TV Review: Hamilton’s America (2016)

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Documentary, TV
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hamiltons-america

Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755, on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies.  He was born out of wedlock, and eventually became an orphan when his mother.  He got off the island of St. Croix by writing a letter about how horrible conditions were after a hurricane hit the island.  He started working for a trading company in America, where he got early financial training.  He joined the American militia during the Revolutionary War, and became aide de camp to General Washington.  He wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, essays promoting the ratification of the Constitution. He became Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, where he developed financial instruments to trade, four of which were treasury bonds one was a National Bank, all created by Hamilton.  He also made a deal with Jefferson, where the Federal government would assume all the debt of the states, in return the capital was moved from New York.

Alexander Hamilton’s life was not free of controversy, however.  In 1791, he had an affair with Maria Reynolds, and paid her husband for a year to keep it secret.  In the end, the affair was exposed and he wrote a pamphlet trying to explain his actions.  He also started a political feud with Aaron Burr in 1800.  Burr ended up in a tie in electors with Jefferson, and Hamilton broke the tie, voting for Jefferson.  Hamilton also blocked Burr’s run for governor of New York in 1804.  The feud came to a head in 1804, with a duel that Hamilton lost, and paid for with his life.

Lin Manuel Miranda was born in 1980, in 2002, he wrote a play called In The Heights, about his life growing up in Washington Heights.  In the Heights won several Tony awards including Best Musical. He travelled with the show until 2010.  But his life changed in July 2008, when he read a biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and started working on a hip-hop musical of Hamilton’s life. The musical debuted in 2015.  Hamilton won 11 Tony awards.

This documentary does several things well, it shows Miranda in 2014, a year before the play opened, so it captures the writing of the songs, the interplay between , the words, the songs and the choreography of Hamilton.  Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, who wrote Pacific Overtures and other historical musicals, and the viewer can see that Miranda is awed by meeting this legend of musical theater.  The documentary also features  plenty of songs from Hamilton, and intersperses the songs with the history behind the songs, and there’s a lot of history to cover.

But I think the documentary goes too far in lauding both Miranda, and Hamilton.  Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theater in New York City, compares Miranda to Shakespeare, that is pure hyperbole.  Don’t lionize a guy who’s written three plays in his whole life and compare him to a guy who wrote 37 plays and over 150 sonnets.  Making history accessible to younger people is a great thing, and Miranda should be praised, but t’s too soon for the Shakespeare comparison.

The documentarians do the same for Alexander Hamilton, they seem to gloss over the negative aspects of his life and career and highlight only the positive aspects.  Hamilton created a lot of wealth for others, but he owned slaves, a point glossed over in the documentary and probably not mentioned in the play. Hamilton of all the founding fathers, given the place of his birth, and his destitute upbringing, should have been an abolitionist, but wasn’t.  To be kind, the documentarians say he was an immigrant, but he was an immigrant with French parents, unlike Miranda’s father who emigrated from Puerto Rico.  He fought in not only the Revolutionary War, but the Quasi War against the French, he argued for an imperial presidency with lifetime appointments in the Federalist papers.  He cheated on his wife and dueled with his political opponents, for all his flowery words he couldn’t resolve a political dispute with Burr.

Whether inadvertently or not Miranda takes part in revisionist history.  By using the multi-cultural cast and females in prominence in Hamilton, it is easy to forget that slavery was alive and well in Hamilton’s day, that African-Americans were little more than property, and women were more likely to be seen and not heard.  It’s great the Black, Latino and female voices are represented in the cast in large numbers, but the feel-good casting doesn’t really wrestle with the issues of the day as they were.  Miranda could have chosen a different founding father to honor, but ours is a violent country, and violence unfortunately speaks to young people, so why not pick a hero that went out in a blaze of gunfire.

The guests on the documentary to speak about Hamilton, the play or the man are an eclectic mix to say the least .Jimmy Fallon knows nothing about history, and so what if he saw the play? Stephen Colbert would have been a much better choice. Some of the other guests were ex-President George W. Bush, Speaker Paul Ryan, and Treasury Secretary under Bush Hank Paulson, besides contributing to the financial crisis in 2007, what do these guys know about the economy?  To be fair, the documentary did have President Obama, Michelle Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, but it seemed like they got less time than the Republicans and Fallon. Miranda’s career certainly got a boost from Obama’s invitation to the White House in 2009.

Criticism aside, I would pay to see Hamilton or The Book of Mormon in a movie theater, I’m not big on Broadway or musicals, but these two plays are the exception, I would much rather see these plays turned into movies than see the 3rd reboot of Spider-Man, or a Rambo reboot.

Hamilton’s America, a little ham handed with praise, but good viewing nonetheless.

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