The historical musical Hamilton has been a pop culture phenomenon since its debut in 2015. The Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway became a spot where hopeful audience members would gather in the hopes of getting a rare ticket. Anytime something gets as big as Hamilton, there’s one question that many wonder: When will this hit musical become a hit movie? It’s a bit complicated. Contractual obligations meant a full-fledged movie production couldn’t go underway until the show had completed its Broadway run – something that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Little did we know that there was a deal in place to film the performance with its original Broadway cast, and Disney surprised everyone when they announced that the filmed performance of Hamilton’s original cast would land in theaters in October 2021. Then the pandemic happened. Productions around the globe were put on hold. And Disney, losing their summer theatrical slate, announced they’d be debuting Hamilton on Disney+ on July 3rd, 2020 – sacrificing a potentially lucrative theatrical run in the hopes of boosting their nascent streaming service.
Watching Hamilton, it’s easy to see why the show became an absolute phenomenon. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historical musical is overflowing with catchy numbers, a unique mixture of factually infused hip-hop inspired songs alongside more traditional musical fare. Taking inspiration from Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, the oft-overlooked founding father who was the first Secretary of the Treasury, Miranda composes and performs a complex portrait of a complex man. American icons weave in and out of Hamilton’s story as personal turmoil and political divisions swirl around the revolutionary’s life. It’s often easy for people with a passing knowledge of history to treat America’s founders as some kind of ideological monolith, and Hamilton helps destroy that myth as the reality is that there was ample debate, personal ire, and reluctant compromise throughout the nation’s founding.
Hamilton has been praised and criticized – each fairly – for its racially diverse cast playing historic white figures. On one hand, it’s a breakthrough in the way the casting defies convention, a color blind approach that creates more opportunities for actors who’d never be considered for roles as historic figures. On the other hand, the racial diversity may soften the harsh edges of the slave-owning founders. These two issues are contradictory and I don’t think either side has a prevailing argument, but it shows just how much Hamilton reflects the nation as it was founded on freedom but built on slavery. These deep-seated contradictions embedded within the American experiment are still being processed by its citizens, so it’s only natural that these conflicting elements would find themselves in a musical about the foundation of the American experiment.
Naturally, most of the praise paid to Hamilton is lavished upon its mastermind in Lin-Manuel Miranda. He’s earned it. He wrote a number of rousing, indelible songs and shines in the eponymous role of the “ten-dollar founding father.” However, the rest of the cast is absolutely incredible and you can see why so many of its cast members have seen their stars on the rise. Some of the show’s many stand outs include Daveed Diggs in the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; Leslie Odom, Jr. as the show’s villain Aaron Burr; Jonathan Groff as the ruthless and needy King George; and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law. From the stars to the bit players, Hamilton caught lightning in a bottle with an incredible pool of talent just before their first steps towards superstardom.
I’m hesitant to call this the movie version of Hamilton. It’s a filmed performance. That, mind you, is not a negative. This filmed version of Hamilton was directed by Thomas Kail, who directed the original Broadway show, and by not trying to make this version overtly cinematic Kail captures the stage show in all of its glory. The show boasts incredible sets, impeccable costumes, moody lighting, and dazzling choreography. It’s a blessing that this moment in time, this incredible cast assembled for a limited time only, would be captured by cameras to show to those never able to make it to the Broadway show. This version of Hamilton doesn’t render any future plans for a Hamilton film moot, as I’m sure Kail would love a chance to flex his directorial muscles on a movie musical in the style of the great Bob Fosse (whom Kail and Miranda produced a series about for FX, Fosse/Verdon).
It is important to note that when Hamilton captured the zeitgeist it was a much more optimistic time. I wonder if the musical’s effectiveness might diminished with the growing the cynicism towards American governance over the past four years. Will the biggest hit musical of 2015 still work in 2020? It should because Hamilton is a rousing work of art, a musical brimming with wit and history that captures the ideals and contradictions of America and its fallible founders. With a Fourth of July that is going to be unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, Hamilton arrives to remind us of America’s idealistic grace and our shameful shortcomings.
The musical sensation Hamilton streams on Disney+ in a filmed performance which captures the show’s original Broadway cast of rising stars. The record-breaking musical captures the contradictions of America’s foundation through the stage show based on the life of Alexander Hamilton.