Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” went supernova the second it opened on Broadway in July of 2015, almost instantly becoming a cultural touchstone as well as the hottest ticket in town; even when an obstructed view of the Richard Rodgers Theatre was more expensive than an orchestra seat anywhere else, it was still hard to find someone who felt like they were overcharged. But while a lot of Stubhub resellers got very, very rich off the frenzy around the Tony-winning show, not even the most craven of the lot had the chutzpah to ask for the $75 million that Disney wound up paying for the rights to a live recording of a June 2016 performance featuring the original cast (which is at least $2 million more than some of us paid for our nosebleed seats around the same time).
After spending more cash than Alexander Hamilton himself would know what to do with, Disney planned on releasing the “Hamilton” video in theaters next fall. But pandemics — like wars — have a funny way of creating new opportunities to compensate for their collateral damage, and the company had no intention of throwing away its shot. Seizing on “these uncertain times” in order to bring the show straight to its still-embryonic streaming platform (where it will be the biggest marquee draw since “The Mandalorian”), Disney has traded the Fathom Event of the century for a revolutionary moment in online distribution. Watching “Hamilton” on Disney+, it’s clear that even for a king’s ransom the Mouse House got its money’s worth. And so have we.
The closest that anyone will be getting to Broadway for the foreseeable future, and the rare cash-grab that feels like a public service, this “Hamilton” is exactly as advertised: A bottle full of lightning that preserves the show’s definitive production, and transposes its story of American history into the stuff of American history in a way that seeing it live and in the present tense never really could. Not that Miranda’s phenomenon has aged in any way. While it might be less “cool” now than it was a few years back (largely thanks to the natural ebb and flow of pop culture and the agony of “Mary Poppins Returns”), “Hamilton” is as monumental a thing as ever, regardless of how you watch it. If anything, a hip-hop musical that recasts the Founding Fathers as freestyling people of color hits even harder in the shadow of Black Lives Matter and our country’s ongoing strides towards racial justice; at a time when statues of slave-owning white men are being toppled en masse as part of a collective effort to make America great again, or at least as good as originally advertised. History is still our story to tell, and while Hamilton himself might be overdue for cancellation by modern standards, the show that bears his name should continue to resonate for as long as this nation is falling short of its promise.
It’s a (minor) shame that Miranda doesn’t hold those truths to be self-evident, as Disney+’s presentation of the show includes an eminently skipable 90-second intro where Miranda and director Thomas Kail call in via Zoom and explain the decision to bring “Hamilton” into our homes. “We’re all thinking about what it means to be Americans,” one of them insists. And while sharing this piece of art with millions of people who might otherwise not get to see it obviously dovetails with the show’s democratic spirit, the preamble almost feels like a forced apology to anyone who’s ever forked over their life savings for a ticket.
After that brief mishegoss, however, Disney+ subscribers will be treated to 161 minutes of unadulterated “Hamilton” in all its glory, and the experience is both better and worse than watching the show in person, which — in a way — is actually ideal. This is a movie edition of “Hamilton,” and not the “Hamilton” movie that will surely be made some day, and Kail implicitly understands the difference.
On the one hand, there’s no way of compensating for the primacy of live theater, and the director doesn’t pretend otherwise. Minus a muffled swear word or two this is the show that fans know by heart and would have seen on stage, complete with the applause (and occasional laughter) of an unseen audience, and even a minute-long intermission between acts. John Laurens’ death scene, notably omitted from the official soundtrack as an added bonus for anyone who saw “Hamilton” in person, is here in all the glory he didn’t live to see. For the most part, it’s as if someone stuck a few well-placed cameras around the Richard Rodgers Theatre during a regular performance, and then edited together the results for posterity… in that it’s literally what Kail did. And it’s also the essence of what fans would want.
But the bits that don’t fall under the “for the most part” umbrella are what make this “Hamilton” more than just a photographic memory. Better than a front-row seat, Kail’s film — and we can basically call it that — is just cinematic enough to amplify and accentuate the show’s emotional undertow without messing with the carefulness of its stage direction. Close-ups might seem an obvious choice for this sort of thing, especially when shot at a distance so as not to break the proscenium of the stage, but they’re used sparingly enough to puncture the spectacle of it all with a real sense of purpose.
Sometimes the effect amounts to catching a detail that you never would have noticed from the mezzanine, like King George III’s angry spittle when he sings, or the way that Eliza’s turquoise earrings match her dress. At other, more impactful moments, the punch-ins allow for greater access to these characters (and to the astonishingly talented people who play them). Christopher Jackson’s George Washington feels like a force of nature even with your eyes closed, but it’s somewhat transformative to see the painfully hard-won wisdom that tightens across his face when he cautions Hamilton to slow down. Whatever sympathy you already had for Leslie Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr will deepen as the actor closes his eyes during the most anguished notes of “Wait for It,” as if Burr were praying at the altar of his own patient faith.
Of course, Kail also has cameras at the top of the house so that he can capture the full stage, and a number of low-angle setups that convey Hamilton’s sense of history (and occasional self-importance). Even a basic two-shot can feel like a revelation during a show that you’ve only ever seen in a wide, especially when — among many examples — it has the power to isolate Hamilton and Burr into a private world of dueling wits during the second number.
This is “Hamilton” as you always wanted to see it, and it always will be. And with Disney+ releasing it just in time for the Fourth of July, it doubles as a perfect reminder that America is only worth celebrating because of what it aspires to be — the version of it we see in our minds’ eye, and not the one that’s petrified on the pages of our history books.
“Hamilton” will be available to stream on Disney+ on Friday, July 3.