Commentary: ‘Hamilton’ on Disney+ is entirely on brand for this Broadway musical
Back in February, Disney announced the forthcoming release of a “Hamilton” movie — a filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical juggernaut, featuring the original Broadway cast. It’s “a live theatrical experience that feels just as immediate in your local movie theater,” the composer and star said at the time.
That was before the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. Movie theaters have since closed their doors, and studios have shuffled their release schedules. (Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Miranda’s musical “In the Heights,” previously set to debut next month, is now dated for June 2021.) While the film industry hopes to see theaters reopened sometime this summer, there’s no guarantee that audiences will feel safe enough to show up.
The unprecedented situation begs a question asked in the show by King George III: What comes next?
Disney answered with the announcement Tuesday that “Hamilton” will be released on its streaming service Disney+ on July 3. That’s 15 months earlier than expected. The original theatrical release date was Oct. 15, 2021.
“No other artistic work in the last decade has had the cultural impact of ‘Hamilton’ — an inspiring and captivating tale told and performed in a powerfully creative way,” said Robert A. Iger, executive chairman of the Walt Disney Co., in a statement. “In light of the extraordinary challenges facing our world, this story about leadership, tenacity, hope, love and the power of people to unite against the forces of adversity is both relevant and impactful.”
“Hamilton’s” journey from stage to screen might set a precedent for future productions and normalize the practice of capturing live shows for worldwide release.
The fast-tracking of “Hamilton” to the streaming service on Independence Day weekend is a major pivot for the company. In response to the spread of COVID-19, Disney has delayed the debuts of most of its other theatrical releases, and it added “Frozen II” and “Onward” to Disney+ earlier than expected (“Artemis Fowl,” which was also set to hit theaters, will now debut on the streaming service in June). But it has not yet pushed any title directly to premium video on demand, as Universal did with “Trolls: World Tour” last month.
Is it a strategic move to bring even more users to Disney+, which has secured 50 million subscribers in five months? Or is it encouragement to shareholders, while the company’s resorts have remained mostly closed and sports cable channel ESPN has been left with little to cover? Maybe it’s simply to distract fans from the recent news that Disney has taken on billions of dollars in debt and more than 100,000 employees have been furloughed.
Regardless of the business-related motivations, the decision to release “Hamilton” early on Disney+ is a bold move that makes theater more financially accessible to the masses — a crusade for Miranda that is baked into the DNA of “Hamilton” itself.
“Hamilton,” which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama as well as 11 Tony Awards, tells the story of America’s founding fathers with a cast that reflects the country’s racial diversity. “This is the story of America then, told by America now,” director Thomas Kail has said of its pop and hip-hop score, as well as its casting.
“The show might be prohibitively expensive, but its embodiment of pluralism and diversity will touch anyone who longs to see America live up to its ideals,” wrote Times theater critic Charles McNulty in 2017. "[It] lures us into caring by centering the action on an immigrant ‘self-starter’ whose drive for freedom is matched only by his desire to leave a lasting legacy.”
Tickets to “Hamilton” have been hard to get since it debuted off-Broadway in 2015, and its subsequent stagings around the world have frequently sold out months in advance. The show has grossed $650 million on Broadway, where it consistently charged $849 for center orchestra seats. Each production is often flooded with ticket requests from famous friends. Unfortunately, a story about how America is for everyone couldn’t be seen by just anyone.
Over the years, Miranda and his producers did much to make the show accessible. The Broadway production began offering same-day lottery tickets — $10 apiece, in honor of Hamilton’s mug on the $10 bill. When the in-person contest got so popular that it clogged Manhattan traffic, the lottery moved online. The London run debuted Ticketmaster’s “ticketless” system to ward off bots and scalpers.
The L.A. production of “Hamilton,” at the Pantages Theatre, initially suspended shows through March 31; they’re now canceled through Sept. 6 but the run has been extended through Feb. 28, 2021.
Most notably, Wednesday afternoon performances were regularly reserved for thousands of low-income teens learning about American history in school. The program — charging young attendees $10 each, with private entities like the Rockefeller Foundation and Google helping to cover ticket costs — includes a lesson plan created with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The program has been duplicated in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Five years since its world premiere, “Hamilton” has shown signs of fading as a live phenomenon. Before stages went dark in coronavirus closures, tickets were readily available at non-premium prices at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, for example. Still, tickets to the Pantages, where the run has been rescheduled into February, start at $55.
Even a movie ticket has risen to an average price of nearly $10, so a family trip (sans expensive snacks) remains a luxury for many. If cinemas were operating, they’d still be few and far between in African American and Latinx communities, whose faces “Hamilton” aims to place at center stage.
“Don’t get me started on the fact that many communities of color don’t have a movie theater at all,” director Ava DuVernay tweeted in 2018. “Can’t see ‘Selma’ in Selma. No theater there. Can’t see [‘Straight Outta Compton’] in Compton. No theater there.”
Bringing “Hamilton” to the small screen will make it more affordable. Also paramount: The film version features close-ups with the original Broadway cast — Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Christopher Jackson, Jonathan Groff, Phillipa Soo, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos and Ariana DeBose. Tickets to their final performance in 2016 cost nearly $10,000.
Tuesday’s announcement means that this “Hamilton” probably won’t be released on the big screen. That’s a bummer, because its production value was promised to be unmatched for a live-capture of a Broadway show.
“What’s so unique about this iteration of ‘Hamilton’ is that by shooting it over two live performances with 16 cameras, and then having another two days to do dolly shots and close-ups with handhelds and no audience, we’ve captured a very different perspective of the story,” producer Jeffrey Seller previously told The Times. “You are going to experience [intimate moments] that you can never experience watching the show live, no matter how close you’re sitting.”
But the shift to streaming does mean that an entire family can have access to this elusive musical at the cost of one Disney+ subscription ($6.99 per month) or even for free, given that the service offers a free seven-day trial.
Fans with an internet connection and a screen of any size will be able to watch “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City no matter where they live. (Even a free, at-home version of the show’s student education program is now available.)
It’s gorgeously poetic that, because of the novel coronavirus — a “rich man’s disease” that is disproportionately harming the poor — the “Hamilton” film can soon be seen for next to nothing.
“I’m so grateful to Disney and Disney+ for reimagining and moving up our release to July 4th weekend of this year, in light of the world turning upside down,” said Miranda in a statement Tuesday. “I’m so grateful to all the fans who asked for this, and I’m so glad that we’re able to make it happen.
“I’m so proud of this show. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Streaming gives theaters a temporary lifeline, but could the practice ultimately encourage theatergoers to give up the live experience?
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