If you were growing up in the late 1950s, like I was, you probably were enthralled by a Disney film about a Revolutionary War apprentice silversmith, Johnny Tremain. But from here on, when the Disney name is mentioned with our War of Independence, it will be because the entertainment conglomerate paid $75 million for the rights to a video recording of the award-laden, mega-successful hip-hop musical, Hamilton.
While the announced plan was to release it in theaters in October 2021, the much-anticipated recording’s premiere has instead been moved up to this July 4th weekend, for home viewing on the company’s new streaming service dubbed Disney+.
Directed by Thomas Kail, who staged the show, it was assembled from three separate performances in June of 2016, at the end of Hamilton’s first year on Broadway, just before many of the original cast members were readying to leave for other projects. Only partially kidding, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived the show, wrote its music, lyrics and book, and originated the title role, has said that the purpose of the recording is to take away the bragging rights of the relatively few theatergoers who saw the original cast at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Motives aside, this is one of the best captures ever of a live stage performance to video. It helps that the material is a landmark in the musical theater, unconventional in form and style yet reverent to the traditions of the very American art form. Hamilton is both a highly effective history lesson and an enormously entertaining, emotional experience.
Then Kail demonstrates a very savvy way with camera angles and shot choices, assisted by astute editing from Jonah Moran. And crucial for a show with such densely packed, runaway-train-speed lyrics, great care was taken with the sound to produce aural clarity. I have had the good fortune to have seen the stage show several times, but there were many lyrics I understood for the first time while listening to the Disney+ presentation.
For the sake of the uninitiated, Hamilton is adapted from the biography by Ron Chernow of the Caribbean-born orphan immigrant who became our first Secretary of the Treasury, the designer of our national monetary system. But ambitious and egotistical, Hamilton was prone to making political enemies, including Vice President Aaron Burr, whose legacy is primarily that he shot and killed Hamilton in a pistol duel.
Almost as startling as the hip-hop music – not unlike that of Miranda’s earlier In the Heights – is his purposeful casting of people of color in the roles of our Founding Fathers. And while the national touring companies have been well-cast, seeing the originating performers – still remarkably fresh after living with these roles for so long – is a revelation. This is particularly so in the cases of Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler and Christopher Jackson as George Washington.
One wonders by what commercial benchmarks Disney will measure the success of this recording, but the attention and acclaim it is receiving suggests that other video adaptations of Broadway shows may follow. Of course, it is hard to accurately gauge what effect this film’s release would have on the box office of Hamilton’s stage productions, since they have all been put on pause by the coronavirus crisis.
Still, it seems likely that many of the new viewers of Hamilton will want to experience the show live, to be “in the room where it happens” when theaters open up again. No, this expertly rendered recording does not have the impact of seeing Hamilton in person, but it comes awfully close.