‘Hamilton’ on Disney+ reproduces the star power of the original Broadway production
Lin-Manuel Miranda originally conceived of the Disney+ version of his hip-hop musical Hamilton—itself inspired by Ron Chernow’s book—as a feature film before Disney rushed it to the small screen as a Fourth of July birthday gift to a COVID-ravaged nation. Now that Hamilton is (or was, until recently) touring the world and not quite the impossible-to-get Broadway ticket it once was, the chance to see the original, youthful, mostly non-white cast, many of whom have become familiar faces (and voices) through post-Hamilton projects, has become the main attraction of the film.
Daveed Diggs has appeared on Blackish and Snowpiercer as well as voicing Central Park and the upcoming Pixar film Soul. Christopher Jackson popped up in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and the CBS legal drama Bull. Leslie Odom Jr. made Murder on the Orient Express, Harriet, Central Park, and three solo albums. Jonathan Groff was Kristoff in the Frozen films and starred in Mindhunter. Miranda—who is almost as industrious as Hamilton himself—has been busy making Disney movies (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns) as well as a 2021 film version of his pre-Hamilton Broadway hip-hop hit, In the Heights.
These are performances worth preserving—and rewatching, again and again. As Alexander Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr, Odom’s dulcet, smooth-jazz tones balance Miranda’s furious rap skills in the title role, which mirror Hamilton’s prolific writing. When Burr does let his guard down and unleash his passions—for the married woman he loves, for their daughter, for his political ambitions—it’s electrifying in a way Ben Franklin never imagined, and it’s easy to understand why he beat out the multitalented Miranda for the Tony.
Groff was (rightly) nominated for a supporting actor Tony for his nine minutes of stage time as King George III; so was Jackson, for his soulful interpretation of George Washington. They (rightly) lost to Diggs, who plays the arrogant, idealistic Marquis de Lafayette as well as the arrogant, cynical slaveowner Thomas Jefferson. Another Tony went to Renée Elise Goldsberry for her fierce, heartbreaking performance as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law and soul mate.
While most pop culture takes on the Founding Fathers—like 1776, the Tony-winning 1969 musical, or HBO’s John Adams¸ in which Rufus Sewell played the famously handsome Hamilton—have focused on the action in Boston and Philadelphia, Hamilton’s is a New York story, and seeing the diverse company sing about “the greatest city in the world” on Broadway was its own special kind of meta entertainment. But it’s also a reminder that New York was a battleground; the British invaded New York and New Jersey in 1776, driving George Washington’s Army back to Pennsylvania.
Fears that the production would be Disneyfied are somewhat justified—they’ve bleeped out a couple of F-bombs—but the filmed version does a good job of capturing the energy of live theater, while giving viewers the best seat in the house. I saw an early performance with this cast, and I’ve never been in an audience that was so pumped up—not at a Broadway show, not at a rock concert, not at a blockbuster movie premiere. The laughs and cheers of the live audience are part of the show, though judiciously edited out so as not to interrupt the songs; a one-minute intermission and a curtain call add to the theatrical illusion.
Unlike a lot of the lockdown streaming content recently offered by institutions like the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, or the Public Theater, where Hamilton made its off-Broadway debut—this doesn’t feel like a filmed play or a bootleg video. Imagine a live Tony Awards broadcast performance, but with way better production values. The camera sometimes films from the ground up, as if watching from the orchestra seats. Later, it moves to the balcony, or overhead, or zooms in for a close-up. Occasionally, it’s behind the actors, looking out over the audience. Complex numbers like “Satisfied”—a showstopping coup de théâtre on stage—and “The Ten Duel Commandments” (a song equally indebted to Jay-Z and Yale American history professor Joanne B. Freeman) get their due. The small screen doesn’t diminish Odom’s magnetism, Jackson’s presence, Goldsberry’s fire, Diggs’ effortless charisma, or Miranda’s impish precociousness.
On a busy, revolving stage with a large, hyperactive cast, the film captures intimate moments without losing too much of the big picture. Sometimes it captures them too well; I wish the actors had left off their face mikes, which are jarring up close. The theatrical lighting is murky at times, and, if you haven’t already memorized the cast album, you’ll probably want to turn on the subtitles to keep up with the fast-paced rhyme-spitting.
But the musical’s themes are just as timely as they were in 2015—or 1789, for that matter. America still grapples with political sex scandals, corruption behind closed doors, prioritizing Wall Street over farmers, and, yes, gun violence. Miranda’s musical callouts to artists like the Notorious B.I.G., Ja Rule, Busta Rhymes, and Beyoncé have held up surprisingly well; there are also references to musical-theater classics like South Pacific and The Pirates of Penzance. And even though the ending is preordained, it still comes as a gut punch. I ugly-cried in the theater, and again while watching it in my living room.
“You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” Washington tells Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was doubly lucky to have his legacy preserved by his wife, Eliza, and then rehabilitated by Miranda. Thanks to Disney, his story will reach a new and vastly larger audience. It was worth waiting for.