When theaters went dark in March due to the COVID lockdown, the Broadway community responded with pluck and perseverance. Within days, theater groups began streaming live benefit shows, archived classic performances, Zoom-style readings, and later, original content. “Let’s Go On With The Show” has been their mantra, their rallying cry.
Which is not to say that all offerings are worth watching. The dizzying array of options is a mixed bag, with many endeavors falling flat on my flat screen TV. The boxy Zoom format is largely ill-suited to theater, where chemistry between characters is key. Technical glitches abound, and actors are occasionally upstaged by pets gone rogue. A Zoom-style reading of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” for example, left me cold. Not even the venerable Leslie Uggams could save it.
Broadway’s revolutionary historical musical revamped for the screen, with revolutionary results
What’s more, I miss the ineffable frisson that can only manifest from seeing live performers giving their all, in a communal setting. The filmed staging of James Corden’s breakout Broadway comedy, “One Man, Two Guvnors,” courtesy of National Theatre Live, felt oddly labored within the confines of my quarantine.
Despite all the digital connectivity, it’s easy to feel, well, disconnected.
So when Disney announced it was releasing a “live capture” filmed version of “Hamilton,” I was dubious. Having been blown away when first seeing the megahit on Broadway (I eagerly went back a couple more times), I wondered how viewing the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical on a small screen could possibly hold a candle to seeing it in the flesh.
To my surprise, the story of the rise and demise of the “young, scrappy, and hungry” American statesman retains much of its magic and still packs a wallop. Disney reportedly paid $75 million for the rights to stream the movie, which premiered on its Disney Plus channel over the July 4th weekend.
One of the many joys of this “Hamilton” is that it features the now-iconic original Broadway cast: the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson/ Marquis de Lafayette, and Jonathan Groff as King George III, among others.
It is unlikely you’ll see this magnificent company intact in any theater, ever again. Plus, unlike conventional theatergoing, there’s no need to worry about the substitution of a beloved cast member. A couple of years ago I had splurged on tickets specifically to see Manuel’s replacement, Javier Muñoz. But on that night, my Playbill was stuffed with white slips, as Muñoz and several other actors were absent. I was miffed.
The dynamic filmed version, a trenchant blend of theatrical and cinematic virtuosity, was co-produced by Miranda and it shows. The technical wizardry is astounding, the high-definition picture quality is first-rate, and the crisp sound is clearer than in an actual theater. The supremely gifted Miranda, you may recall, not only starred in the title role but also wrote the book, music, and lyrics.
Director Thomas Kail, who helmed the original production, crafted the movie by filming multiple performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. Echoing the innovative double turntable onstage, the pacing is extremely fluid, which amps up the exhilaration. He’s taken care to retain elements of live theater, like audience applause and cheers, and the triumphant curtain call.
The probing camera (Declan Quinn is the cinematographer) captured a variety of angles from the house, bird’s-eye views of the entire stage, glimpses from backstage, and intimate close-ups of the actors at crucial moments. Now you can see a teardrop on Soo’s cheek as Eliza grapples with Hamilton’s infidelity. Or the spittle from Groff’s lips as the foppish King snarls, “You’ll be back.”
In other words, this game-changing “Hamilton” guarantees you’ll have the best seat(s) in the house. In a bid for verisimilitude, Playbill is even offering a downloadable, printable program that you can rifle through during the performance — without being shushed.
When it premiered five years ago, “Hamilton” was revolutionary in retelling the tangled history of America’s birth with a blast of contemporary flair. The genius score was a combustive mix of hip-hop, rap, R&B, pop, and showtunes. The cast was multicultural, playing against type — founding fathers portrayed by men of color! Women were given a long overdue spotlight. The bold choreography and sleeveless costumes of the chorus members were downright sexy.
The pop culture phenomenon won 11 Tony Awards, and watching it on the small screen only confirms the accolades were well deserved.
Another plus is that the juggernaut of a show is finally accessible to a wide audience, at a reasonable price. For theater fans longing for shows during the coronavirus pandemic, this “Hamilton” couldn’t have come at a better time.
As you watch, it’s impossible not to think about the current events rocking America and beyond. Never before has the number “The World Turned Upside Down” resonated so acutely.
So if you refused to fork over hundreds of dollars to see the spectacle live, now’s your chance. And while no film can match the thrill of seeing a live performance in a theater, this “Hamilton” still delivers an affecting jolt of theatricality during this era of protracted isolation. You may even forget that, for a couple of precious hours, you are not literally in “The Room Where It Happens.”
HAMILTON | Access on DisneyPlus.com; subscription required | Two hrs., 40 mins., with a one-min. intermission