“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
That lyric from “Hamilton,” which begins streaming Friday morning on Disney+, is a sign the five-year-old hip-hop musical is one of those works of art that will endure, meaning different things at different times.
Sung by multiple characters in at least two of the numbers, those words speak joyfully to living in the 18th-century moment when Americans — white ones, anyway — were getting a taste of freedom. (The show’s colorblind casting, with actors of color playing white historical figures, reminds us that many Founding Fathers owned black and brown people who were not free.)
Listening to that “lucky to be alive” lyric now, it’s possible to hear it as being about surviving a pandemic or surveying the civil unrest that has rocked the world, much as unrest rocked it during the American Revolution depicted in creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on how Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson and others built this country.
You might also think about how statues of historical figures are being toppled, something that wasn’t happening when the musical debuted but that feels of a piece with its casting and its critical look at our leaders. All of this seems to demonstrate that we have been taught a version of our history that is not true.
Smart and revisionist though it may be, “Hamilton” is mostly an engaging entertainment. Seeing it at home is not the same as in a theater but the Disney+ presentation nicely approximates the live experience. Filmed at 2016 performances, with the original cast and a loud audience, it’s much like a play shown on PBS’ “Great Performances” or projected in movie theaters as part of “National Theatre Live.” (Creators call this a “movie,” probably because they’re positioning it for Oscars, but it’s not a movie in the sense that the musicals “Chicago” or “West Side Story” are.)
Beginning with a view from the center of the balcony, “Hamilton” mostly employs angles we could have seen in a theater if we managed to score tickets, with rare exceptions: A camera is positioned behind King George III (Jonathan Groff), looking out into the audience as he makes his entrance, and repeats that view for the other George (Christopher Jackson), cleverly hinting that Washington, a general at that point, will match the power of the king.
Director Thomas Kail, who also directed the play, uses close-ups judiciously, emphasizing emotional turning points. Focusing on the main action costs viewers the ability to look at whatever else we think is interesting, but there are gains: Groff’s performance, which seemed fine but not special when I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway, is revealed as nuanced and spare. His King George barely moves his head while delivering spitty put-downs of the upstart country, as if he can’t even be bothered.
Hits such as “The Room Where It Happens” sound terrific, but one number really benefits from the filmed treatment. “Take a Break,” sung by Hamilton (Miranda) with his wife (Phillipa Soo) and son (Anthony Ramos), is richer and more powerful here than in previous times I’ve seen or heard it. And there are subtleties you might not catch live, such as how Soo’s face is exactly divided into light and shadow during the song “Burn” or how invisible the microphones are, other than a Janet Jackson-style one worn by Leslie Odom Jr.’s impassioned Aaron Burr.
The filmed version preserves the hope of the play, which showcases a time in our country’s history when we had a blank slate, when, as Hamilton sings, we were “a notion of a nation we now get to build.”
There’s no way the streaming version could be as thrilling as the stage show, but opening this work about the origins of our country to anyone with the internet and a monthly subscription does do one beautiful thing: It makes it more democratic.
⋆⋆⋆½ out of 4 stars • Where to watch: Disney+ Rating: PG-13 for language and suggestive material.