You say you want a revolution? Well, “Hamilton” fans, this one will be televised.
Whether you’re among the “Hamil-fans” around the world who scratched and clawed to score a coveted ticket to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway juggernaut or a first-timer who wants to see what the fuss is all about, you can finally get your front-row seat to the action — and you won’t have to pony up hundreds of dollars and wait for the pandemic to recede. That’s because the live-capture film version of the show arrives on the Disney+ streaming service on Friday.
Independence Day weekend is, of course, an apt time to watch a pioneering piece of theater that centers on the American Revolution and uses the language and style of hip-hop (and the sounds of R&B, jazz, pop, and more) to tell the story of the tumultuous early days of the nation’s birth, with those celebrated but flawed figures, the founding fathers, at the center of the action.
“The world turned upside down, and it took us a while to realize ‘Hamilton’ wasn’t going to be playing in any theaters for a long time. [Then] we heard from people who were like, ‘We hear you have a “Hamilton” movie. We’re all [stuck at] home. Would you please give it to us?’ ” says Miranda with a chuckle during a recent Zoom press conference that included the team from the show.
The film features the original cast, including Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first treasury secretary; Leslie Odom Jr. as Hamilton’s friend-turned-rival Aaron Burr; Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette; Christopher Jackson as George Washington; Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s devoted wife, Eliza; and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s spirited sister Angelica Schuyler.
Disney had originally planned to debut the film in October 2021, but with the pandemic wreaking havoc on the industry, the company and “Hamilton” producers moved up the release date, a welcome gift at a time when theaters around the world are shuttered and live performances have largely ceased.
Besides, says Diggs, “We were always running up against how prohibitively [expensive] Broadway is for a lot of people. Folks just could not afford the ticket. And even if you could, there are only so many seats. This is a way to really democratize the process and [bring it] to folks who couldn’t see it.”
Odom, speaking over the phone a few days later, points out that more people could potentially watch “Hamilton” in the first week it’s available on Disney+, which has 50 million subscribers, than the 13 million combined who have seen the show in 4½ years on Broadway, in London, and on various tours. (A Disney+ subscription costs $6.99 a month, or $69.99 a year.)
Thomas Kail, who directed the stage show and the film, worked with cinematographer Declan Quinn and their crew to capture two live performances in June 2016 — a Sunday matinee and a Tuesday evening performance. Six cameramen were positioned in the audience, along with three fixed cameras in the theater. Between the two live performances, Kail filmed 13 of the 46 musical numbers, including “The Room Where It Happens,” “My Shot,” and “Alexander Hamilton,” without an audience, stopping and starting throughout while capturing close-ups using onstage Steadicams and employing crane cams and dolly shots.
“The beauty of the lens is that you can have proximity in a way that you can’t in the theater. You can put the viewer wherever you want,” says Kail, speaking over the phone. “But I was very conscious that whenever I was in a close-up or medium [shot], I could potentially lose the stage picture. Our show has this incredible ensemble, and the physical vocabulary is a big part of the storytelling. So I’d often err on the side of staying a little wider to make sure I captured all of that.”
Miranda was inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s 2004 Hamilton biography and saw a connection between the young, scrappy, and hungry title character “who used the power of his words to write himself out of his circumstance and then died tragically in a violent way, and the narratives of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, contemporary hip-hop artists who had been very formative to Lin in his mid-teens,” says Kail, who also directed Miranda’s Tony-winning 2007 musical, “In the Heights.” “As he read [Chernow’s] book, he realized the musical form of hip-hop could best tell the story of a group of young people trying to turn an idea into action and using their words to do so.”
As "Hamilton" captured audience's imaginations, Kail came to understand its multivalence. "There are so many different portals for audiences to access it. The energy and force and virtuosity of the language is exciting to hear. The story of survivors, of people who were fighters and scrappers, resonates with people. And I think audiences can also relate to a story about someone of modest circumstances who came from another place to try and make a new home and to forge a new community and a new family. And then there's the power of the great love story between the [Schuyler] sisters."
“Hamilton,” whose national tour is scheduled to return to Boston next summer at the Citizens Bank Opera House, was seen as a forerunner in 2015 with its diverse, multi-racial cast portraying the nation’s white founders. How might the show be seen in a new light considering the seismic impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests against police brutality, systemic racism, and racial inequality?
“My hope is that the show can be useful for the movement, can be useful for people who are able to see in our show a story of both the spirit of revolution and actual revolution and to talk about the flaws of our founders,” Kail says. “I think our great hope is when you see [the words] ‘History Has Its Eyes on You’ or ‘Tomorrow There Will Be More Of Us’ on a sign at a protest” — lines taken from “Hamilton” — ”that perhaps the show can help give voice to the movement.”
“Hamilton,” Kail argues, is not deifying white slaveholding men like Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison, as well as those like Hamilton whose complicity supported the institution, as some critics have contended. Instead, it acknowledges their shortcomings. “If that means that the conversation can now be informed by the failings of these men, the question is, what can we do now?”
Odom, for his part, appreciates the critiques. “When I talk to young people, they sometimes ask, ‘What is so revolutionary about this show? There are people of color on stage, but they’re still telling us the same story we’ve been told again and again,’ ” Odom says. “But ‘Hamilton’ really is the beginning of a conversation . . . about the desire to live up to the ideals that America set forth in its founding. When Lin picked up his pen and decided to write this story in the language of the streets, using Black and brown people to tell it, that was a radical artistic impulse. There is protest in that!”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.