Hamilton on Disney+ is not really a movie. That’s not meant as an insult, but rather a clarification. Stage and film are two different mediums, and the Hamilton on Disney+ is a filmed version of a stage show. It will always be limited by how one show was intended. A movie has different settings, can use various visual effects and, most importantly, can edit. A filmed version of a stage show is always going to exist as a strange hybrid between two mediums, and it’s a testament to the work of director Thomas Kail that he’s able to translate his vision for the stage play into a reasonable re-recreation of what it’s like to watch Hamilton live. Ultimately, no filmed version could ever be a suitable substitute for a live performance, but as someone who has seen Hamilton on Broadway, Kail’s movie gets the audience pretty close to the same exhilaration and wonder created by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical.
Recorded at the Richards Rodgers Theater in New York City in June 2016, Hamilton captures the entire musical from beginning to end with the addition of a brief introduction from Miranda and Kail about why they chose to make the film and release it now. For those who don’t know, the story follows the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) from his arrival in New York City as a young man through his work during the Revolutionary War, his marriage to socialite Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), his service under George Washington (Christopher Jackson), his contentious time in government against Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), and through it all, his frenemy-ship with the man who would kill him, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).
Before I saw Hamilton on Broadway in 2018, I was obsessed with the soundtrack. I listened to it so many times that I pretty much had all of the songs memorized even if I could never in a million years rhyme as fast as someone like Diggs. But listening to the soundtrack is only half the picture. Seeing the show fills in the rest, and the question for the film is how close does it get you to being in the theater? In the theater, you’re in a fixed position and Kail uses numerous camera angles and edits to make this version more cinematic. But in the theater, you also have the electricity of the crowd, and you can feel a performer feeding off the energy of the audience. It’s a reciprocal relationship that demands your full attention because you cannot pause and you cannot shift (I’ll note here that the Disney+ version has a 1-minute intermission if you’re looking for a place to put a pause in the 162-minute show). Movies are different than stage productions, but Kail gets us surprisingly close to being in the Richard Rodgers Theater.
When you’re watching Hamilton performed, the whole picture comes into view. It’s not just the beauty of Miranda’s musical and story, but everything that makes stage performances so immediate and vivacious. We can see the nuances of the actors’ performances. We can see the gorgeous choreography. The lighting is immaculately constructed. Everything comes together where you realize that it wasn’t just the outstanding book, lyrics, and music that made Hamilton a sensation or even casting actors of color to play white historical figures. It was everything coming together to make this a masterpiece and one of the finest musicals of the 21st century.
I’m genuinely surprised that Hamilton doesn’t feel small on a screen. I watched my screener on my computer because the AppleTV app was being uncooperative, and I was still mesmerized by the stagecraft and performances. Kail makes good use of his close-ups (even if you’re seeing spittle fly from Jonathan Groff’s King George), and knows how to convey the musical’s clever sight gags. For anyone whose experience with Hamilton comes solely from listening to the album (which, again, is how I experienced it for years) will feel like the filmed version is an awakening. It’s a few steps shy of what you really want—to be in the room—but it can’t be dismissed simply because it’s not the ideal experience. Also, to be fair to the Disney+ experience, watching Hamilton in the comfort of my own home means I get to sing along or dance, which is frowned upon at the theater.
Revisiting Hamilton, I was curious if it would hold up or if it was a well-timed phenomenon of 2015-2016. In such a politicized environment with a new take on unconventional material, perhaps we all got enraptured by Hamilton and now that passion has cooled over the past several years. But I’m pleased to say that Hamilton endures. Miranda was able to use the story of Hamilton to reach larger themes of legacy and values in the context of the American experiment, and even when we’ve seen our country brought incredibly low over the last four years, the aspirational quality of Miranda’s work does give you a charge. Perhaps the cynics will dismiss it as played out or overly earnest, but I was just as electrified by “Wait for It” and heartbroken at “It’s Quiet Uptown” as I was when I saw the musical a couple years ago. This is a special show, and I’m glad more people will now have the chance to see it.
All that being said, I must repeat that Hamilton isn’t really a movie. I say that because Hamilton is, and always has been, a surprisingly cinematic stage page. Kail and Miranda play around with time, slowing things down, creating the semblance of special effects like a bullet slowing down or Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry) replaying a scene from her perspective as opposed to her sister’s. These are elements that could be translated to a real movie, and I imagine given the popularity of the stage show that they one day will be. But for what we have now—a stage show captured on film—we have an impressive approximation of the theater-viewing experience, something I value even more now as we’re forced to stay at home and Broadway is shut down until 2021. Hamilton on Disney+ may not be the real thing, but it’s damn close.