Diggs.
Overall, viewing “Hamilton” on one’s streaming service has both its good and bad moments. But its mere existence is a supposed catalyst into the future of professionally-shot Broadway shows. Already, following the success of “Hamilton” online, Disney+ has now announced that “Aladdin” on Broadway’s professional shot will be released. This will only add fuel to the fire of the on-going debate: If Broadway shows are readily available to all, will anyone buy tickets to see them in person? Will it kill the industry? But most importantly, it addresses this question: Is Broadway reserved for the wealthy? There are fans all over the world who cannot cover the costs of airfare and travel. Many fans may also live in the heart of the city and cannot afford hundreds of dollars to enjoy the experience of a Broadway show. Soundtracks may be available to everyone, but actual viewership is not. However, if we are to truly transition theatre into the digital world, Disney+ has now added accessibility to a world that has seemed confined to only the privileged. All Disney+ owners will now be paying the same price of $7/month for the same view. There is no orchestra or mezzanine available; just a digital screen. The rich do not have more ease securing a better spot, nor the ability to even view the show in the first place. “Hamilton” can now be a shared experience to see its artistry and talent can now be viewed for a much cheaper price. It is brave for Disney to take that gamble, especially when many believe pro-shots will just dissuade viewers from investing in a ticket.