Today the world knows a lot more about the intensity of Jonathan Groff’s enunciation than it did yesterday. Over the course of two performances in 2016, nine cameras captured Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut musical retelling of the life of America’s first secretary of the treasury, in intimate detail. Groff, who plays King George III, tears into the role he originated and his consonants with equal relish, and the spit flies. It’s not hard to imagine this Hamilton someday reaching movie screens with a 3D conversion: the two-story set looming, the bayonets jutting, the spittle triumphantly spraying—just like it did in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and just as it will again someday when both cinemas and theaters re-open, the audience at a safe remove.
The mention of Groff’s moist diction isn’t intended to turn stomachs. Nor is it a piece of oddball minutiae. It’s a mark of the spirit of this filmed version of Hamilton, which arrived today on Disney+. Directed by Thomas Kail (FX’s Fosse/Verdon), also the director of Hamilton’s original Off-Broadway and Broadway runs, this is an experience that revels in such details. It’s also perhaps the apex expression in a long tradition of capturing live theater, dance, and opera for the screen, one that includes the canon captured by Great Performances and American Playhouse, impressive big-screen recordings from the U.K.’s National Theatre Live, and filmed concert-style performances like the 1995 “dream cast” version of Les Misérables. Here, the “dream cast” is the original cast; the number of people who’ll get to see Miranda in the role—and take in the performances that made stars of Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and others—just skyrocketed.
It’s a rarity, to see a play or musical captured this way; usually, the treatment is afforded to starrier productions and huge financial/critical hits. (The Bernadette Peters-led original cast take on Into The Woods was a staple of this writer’s childhood, as was a production of Our Town featuring Spalding Gray.) As a viewing experience, they’re of immense value, recording for posterity some once-in-a-lifetime performances from world-class actors and, as a bonus, lending a sense of immediacy and intimacy with the material that not even an original cast recording can offer. As a means of capturing the experience of being there—in the room where it happens, as it were—they are always a failure. Theater is a live artform, its ephemeral nature the source of its magic.
It’s unwriterly to say that the precise wonder of a theatrical experience can’t be easily articulated, but it’s true all the same. Broadly speaking, theater is something we experience communally. You can’t replicate seeing a movie in a crowded theater from your living room; with theater, that difficulty is heightened because the communal experience actually involves the actors. (Imagine seeing John Wick and knowing Keanu Reeves can hear and by fed by your every gasp; imagine watching Bridesmaids and seeing Melissa McCarthy hold for laugh after laugh, the pauses somehow enriching the jokes.)
Yet this attempt, this Hamilton time capsule, comes perhaps as close to capturing that magic of live theater as any such effort, not least because Kail and company went so far as to mic the audience’s reactions—the roar that goes up after Diggs and Miranda say, “Immigrants: We get the job done,” is now preserved for all time. It’s an experience that exists somewhere between a concert film and a remarkably accomplished home movie shot by some proud parents chronicling the time Miranda starred in the school play (if Miranda also wrote this school play, and it went on to win a Pulitzer and 11 Tony Awards). The latter comparison is not meant as a slight. It’s clear that Kail, director of photography Declan Quinn, editor Jonah Moran, and the technical teams behind both the stage production and film approached this project with tremendous thought and affection, aiming to bottle some small piece of the magic of seeing the show live while also taking great advantage of the medium with which it’s being captured. Kail in particular possesses a lens like no other, and it’s one he lends the viewer here: that of someone who’s seen Hamilton hundreds of times, whose intimacy with the production is unparalleled, and who knows just where to look for every small, perfect moment.
Even those who’ve seen Hamilton in the flesh and who can spit out every single word in the Lafayette portion of “Guns And Ships” in perfect time will make new discoveries here, because this isn’t just Hamilton live. This is Hamilton through the eyes of Tommy Kail, and while it could never replace the experience of watching that spit fly live, it’s still one of the best seats in the house.
One of the finest examples of the immense value of Kail’s perspective: “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” back-to-back scenes that show us one evening from two dueling perspectives. First is Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) recounting her love-at-first-sight moment with Alexander, an effervescent uptempo number inspired by hip-hop collaborations like “Crazy In Love” and the musical stylings of Ashanti and Ja Rule. After that, we see the same evening through the eyes of her sister, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), recounted to the audience between toasts at Eliza’s wedding. (Thirteen songs were also captured without an audience so that a Steadicam, crane, and dolly could be employed without diminishing the experience of those in attendance.) When seen live, the true genius of Kail’s staging becomes apparent only when “Satisfied” kicks into high gear, the blocking from the earlier number recreated and supplied new meaning by Angelica’s experience and perspective. Yet even then there’s still much that can be missed, tiny details that deepen the emotional resonance of one of the show’s most affecting sequences.
It’s here where Kail’s perspective becomes invaluable: He shows you exactly where to look. The experience of making those discoveries on your own remains intact; this isn’t hand holding. It’s just a gentle direction of attention, a nudge toward a flicker across Goldsberry’s face here, a subtle underlining of the positioning of bodies in space. Did they always stand so close? Did that touch of the arm always linger? It’s marvelous, masterful, the kind of observation only repeat viewings could allow.
And that’s another important piece of the puzzle. Seeing Hamilton in the flesh wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish, even before 2020 descended with its fangs out. Miranda’s improbable smash has since traveled to places other than the Richard Rodgers, including multiple tours, residencies in Chicago and Los Angeles, and a West End production. Even so, it’s out of reach for billions of people. Should they travel to one of the places where it’s in residence, it’s still not a sure thing; all these years later, it remains a hot ticket, and the machinations of scalpers drove producers to raise premium ticket prices to record levels. But the availability of Hamilton on Disney+ is also perfectly in keeping with the show’s efforts to make itself accessible; while audiences may still be predominantly affluent (and white), the show has also prioritized student groups, and offers tens of thousands of $10 tickets a year through a lottery system. They also worked to make the lottery system more accessible. Historically, rush tickets have often required in-person attendance during the day; Hamilton was at the forefront of the move to a remote lottery system .
That’s no small thing. Key to Hamilton’s power is the reclamation of American history, casting Black and brown actors in the roles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers. Even before the current crisis, the people who could most easily see Hamilton were those who could afford to cough up the big bucks for a plane ticket, a hotel room, and a steeply-priced seat in the mezzanine. Now, a month’s subscription to Disney+ puts the show in your living room, and though it is fundamentally not the same, it’s pretty great.
Broadway theaters will remain closed until at least 2021; when they reopen, it’s likely that things will look very different for those ticket holders than they did for the audiences of these two performances. (Don’t expect to get Groffed anytime soon.) In that respect, Hamilton’s arrival could not be better timed. Millions of people will get a chance to see it for the first time, and for many, it will be their first exposure to what theater can do. Kail’s staging eschews verisimilitude; it’s inventive, expressive, and emotional, but not realistic. As a starting point for the performing arts, it’s a big, bold swing—and there’s never, in history, been a better time to develop an interest in watching plays and musicals on screen. As theaters remain shuttered, many have turned to YouTube and Vimeo, sharing work that’s perhaps less starry but which possesses its own invention and passion. Perhaps that will be yet another brick in Hamilton’s already remarkable legacy: At a moment when the artform itself is in peril, this secondhand approximation of the show is perfectly positioned to convert millions to a lifelong love of theater. After all, seeing it on a screen is great—but don’t you want to be there to watch the sweat fly?