With health advisories recommending against picnics and municipalities avoiding traditional fireworks shows to stave off crowds, the pandemic made a big dent in traditional US Independence Day celebrations last weekend.
In a shrewd business move, and as if to make up for this gap in activities, the streaming service Disney Plus chose July 3 as the launch day for the film version of Hamilton, featuring the original company. Unlike the attention accorded to the production’s debut on stage – at the Public Theater, on Broadway, on tour, in London – which yielded constant waves that kept accumulating in scale, the Disney Plus debut produced an avalanche of stories.
In the run-up to the premiere, coverage was all about how this iteration of Hamilton came to be (logistics, approach, reflections by the cast) as well as reviews. In the days following the release, conversation turned to asking what Hamilton means now as a piece of Obama-era art in the Trump era. It also turned to how the piece speaks now – in a period of heightened awareness of racial divisions and the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since many of the leading characters are slave owners.
Some of the conversation grew so heightened that author and original star Lin-Manuel Miranda acknowledged that in paring history back to roughly two-and-a-half hours, he couldn’t tackle every aspect of the story, and welcomed all commentary and criticism as fair.
At the same time – for those interested in such things – there weren’t many of the usual metrics for success to rely upon. While the approximate budget and the sale price to Disney was on the table, streaming services don’t typically offer anything akin to ratings, so there are no public figures on how often it has been viewed. Corollary sources – such as how often Hamilton and Miranda were searched for on Google or mentioned on Twitter – became the measuring sticks, and they suggested that interest was even higher than when the show was on stage.
With all shows on hold and no clear return date, we will never truly know what the impact of the Disney Plus offering is on live productions of the show itself. If it returns to capacity houses, that’s simply a continuation of its ongoing success. If business doesn’t reach its box-office record-setting peaks, who knows whether its availability at home was responsible, or if it was the lengthy ‘intermission’ of the pandemic that affected the show’s momentum. Fear of returning to the theatre, the economic status of the ticket-buying audience, or even the arrival of newer, shinier shows as theatre comes back from its enforced silence may also have an impact.
It’s worth noting that the release of Hamilton was accelerated and the venue changed: the capture of the Broadway show was expected to have a theatrical release in October of 2021. So now it isn’t in the box-office race that announces film grosses every seven days, nor is it eligible for Oscars; it will have to make do with Emmy award eligibility.
Based on analytics, last weekend was less the Fourth of July than the Hamilton Holiday, an unprecedented achievement for a theatrical work
But based on some analytics and the anecdotal evidence of social media, last weekend was less the Fourth of July than the Hamilton Holiday, an unprecedented achievement for a theatrical work. Will it usher in a new era of live-capture presentations of Broadway shows?
It’s worth keeping in mind that the production cost of the Hamilton film was in the neighbourhood of $12 million and the costs were borne by the producers of a wildly successful show – yielding an independent product they reportedly sold to Disney Plus for $75 million. But that initial investment – and indeed that payday – won’t be possible for all productions. There are massive generational hits (to name two, think A Chorus Line and Rent, the latter of which had a movie and a live-capture version), but that’s just not the case for many Broadway shows.
It’s going to take a few more experiments to understand whether this points to a new avenue for theatrical productions; whether the public at large is sufficiently aware of – and interested in – theatre to make this more commonplace, as fans are certainly hoping. But people need to remember that few shows have had the kind of broad cultural impact and multi-generational appeal of Hamilton. It can’t easily be copied on stage and that certainly holds true for film.
By the way, due to outdated TV tech and an aversion to watching movies on my laptop screen, I have not yet seen the filmed Hamilton. But I hear it’s quite good.