It’s no secret that Hamilton is one of the most brilliant, most popular, most critically-acclaimed musicals ever made. And you can believe the hype! The stage show has been a phenomenon since it first hit New York in 2015, becoming the hottest ticket in town and winning handfuls of Tony Awards; when the London production opened in the West End two years later, it received rave reviews and sold out immediately.
In normal times, that meant that you couldn’t see Hamilton unless you a) could get yourself to New York or London, or one of the cities on the American tours; b) had money to spare, or got lucky in the ticket lottery; and c) acted quickly to book tickets when they went on sale. And now, of course, it’s impossible to see Hamilton live at all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
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But! Hamilton is about to come to a lot more people thanks to the power of television. Because on Friday 3rd July 2020, Disney Plus is releasing a recording of the stage show as a movie – and you can watch it anywhere in the world, as many times as you like, for the price of a monthly or yearly subscription.
If you’ve never seen Hamilton before, you’re in for a treat. Writer / lyricist / actor / musician / annoyingly multi-talented creative person Lin-Manuel Miranda has dramatised the life of Alexander Hamilton, who (before this musical) was one of America’s lesser-known Founding Fathers.
We see him arrive in America from the Caribbean as an impoverished, smart, fiery young man eager to prove himself, and we see his rise in the Revolutionary War, his role in building the nation’s government, his marriage, his fatherhood, his political downfall, and finally his untimely death. This is the origin story of a country, but also the tale of a man who “writes like he’s running out of time”, who burns brightly, who becomes an “Icarus who has flown too close to the sun”. It also features a ton of Black, mixed-race and Asian actors as key figures in American history, which is a powerful way to tell this story. There are moments which will make you grin and laugh, and moments which will make the tears roll down your cheeks.
But if you have seen Hamilton in the theatre already (like me, sorry for the brag) then you’ll be wondering: how does the experience of watching the show on stage stack up to watching it on TV?
There are, of course, serious advantages to watching theatre from the comfort of your own home, as many have found during lockdown while watching broadcasts from The National Theatre, the Globe and more. You don’t have to spend the interval trying to get your hands on a plastic cupful of underwhelming overpriced wine, or waiting anxiously in a long queue for the toilet and praying that the bell doesn’t ring before you get yourself into a cubicle; instead you can drink whatever you like, and go for a wee whenever you need to.
Plus, if you already know all the words to all the songs in Hamilton, you can sing along without anyone (rightfully) tutting or telling you off. (“Angelica, Eliza, AND PEGGY!”; “Shut up! I didn’t pay a gazillion pounds for a ticket to hear you sing!”)
But I do have to admit: I miss the magic of the theatre. And what an occasion it was to see Hamilton in person! By the time I went in April 2018, I’d been holding onto the tickets for more than a year and could hardly have been more excited. To watch as the rows of velvet seats filled up with people, to hear the thrum of expectant chatter, to feel the anticipation in the air! To gaze up at the beautiful domed ceiling of Victoria Palace Theatre! And then to watch it all unfolding on the stage before my very eyes! The live experience was everything I had hoped it would be.
Afterwards we spilled out of the theatre doors having just gone through something together, carrying the show’s brilliance out into the streets of London like a shared treasure. Maybe I’m romanticising it a little because I’ve been stewing at home in lockdown for so long, but there’s just something special about theatre, you know?
Thankfully, the team which has brought Hamilton to the small screen understands the power of theatre perfectly. Director Thomas Kail, who was in charge of the original Broadway production, has directed this filmed version – and his choices are inspired.
Because you really do feel like you’re in the room where it happens. Some shots take us so close to the main characters that you can see the spittle flying and watch the droplets of sweat rolling down the actors’ faces, giving us the kind of detail you’d see if you were in the Stalls (and had really good eyesight) but you’d miss if you were up in the Dress Circle. And you hear the audience around you laughing and clapping (without it ever being intrusive); and the camera follows where your natural focus would be on stage.
Then again, Kail never neglects the wider shots that show us what’s happening on the rest of the stage. Other moments even give us a new perspective entirely – like the shot which follows King George from behind as he looks out on his audience and the glare of the footlights.
This King George is, of course, not the King George I saw in London. The version you’ll see on Disney+ features the original Broadway cast, led by Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton himself.
And that’s another treat! Because even if you were to go and see Hamilton in the theatre now (which you can’t until at least 2021), you’ll never see this company of actors performing the show together again. You can hear their voices in the Original Broadway Cast Recording, which I (like many other Hamilton fans) have listened to on repeat for several years; but to see them act and dance is another matter – because Hamilton is so much more than its witty, catchy, clever songs.
And sure, the Alexander Hamilton who I saw in the original London cast (Jamael Westman) was perhaps a stronger singer, but it’s still a thrill to see Lin-Manuel Miranda inhabiting the musical he created. Then there’s Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton (with her emotional and vocal range!) and Leslie Odom Jr as Hamilton’s foil (and eventual killer) Aaron Burr. Renée Elise Goldsberry blows us all away as Angelica Schuyler, and boy am I glad I got to see those performances by Daveed Diggs (Lafayette in Act 1, Thomas Jefferson in Act 2) and Jonathan Groff (King George III). Basically, they’re all unbelievably talented and we are so lucky to see them at work.
Thankfully, back in 2016, someone had the bright idea to capture the original principal Broadway cast members on film before they departed the show. The footage was captured over three performances of Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City, and was originally created to be used in a 2016 documentary – but the potential to use this footage for something bigger soon became clear.
Disney won the rights in a bidding war, and the Hamilton movie was meant to come out in cinemas in October 2021. But then the world changed. Now here we are in July 2020, and Hamilton is getting a digital release, and it’s on my TV, and it has left me beaming with delight.
That said, watching the show on TV only reminds me how much I love the theatre, and how talented the people are who bring these shows to the stage, and how much the sector is suffering right now thanks to the lockdown and minimal government financial support.
I’d still go and see Hamilton again in person, if I could, and experience the immediacy of live performance – but for now, it’s fantastic to have a filmed version that gets as close to putting us “in the room where it happens” as it’s possible to get.