What does the Hamilton movie mean for the future of musical theatre?
Broadway-to-film adaptations have long allowed people to enjoy the stories of musicals beyond their theatre run. While films based on musicals date as far back as the 1920s, this trend became increasingly popular in the 1950s and 60s with adaptations of The King and I, West Side Story, Funny Girl, and Oliver!. Oliver! was the last movie musical to win best picture at the Oscars until Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago in 2002, which can be seen as responsible for a resurgence of these adaptations in the years that followed: Hairspray, Les Miserables, Into The Woods, as well as the third film adaption of Annie in 2014. But none have garnered as much attention as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit Hamilton. In contrast to the active translations (putting them in context using film sets and such) that came before, Hamilton arrived on Disney+ as a recording of the live performance from 2016.
The buzz surrounding Miranda’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton has been inescapable. Miranda has often joked about how the concept (a hip-hop musical about an immigrant founding father and his short but eventful life) doesn’t sound as though it should work. But it did. By casting exceptionally talented people of colour as White historical figures, it is one of the most diverse shows on Broadway and makes a story from the late 1700s increasingly relevant to the present day. In fact, Miranda added two extra bars after Hamilton and Lafayette share the line: “Immigrants, we get the job done” because of the incredible reaction from the audience. He later told Billboard: “It’s because immigration is at the centre of our politics the way it gets every 20 years … Immigrants helped us win this war and have helped us every step since.” Though, in its arrival on Disney+, the show treads new territory, which begs the question - is this a new era for theatre?
In an interview with BBC Radio 1, director Thomas Kail discussed the obstacles in bringing this immensely successful show to our screens at home. When asked what challenges he faced in filming such a “choreographically complex” show, Kail replied that his ambition was to honour the choreography, the talent, and capture the feeling in that theatre. He aimed to “give [audiences] access and proximity to parts of the story, that you might not be able to see if you had never been in the building, or if you were sitting in the mezzanine”. I do think Kail’s vision was successful. Through the lens, he captures the intensity and intricacy of Hamilton and allows us to experience a more intimate portrayal of the story. Finer details that could be easily missed when watching live, like King Geroge’s nuanced expressions in his solo You’ll Be Back, were highlighted in Kail’s film.
In other ways, however, one could argue this will never match the true experience of theatre. The intricacy of the wider choreography in Satisfied cannot be captured when following Renée Elise Goldsberry as she sings. Audiences can experience the show from the comfort of their home without the price tag, but in reality, no film can provide the magic that a live performance does.
With that said, the increased accessibility is great. Those who can’t easily access a theatre - physically, financially, or otherwise - can now enjoy these musicals. It may also encourage a wider audience to go out to theatres when they reopen, even if they have never visited before. People who had no interest in musicals before watching Hamilton on Disney+ are now waiting on the edge of their seats to book tickets on Broadway or in the West End.
Of course, an increased audience means increased criticism, with Hamilton’s being the centred around the fact it failed to address its characters' ties to slavery. Miranda responded to the criticism saying he welcomed it. It seems as though the controversy is a product of a widening audience five years after the musical premiered. If anything, it’s good that we can be reintroduced to art with a new ability to put it under a microscope, especially in the current political climate.
I’m hopeful that if we were to see more live musicals hit our small screens in this form, it would have a positive impact on the numbers hitting theatres. I have faith in theatres’ ability to draw people in, and the increased accessibility will only aid its perception. After all, many people, myself included, first fell in love with theatre through movie musicals, but still venture out to see the shows live when possible.