Review: Disney+'s sensational live recording of 'Hamilton' will leave you breathless
Courtesy of Disney
Prepare to be in the room where it happens.
In this case, the room just happens to exist in your home, which, until now, seemed like a crazy notion, especially when tickets for Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton” can easily collect $250 bucks for the nosebleeds at the Richard Rodgers theater. Alas, in our era of solitude and quarantine, Disney has come to be our savior in these trying times and are giving us the smash hit “Hamilton” in all its hip-hop perfection for the low price of $6.99.
That’s right: every lyric, rap battle, and song is perfectly on display in director Thomas Kail’s (he also directed the show on Broadway) faithful recording of the beloved production - featuring the stellar original cast! - that Disney forked over a hefty $75 million for the rights to produce. But pandemics have a funny way of changing our history and Disney decided to scrap its initial 2021 premiere for a speedier launch on Disney+ where it's guaranteed to lure subscribers faster than anyone can sing “My Shot.”
Considering the recent news that Broadway is going dark until next year, this is the closest we’re going to get to live theater (at least for now) and though Disney obviously had box office dollars in its sight, there’s no denying that the country needed a pick-me-up right now, and “Hamilton” feels like the public service we all yearned for and - minus a muted F-bomb or two - the show is as advertised.
Like many, I was lucky enough to catch “Hamilton” when it toured in my neck of the woods last year (see review here) and you enter a show on that scale wondering if all the talk and hype is just static in the wind: “How can something be this great?” I would constantly ask myself. And then I saw it live and completely understood where everyone was coming from. This show rules. Of course, nothing can beat getting the chills in your spine when Aaron Burr sings “Wait for It” or Angelica Schuyler belts “Satisfied” in the literal flesh, but this “Hamilton” gives us the original cast (it was filmed just before folks started to leave in June 2016) and it instantly makes the movie a must see.
After a brief introduction from Miranda and director Kail, audiences are thrown into 161 minutes of pure, unedited glory of “Hamilton” complete with the unseen audiences’ hoots, laughs, cheers, and rapturous applause (there’s even a minute at intermission so you can run for a pee break before Act II). Kail understands this isn’t the feature adaptation that will eventually be made from the production, and that’s the film's greatest strength. Fans will also be relieved to see John Lauren’s death scene - which is omitted from the original soundtrack - is included here as a bonus for those who did get to see it live.
Better than a front row seat - during Jonathan Groff’s King George interludes, you can see the spit dripping from his mouth - Kail’s “Hamilton” is a work of cinematic artistry. Shot over the course of two live performances - with closeups filmed in addition to that - the editing and seamless cutting of the different angles don’t hinder the overall impact and message of the show. Even when it might be obvious to zoom in on an actor's face during a rather emotional moment, give credit to Kail and his crew for not overstepping their boundaries and allowing the actors gravatas and libretto to save the day.
And even if you did see it live, not many could afford to get close enough to see the sweat glisten from Chistopher Jackson’s face or the facial expressions Leslie Odom Jr constantly puts on. Unless you were on the stage, no ticket could buy that detail and exposure. And it all feels like a force of nature. Your appreciation for Odom Jr’s Aaron Burr will only deepen as you watch the look of anguish and defeat wash over his face, or Philip Soo’s, as Eliza Hamilton, heartbreaking ballad “Burn” takes you to another planet. Small and minor touches otherwise missing from the live experience.
The message of resilience and dictating who tells our stories is a rousing theme experienced throughout “Hamilton.” And how refreshing that during these times of political and racial uncertainty we see the lens of history told by the people who built our country: immigrants and African-Americans. It’s no surprise that “Hamilton” feels as relevant and hip today as it did when it first premiered five years ago, and when you’ve only seen the musical in a wide setting, the cuts, a basic two-shot for example, can amplify a certain gesture or provide new context to a song you thought you knew inside and out.
Still, “Hamilton” is a hip and rousing rap musical that takes the bold liberty of casting our Founding Fathers as people of color, paving the way for a new era of representation and inclusion on the live theater circuit. It’s an excellent piece of social commentary that says everything it needs to without acknowledging the elephant in the room.
Disney+’s “Hamilton” will also provide unmitigated access to those who never had a prayer of seeing the show live, and - in a way - “Hamilton” had set a new bar for ticket prices in The Big Apple (a front row seat was priced at around $600 when the theater was open) and this recording almost works as an apology for anyone who spent their life savings - or took a second mortgage on their house - to purchase a ticket.
In the end, this is an ideal way to see this show as it allows audiences to fully immerse themselves in Miranda’s infectious lyrics, balk at David Korin’s slick, Tony Award winning, production design and appreciate Paul Tazewell’s stunning and crisp costume work. And for that we must be grateful, because in these dark and depressing times, it's easy to lose sight of the beautiful art that exists in our world and watching “Hamilton” - even if it's just a recording of a musical - instills that hope we can break through and come out victorious.
Just you wait.
HAMILTON premieres on Disney+ Friday July 3rd.