Before Covid-19, it’d take a long flight and half a grand to see Hamilton in the flesh. Now, the biggest musical of the past two decades is available to watch on Disney+. Sam Brooks takes stock of this extraordinary move.
Right now, Broadway is a sleeping dragon. New York theatres have been dark for months and recently, the closure was extended to the start of 2021. No Lloyd Webber, no Disney adaptations, and – most galling for people with the means to see it – no Hamilton. While New Zealanders slowly trickle back to our theatre venues (and much less slowly to our music venues), the rest of the world probably isn’t going to see live theatre any time soon.
A lot of theatres have been mitigating this by streaming professionally filmed versions of pre-existing shows. The UK’s National Theatre has dozens of these, many already released theatrically in short runs for people around the world to enjoy. Even before Covid, these filmed performances were a boon for theatre fans. For a medium that’s reliant on being in the room where it happens (sorry), it’s a way to get some semblance of that experience and to see theatre on a scale that isn’t readily accessible here.
But that’s all background. Here’s the important tea: Hamilton, the biggest musical of the past two decades, is now available for the price of a Disney+ subscription (or, if you’re Disney itself, a cool $75 million, one of the largest film acquisitions of all time). The show was filmed way back in 2016 with the original cast and was initially going to be released theatrically towards the end of 2021. Instead, it ended up arriving on the Disney+ streaming platform last night. Thanks, Covid-19.
Let’s get the obvious facts out of the way first: Hamilton is both an incredibly good and extremely successful musical. It follows the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant who was the first US Secretary of the Treasury and wrote more essays than any human has any right to which, on the surface, sounds quite dull as a concept for a musical. But Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda flipped the script: every major character (except King George) is played by a performer of colour, and its songs pull from pretty much every genre of music, a genius grab bag and mishmash of inspiration. It’s a rewriting and recolouring of history, using the pages of a biography to play out an aspirational tale of what America could be. It pointedly tells a white history with people of colour in their place and challenges the audience to reimagine their own framing of history in the process.
But it’s not just Lin-Manuel Miranda who’s to thank here. Hamilton’s original director, Thomas Kail (who directs the film as well), musical director Alex Lacamoire, and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler are all working at the height of their respective powers. But the cast is uncommonly and specifically talented too. There’s not many actors who can rap at hyperspeed in a French accent like Daveed Diggs, and fewer who can switch between Minaj flows and colossal high belts like Renée Elise Goldsberry. Hamilton wasn’t catching lightning in a bottle – it was catching a hurricane.
It was the right musical at the right time, premiering off-Broadway towards the end of the second Obama administration and hitting its stride on Broadway during the rise of Trump. Not only did it sound different than every other show on Broadway, but it also looked different. There isn’t a huge amount of special effects and spectacle to Hamilton – it’s all in the staging and the choreography. When you pay for a ticket to Hamilton, you’re paying to share in the energy of the performers in that room more than you are to see, say, a chandelier slowly make its way to the ground or a woman in green foundation fly into the lighting rig on a lift. (This is to say nothing of other things that the show did to try to revolutionise Broadway and make it accessible, like Ham4Ham stagedoor performances and a lottery of low-price tickets.)
The professionally shot musical is a relatively rare thing, mostly because the people who make these musicals don’t want to cannibalise their potential profits. That’s why shows start off with long Broadway runs, then slowly move to national tours, then maybe the West End, before eventually touring internationally. There’s a reason why Book of Mormon only made it here to New Zealand nearly a decade after its premiere – someone decided that the diehard fans would’ve already seen it, so now they’d target all the normal people who liked the soundtrack but lacked the tiresome fandom of most musical theatre nerds (no shade, I’m the one writing the article about musical theatre economics, you guys).
All these trickle-down productions work from the original’s playbook: they have the same sets, the same costumes, and even casts that look the same, because people want that Broadway experience. Eventually, those same productions trickle down to amateur theatres, which is why high schools end up doing shows from 20 to 30 years ago.
It’s the same reason why big musicals take years to get adapted to the big screen. Well, that and the fact that a film adaptation is hard to get right. For every Chicago (much better than the stage version, fight me), there are a dozen Rents (both terrible, also fight me). Producers have to hope that the trade-off between publicity gained from the film generates more box office than they lose by having people flock to a screen rather than a stage. Why would people pay a couple of hundred dollars to sit in the worst seats and see a cover version of their favourite show when they could pay a fraction of the cost and see the original thing with a much better view?
Hamilton is in the enviable position where that trade off doesn’t matter so much. Not only is the show impossible to see in the flesh anywhere in the world right now, but it’s become such a phenomenon that allowing more people to see it is only going to boost its profile and establish its cultural foothold even further. After all, it worked for Cats (back in 1998, not last year).
Last night wasn’t just millions of people’s first opportunity to see Hamilton for a tiny fraction of the normal cost; it was the first time millions of people were able to simultaneously experience a live musical that felt like a premiere, rather than a recycled Lloyd Webber performance from a few decades ago. It wasn’t the same energy as being in the room where it happened, but it was an appreciable substitute.
There’s something even better about seeing it like this, though. Any live version of Hamilton that you see now isn’t going to be the same as it was back in 2016 when this movie was filmed. Not only is it not going to feature the same cast with their very specific talents (RIP the vocal cords of anybody else trying to play Angelica Schuyler), but the energy of the time is different. Today’s Hamilton is no longer an upstart off-Broadway musical, it’s part of the mainstream. It has the best-selling theatrical cast album of all time, and hell, Disney bought it. The tools used to revolutionise the lives of the villagers have now been repurposed to renovate the mayor’s house. That’s another story, though!
There was hope in those pre-Trump days, and a vibrant energy that this film captures; it’s as full of energy as any filmed performance I’ve seen. It captures a team at the height of their ability, in the middle of their run, with no idea of the bleak future that would follow. Being able to see them now feels like stepping back into those days when we had hope for the future; when there wasn’t a pandemic raging across the US; when it felt like we could go out and see shows any time we wanted across the world. That might sound dramatic, but hey, it’s musical theatre. Drama comes with the territory.
You can watch Hamilton on Disney+ right now.