From the moment Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-driven musical Hamilton premiered at the Off-Broadway Public Theater in 2015 before transferring to Broadway, it became the most sought-after theatre ticket in New York. Audiences flocked, houses sold out months ahead, and a lottery was introduced.
Critics shared the love, with universally rapturous reviews from publications including Limelight. Umpteen awards followed including 11 Tonys and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In no time, the show’s fame had gone global with the original cast recording selling like wildfire. Other productions opened in Chicago, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London’s West End – and wherever the show went it more than lived up to the phenomenal hype that preceded it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Philippa Soo in the Disney film of the original Broadway cast
In February this year, Disney announced that it would be releasing a film of the stage production in cinemas in October 2021. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and with theatres forced to close, a decision was made to stream it on the Disney+ channel on July 3 this year instead, 15 months ahead of schedule.
Musical theatre fans around the world rejoiced. Not only would they have the chance to see the landmark musical featuring book, lyrics and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda – a musical which is revolutionary in both senses of the word – but they would get to see the original Broadway cast led by Miranda himself as Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odon Jr. as Hamilton’s frenemy Aaron Burr.
So does the Disney+ screening live up to expectations? You’d better believe it! With theatres shuttered, it is one of the most exhilarating experiences around right now for fans who are sitting at home, longing to be back inside a venue seeing a live musical.
The film was shot over three performances in June 2016 in front of a live audience, followed by another two days of recording to get different perspectives including close-ups with handheld cameras.
There are always swings and roundabouts when a live show is recorded. I haven’t seen Hamilton in the theatre yet (though I bought the cast album not long after it was released) so first and foremost it was an absolute thrill to finally see it having spent so many hours listening to Miranda’s electrifying, eclectic score which embraces hip-hop, rap, jazz, blues, R&B, and Broadway show tunes (all brilliantly arranged and orchestrated by Miranda’s close collaborator Alex Lacamoire).
With various cameras constantly on the move, and regularly moving in for close-ups, you don’t get the full impact of Andy Blankenbuehler’s inventive choreography, nor do you fully experience the ingenious way the double revolve whisks one scene into the next – though you get enough to appreciate both. However, Thomas Kail, who directed both the stage production and the Disney film, has done a fantastic job of capturing the fast-paced, funky, fluid energy of a live performance.
On top of that you are able to see the show from various different perspectives, including some aerial shots. The way the camera pans in on the performers also offers telling close-ups –from the demented look in Jonathan Groff’s eyes as the camp George III, spit dribbling from his lips in his fury at the American revolutionaries, to the cascade of expressions on Odom Jr.’s face as Burr moves between ambition, insecurity, frustration and bitter resentment.
Watching the film, you are constantly blown away by Miranda’s brilliance at having conceived the idea in the first place – a musical about American history full of complex political and economic ideas told through rap and hip-hop sounds pretty crazy on paper. To then write book, lyrics and music, and play the title role to boot, is extraordinary.
The verbal dexterity of his dazzling, succinct, witty, rhyming lyrics gives you an almost trippy high at times, and the music is sensational, with moving emotional ballads among the propulsive score.
The ethnically diverse cast – all people of colour besides Groff– are compelling too. Miranda is a wonderfully understated Hamilton while still holding centerstage with ease and conveying the character’s chutzpah, Odom Jr. makes a tragic figure of Burr, Hamilton’s nemesis who longs to be in “The Room Where it Happens”, Daveed Diggs is gloriously funny as Jefferson who he plays as something of a dandy (and also impressive doubling as the Marquis de Lafayette), Phillipa Soo is radiant as Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler, and Renée Elise Goldsberry is sensational as Eliza’s sister Angelica who secretly loves Hamilton, singing with searing soul.
When Hamilton premiered, Barack Obama was President of the US. With Black Lives Matter protests around the country (and the world), following the recent death of George Floyd, the musical feels even more resonant.
Hamilton was an immigrant, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” born on a Caribbean island. The now famous phrase in the show “immigrants – we get the job done” raised a cheer from the audience back in 2016 and now has added force.
The Australian production, featuring an all-Australian cast, is scheduled to open in Sydney in March 2021. Australian producer Michael Cassel remains hopeful that restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic will have eased by then and that the season will go ahead as planned. The Disney+ release – now available to stream – just makes that prospect even more exciting.
A monthly subscription to Disney+ costs $8.99. The Australian production of Hamilton will open at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney in March 2021