Disney / WIRED
Hamilton is a strange kind of cultural phenomenon – it managed to gain huge mass appeal while being largely unavailable to the masses. The wildly successful musical, about the life and death of United States founding father Alexander Hamilton, has become hugely popular without ever being available to watch for people who lived outside a major city, or who couldn’t afford to spend hundreds on tickets.
Even those who could afford tickets often couldn’t get them – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sharp, smart production rightly won huge praise for its diverse cast, its fresh musical approach, and its modern take on some key moments in American history, meaning you had to book months in advance to secure a coveted seat.
As a result, people found other ways to partake – listening to the playlist on Spotify over and over (more than two million monthly listeners), or watching shaky bootleg videos on YouTube, and then after takedown notices made that impossible, on Pornhub. The result was strange – when the show finally opened in London, some members of the audience already knew all the words, even though it was the first time they’d actually seen it. It was more like going to see a band play its greatest hits than experiencing a piece of art for the first time.
Now, fans are finally getting a chance to watch a version of the show legitimately, as it launches on Disney+ for streaming today. In February, the entertainment giant paid a record $75 million (£60m) for the rights to a recording of a live performance of the show, originally with a view to a widespread release in cinemas in October 2021. Instead, Disney has moved the release onto forward because of the pandemic – and it could be a potent weapon in the streaming wars.
The production itself is a couple of steps above the usual single fixed camera position used for on-screen versions of stage shows. It is a ‘live capture,’ recorded during two performances by the original cast on Broadway in June 2016 – jarring in itself, a different world! – using six different cameras positioned at various angles and heights and scattered through the audience. This footage was combined with some specially shot scenes filmed without a crowd, so that cameraman could jump on stage with steadicams and cranes to get new angles that even those in the posh seats can’t.
The stream opens with a short Zoom video of director Thomas Kail and creator (and star) Lin-Manuel Miranda talking about why they felt now was the right time to release Hamilton – given the current political situation in the United States, a story of the strength of immigration and independence feels particularly poignant (even if Miranda has been criticised for glossing over some of the nastier aspects of the titular character’s background).
After that, it’s ostensibly the same show seen by theatregoers – barring two swear words which had to be censored in order to appease family friendly Disney – but it makes for a very different experience. Instead of your attention being directed by lights or vocal cues, it’s selected for you by the director Thomas Kail’s choice of shot. “The task for me was to try to create a document of what it felt like to be in that room,” Kail has said. “This is not trying to be the show. This is its own experience and I think we tried to embrace the love we have for being in the theatre.”
Variety likens it to a Super Bowl half-time show – something that works for TV, but which is probably better in person. The effect isn’t quite cinematic – it’s still live, after all – and it can sometimes be a bit distracting, but it’s arguably a better viewing experience and more immersive than being jammed in the cheap seats at the back of the room surrounded by rustling and coughing. (Although there is a one minute intermission, where you can pay five times too much for an ice cream to replicate the full theatre experience).
Watching on Disney+ is certainly the cheaper option, and although it takes a while to get into it without the buzz of a real-life audience (although you can hear one on the recording), it will be satisfying enough to be a big success.
Disney knows it’s on to a winner here, and it’s no surprise that it has suspended it’s free trial offer for its new streaming platform. Until two weeks ago, new accounts could get a free week of access to the streaming service.
The pandemic shutdown has placed new emphasis on the battle for streaming dominance between Netflix, Amazon, Disney and others. But with cinemas soon to reopen, Disney’s blockbuster releases will soon be back on the big screen – so Hamilton could be the company’s best shot at gaining ground on its rivals.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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