A revolution in the United States in 1776, a revolution in musical theatre in 2015, and now an extraordinary revolutionary moment in history – and Hamilton meets them all.
Originally scheduled for a theatrical release in 2021, this filmed version, spliced from three live recordings at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in 2016, lands instead on Disney Plus just in time for Independence Day in the US.
Even if July 4 has a greater significance in the US than over here, it’s still an incredibly charged moment for the show to land. We already know Hamilton is an era-defining piece of work, its brilliance has been praised endlessly and rightly, but in the past few years – even just the past few weeks – so many of its lines and so much of its message have taken on a profound potency.
At its centre is the opposition between Burr’s approach to progress – “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” – and Hamilton’s, which is about speaking up and using your voice, elevating yourself by elevating the people and the world around you.
Disney Plus has the entire Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and Disney back catalogues to flaunt, but this is one of its biggest new releases, so it’s interesting – and very welcome – that it has chosen a filmed stage performance rather than a feature film. It’s both a reminder of what we’re missing, and also the best choice for the material.
The NT Live feel, the bursts of applause, even King George’s exhortation for us to switch off our phones – an unlikely candidate for ‘things that will make you miss theatre even more’ – give it a sense of liveness and nowness that fits the show’s message.
Thomas Kail, who directed the stage version, also directs the film, keeping the same sense of constant forward motion, of scenes bleeding, and that whirlwind feel as people and props swirl ceaselessly on and off stage.
The camera switches quickly between close-ups – where we see, for example, the deranged look in Jonathan Groff’s eyes as King George III, and the globs of saliva that fly from his mouth while he spits out You’ll Be Back – and wider shots, always refocusing our attention to some new centre. It never stops moving or cutting. Even the still shots aren’t static, shifting slightly at the edges to give a live, handheld feel.
Kail’s camera direction sometimes works against, or at least in counterpoint to, his stage direction. He loves to mark the emotional significance of a moment by putting the actor centre stage and just having them sing, front on and motionless. But while the seated audience would see stillness, we get restless intercutting. Close cameras also diminish the effect of the double revolve.
So many people know every word of the cast recording already, but the real treat here is seeing the original Broadway cast in action. It’s great to be able to see the faces behind the voices, like the sass of Renée Elise Goldsberry as she flicks away the flocks of men crowding her in New York, or her sadness and poise during Satisfied.
Hamilton is an era-defining piece of work, but in the past few weeks much of its message has taken on a profound potency
There are so many more highlights, among them Daveed Diggs as Lafayette/Jefferson – bouncy and energetic, always dancing and moving – and Anthony Ramos as Laurens/Philip Hamilton, who’s playing Usnavi in the film of Miranda’s In the Heights next year.
But one performance that benefits hugely from a camera picking up every detail is Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr: sinister in one moment, weak in another, and heartbreaking as he sings one of the show’s (many) high points, Wait for It. When that big chorus hits, after just a second of silence, that’s when it becomes absolutely clear how good this cast and this performance are – and it cements the value of the filmed version.
We get to watch Odom Jr’s performance minutely, with so many expressions glancing across his face in quick succession, and it’s utterly thrilling: uncertainty, smugness, love, loss, hope and its absence. As he sings “I am inimitable, I am an original”, there’s a brief nod of absolute self-confidence that sums up the character and the ego that will destroy him.
Unlike the front-and-centre performances throughout other solos, Odom Jr sings to the back of the stage, ignoring the audience. But rather than alienating us, it gives the impression – even more potent in close up – that we’re inside his roiling mind.
Hamilton has always been proof, because apparently some demand it, that diversity enriches and never reduces.
Miranda puts it very simply in a short filmed intro: “It takes on a different meaning when you see black and brown performers telling the origin story of our country.”
So there’s the absolute fact of Hamilton as a supreme work of art; and then there’s Hamilton right now, and those lines that always burned, and now blister, too. “Chaos and bloodshed are not the solution,” a prim (white) farmer declares from a soap box. “Chaos and bloodshed already haunt us,” Hamilton replies.
It’s a show about what will be remembered and how you forge a legacy – and it makes very clear that histories can be refocused, rewritten and remembered in different ways. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” is the show’s final line. The fact is that some lives continue to be more in danger than others.
America, the UK and so many other countries are starting to understand their own legacies right now. Theatre in the UK has a moment to reflect on who gets to be heard, on what stories we will want and need as we move on. And on that journey, Hamilton is both routemap and destination.