How did Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, turn into a worldwide sensation en route to becoming one of the most successful theatre productions of all time?
The answer to that question begins with its composer, lyricist and star – Lin-Manuel Miranda. While on a break from his other award-winning play In the Heights he penned Hamilton, a musical about the life of George Washington’s chief aide during the Revolutionary War. Debuting on Broadway in 2015 it was quickly evident that he had captured lightning in a bottle, and everyone who was lucky enough to experience the show live felt compelled to spread the word.
New audiences were excited to see what all the Hamilton fuss was about in cinemas towards the end of 2021 when Disney nabbed the rights to the live performance for a record-breaking fee, but a pandemic turned the world upside down. Thankfully, sensing a rare opportunity to capitalise on the sudden reduction of live performances, concerts, and Broadway, the powers that be moved up the release date by over a year.
The result? A Hamilton ‘movie’ with the original cast, recorded live in 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, will be available for all Disney+ subscribers this week. And as Miranda himself puts it, it might be “the best rehearsed movie of all time.”
When asked about exactly when she knew that Hamilton had the potential to be special, Renée Elise Goldsberry – who won a Tony award for her portrayal of Angelica Schuyler – recalls the first time she heard the demo for ‘Satisfied’, her standout track: “I realised I needed to stop everything that I was doing because it really did stop me in my tracks,” she tells Yahoo Movies UK.
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“Then we did a workshop at this place called the 52nd Street Project in New York where we performed the first act for a very small audience, and my husband and my mother were in that audience. I was so distracted I could not finish singing the songs for wanting to say to them ‘See, I told you so! Isn’t this awesome?’”
From the addictive anthem ‘My Shot’ to the gloriously string-heavy ‘Yorktown’ and countless more, there are many songs in Hamilton that have elicited similar reactions from audiences. Through it all the lyrics are meticulously crafted and, more importantly, resonant. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it hasn’t been surprising to see “history has its eyes on you”, “tomorrow there’ll be more of us”, and other Hamilton quotes adorn posters at Black Lives Matter protests around the world. “When I see a sign at a protest out in the street, I know that the language of the show is connecting in a way that makes me incredibly proud”, says Miranda.
That’s a sentiment that’s echoed by the rest of the cast. “Young kids who are out there who are upset and angry, they can watch this and realise that you can speak out through your pen and not just with rage and anger, and challenge the people who are telling you things that you don’t like to hear, like Hamilton did,” says Okieriete Onaodowan, who embodies both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison in the production. “There’s so many [different lines] that you can use” adds Jasmine Cephas Jones, “because it’s about people taking a stand and it’s about people speaking out.”
On a more basic level, the casual inclusiveness of Hamilton’s cast can be especially impactful in these troubling times. It’s something that Phillipa Soo, who plays Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler in the musical, has come into contact with on multiple occasions: “My favourite thing about the post-Hamilton experience has been the amount of young people of colour, or young Asian women who have approached me and said ‘oh my gosh. Thank you. It is so wonderful to see someone that looks like me.’”
But timeliness is hardly the sole benefit to Hamilton’s forthcoming release. Theatre tickets to the show have been famously hard to come by for the last five years, and a trip to the multiplex hasn’t exactly been cheap for a while. But with one Disney+ subscription, whole families can be in the room where it happens.
“I didn’t grow up seeing Broadway shows” says Leslie Odom Jr., whose portrayal of Aaron Burr earned him a Tony award. “Even when I was a kid it was certainly too much for my little family of four to go see. The access makes it easier to grab onto for a lot more people.”
Once COVID-19 is finally behind us and the world regains some sense of normalcy, there’s still a chance we could see Hamilton’s theatre production on the big screen. But there’s also been plenty of talk about giving Hamilton the full cinematic treatment, and it’s a safe bet that everyone in Hollywood will be chomping at the bit to embody the roles the original cast members helped make legendary.
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“There’s a lot of people out there that would kill it”, says Odom. Jr. “Donald Glover would be great. Or maybe even Mos Def? He’s exceptional”. Goldsberry meanwhile is not opposed to the idea of a cameo – “I hope they can roll me on to say “WERK!” as I roll by!” – but hopes the casting directors go in a slightly different direction if a Hamilton movie comes to pass: “I love the idea of discovering somebody new. One of the things I really loved about what they did when they cast the show was that they didn’t believe that they needed any particular name.
“They were so confident in the power of the story and the message. They married the soul of the actors with the soul of their characters, and that’s why it works”.
Hamilton streams exclusively on Disney+ from 3 July.