If You Only Know the Cast Album, Watching ‘Hamilton’ on Disney+ Is a Thrilling Experience

     July 3, 2020

For a lot of people, myself included, the #1 thing you know about Hamilton—next to the earworm hooks, the history, and Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s emergence as America’s friendliest uncle—is how unlikely it felt for so long that you’d ever actually see it. Earlier this week, my colleague Matt Goldberg provided a thoughtful review of the show’s filmed debut on Disney+, from the perspective of someone who saw its original Broadway run. But for five years Hamilton existed to me only in the form of a cast album, and it’s impossible to describe what it’s like to watch the Disney+ film without talking about the ways in which it still doesn’t feel real.

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Image via Disney+

I worked in Manhattan when Hamilton first debuted in 2015, first off-Broadway at the Public and then straight to the Richard Rodgers Theater, and watched as it split the city into factions like a YA novel: the vaunted Had Seens and the undesirable Had Not Seens. If you couldn’t plunk down roughly $800 during the 6 seconds a back row ticket was available and/or win the lottery system, you immediately gravitated to the cast album, the recorded collection of impossibly catchy tracks blending hip-hop, R&B, and classic show tune bangers to tell the story of hero/genius/bastard/adulterer/Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Those songs became such an integral part of New York the local government might as well have piped “My Shot” directly into the speakers on the G Train. For anyone who couldn’t actually see it in a theater it became this, like, monolithic thing, something I’d never witness with my own two eyes but could recite word-for-word. Sure, it eventually got more accessible and started touring, but you’d never see it like this. With this cast. In this specific moment.

Uuuuuuntil Disney announced it would release a filmed version of an OG cast performance from 2016, and then shortly afterward announced that filmed version would hit Disney+ a year earlier than expected. The first feeling after that initial burst of excitement was a weird trepidation. There isn’t really anything quite like live theater in the room [deep, deep soul-rending sigh] where it happens, much less live theater in the middle of becoming a phenomenon. Could a camera really capture something like that?

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Image via Disney+

The answer: If you’re only intimately familiar with the cast album, watching director Thomas Kail’s recorded Hamilton on Disney+ feels like one of your favorite book characters come to life, something that’s existed only in your head given corporeal form. It’s something that sounds like a no-brainer that still manages to be shocking here, the fact that the visuals of a live show turn a story you’ve heard thousands of times into a brand new experience. Especially in a show where the casting itself—each of America’s Founding Fathers and 99% of the story’s real historical figures are played by a person of color—is a bold statement. No matter how many times you’ve heard Renée Elise Goldsberry belt “Rewind, Rewind, I remember that night, I just might” in “Satisfied”, you couldn’t know that the action literally rewinds behind her. No matter how many times you’ve laughed at Jonathan Groff’s sheer commitment to being as snooty as humanly possible in “You’ll Be Back,” you couldn’t know that he goes for it so hard that spit flies from his mouth and down his chin. And no matter the countless times you’ve marveled at Leslie Odom Jr.‘s voice of velvet, you couldn’t possibly understand that it’s the subtly of his facial expressions that turn his Aaron Burr (sir) into a tragic figure. 

Which is why my biggest takeaway from all this is Hamilton on Disney+ is going to create a whole new generation of theater fans. The show’s music is the kind that transcended an interest in the actual theater; “Non-Stop” rips whether it’s coming from the mouth of a classically trained performer or a cheap pair of headphones you bought at Duane Reade. Couple that with the frighteningly powerful pull of Disney, and even the most casual fans of the music will check out Hamilton on Disney+. And that unique blend of sight and sound and tangible physical performance is going to blow their freaking minds, as it did mine deep into my 20s. That’s the ever-changing, spit-flying magic of a live performance. The type of magic that should be accessible, even if you do need to drop two “fucks” to make it so.

“Southern motherfucking Democratic-Republicans” does, tragically, lose some of its oomph. That I’ll admit. Luckily, your own living room is more lax about screaming the word “motherfucker” than the Richard Rodgers Theater.

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