With Hamilton: An American Musical coming to the home screen via Disney+, Anna Blackburn examines whether it lives up to the original, live, experience
Since its premiere in 2015, Hamilton: An American Musical has been loved and adored by theatregoers and music lovers alike. Adapted from the page to the stage, the rap musical is now on available screen, on Disney+.
In August of 2018, I saw Hamilton live at the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, Illinois on its second tour of North America. It was a truly incredible performance. I have always enjoyed musical theatre, growing up listening to soundtracks, and being in a few shows myself, but watching professional actors perform on stage creates a new level of appreciation for all of the work that goes into putting on a show.
One of the biggest reasons that the show is so loved is because of Lin-Manuel Miranda who not only wrote the book, music, and lyrics but also starred in the show as Alexander Hamilton on Broadway when it first went to stage in 2015. Miranda told The Atlantic “This is a story about America then, told by America now...and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story”.
Miranda blew audiences away with a predominantly non-white cast, when in 18th-century colonial America each leading character, who are all real historical figures, would have been white. Another reason that the show is so impressive is that almost the entire show is sung or rapped in a hip-hop or R&B style. This not only shows off Miranda’s talent as a writer but each actor's ability to carry out their role.
Tickets for Hamilton are hard to come by and quite expensive, but now Hamilton, along with exclusive interviews with the cast, is available on Disney+ with a subscription. The show is a lot more accessible for a much larger audience. For the first month after it was released on the streaming service, I didn’t want to watch Hamilton because I was afraid that going from stage to screen would ruin the magic of the show that I had enjoyed seeing live. Thankfully, however, the show was as good as I remembered it.
Hamilton is a very fast-paced production, so it can be difficult to keep up with the rap and storyline if you haven’t been listening to the soundtrack on repeat. I know the show well and I am very familiar with the music, but I still had trouble keeping up with the lyrics. For the first part of the show, watching without subtitles went well, but as soon as ‘Guns and Ships’ came on, the English subtitles offered by Disney were very welcome. It was also good to see the close-ups on actors’ faces. In songs like ‘Satisfied’ where Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry) sang about her pain and heartbreak and with the playfulness in ‘The Story of Tonight (Reprise)’ between Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), the emotion was more fully portrayed in a way that made it easier to realise characters’ true feelings as opposed to hearing it in their words.
It was an incredible opportunity to be able to see the original cast perform the show. Lin Manuel-Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Jonathan Groff, star of Disney’s Frozen and Frozen II, as King George III brought out the true aura of the show with their careful dialect and devotion to their roles.
Watching Hamilton on Disney+ was a worthwhile experience, but there is nothing like seeing a show live. There is a certain physical and emotional vulnerability that comes with seeing a show in person. There’s the question of will someone stumble on a word or fall on stage. It is a more personal experience because instead of actors performing for a camera, they’re performing for you, and that feeling pulls you in closer to the story and the characters themselves.
While the merit of Hamilton is adequately displayed both on screen and on stage, it is reassuring to see theatre become more prominent in today’s technological world. Especially in the current global state, having the opportunity to see Hamilton is a wonderful addition to the cinematic world and while we wait for theatres to reopen, Hamilton comes highly recommended, both on and off the screen.