Lin-Manuel Miranda likes to picture the millionaire, Mr. Howell, from “Gilligan’s Island,” saying the brag. You know the one. “Well, I saw it with the original cast.”
On Friday, Miranda will steal that boast from anyone who ever saw “Hamilton” in its blistering first year and a half on Broadway. A live capture taken from two of the last performances with most of the original cast in June 2016 will premiere on Disney+, opening a new (and far less expensive) chapter in Miranda’s ever-evolving pop-culture phenomenon. In just a weekend, over Independence Day, more people will see “Hamilton” than ever before.
“There’s a part of me that just likes taking the brag away from people,” says Miranda, speaking from his home in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. “I wanted the world to have that brag.”
“Hamilfilm,” as it’s been nicknamed, will land in homes just days after Broadway announced that its shutdown will continue through at least the end of the year due to the pandemic. Disney, which acquired the film for $75 million, will sacrifice whatever the box-office returns might have come for a major boost to its streaming service and a rush of virtual togetherness. With the stage all to itself, “Hamilton” arrives as a godsend to theatergoers.
“That was a big reason we pushed up the release,” says Miranda of the film originally set to open in theaters in October 2021. “We need a reminder of how magical live theater is.”
One of the first things that hits you watching “Hamilton” is the sensation of being in the midst of applause, with a full house all around. Director Thomas Kail, who also shepherded the stage show, dispersed nine cameras and some 100 microphones around the Richard Rodgers Theatre to document two performances: a Sunday matinee and a Tuesday night show. Tracking and close-up shots were done in between.
For Kail, who spoke by Zoom alongside Miranda, it means giving everyone the same seat — and a chance to dig even deeper into “Hamilton.”
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“There’s a level of inspection of the show that can be quite different than the endorphin rush of watching it knowing that might be your one chance,” says Kail. “In some ways, this will allow it to settle because now it’s yours.”
Since “Hamilton” was first performed at the Public Theater in January 2015 and moved to Broadway that August, the words mostly haven’t changed (though two expletives have been scrubbed to make the film PG-13). But as a rhyming, hip-hop omnibus of national history and identity, slavery and immigration, its power has resonated differently at different times.
Now, the “Rise up!” verses of “My Shot” will sound to many like they’re channeling the protest spirit that has swept across the country since the death of George Floyd. “Hamilton” remains a story of revolution — a triumphant and tragic one told passionately by performers of color. Everyone who perishes in “Hamilton,” Miranda points out, dies from gun violence.
“Everything present at the founding is still present,” says Miranda. “When I am sitting still and listening right now, it’s to the young people who are leading these protests who are saying: This is what we stand for and this is what we won’t stand for. I’m struck by a section that was always treated as comic relief when the show first came out where there’s Samuel Seabury and he’s telling everyone to remain calm. And there’s Hamilton saying there’s nothing calm about what’s happening.”
“The revolution is coming,” Hamilton says.
“Hamilton” has already been woven into contemporary history. Miranda’s first performance of a song from it came at Barack Obama’s White House. Ever since, the history-making musical been indelibly linked to the Obama era. Michelle Obama called it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.”
But after the election of Donald Trump, “Hamilton” took on a more magnified aura of resistance. Just days after polls closed, Mike Pence, then the vice-president elect, attended a show. The cast, doubting Trump and Pence’s support for minorities, read a letter from the stage asking him to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump’s angry response in a series of tweets, Miranda considers “a very early glimpse of the Trump playbook.” Soon, the line “Immigrants, they get the job done” became a more pronounced rallying cry.
“I wrote it as kind of a throwaway line and in the Trump administration it gets this roar of approval,” says Miranda. “You almost feel the audience trying to say, ‘This anti-immigrant sentiment embodied by the current administration is not who we in the audience are.’ Things hit differently than they did in the Obama administration. And they’ll hit differently next year.”
Kail can’t sit in the back of a theater to see how this version of “Hamilton” plays. There were no test screenings except for one a few weeks ago for the cast, including original members Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Jonathan Groff and Renée Elise Goldsberry. But through Disney’s subscription streaming service, it will be out there — somewhere, everywhere — to meet another moment in American history.
“Maybe it can be of use and of service in a way that was totally different than when we played our last performance two months ago or opened four months ago,” says Kail. “Access was always the challenge for us. Access is always the challenge for theater. Here was a chance for us to make the door wider and lower the barrier.”
For Miranda, it couldn’t come soon enough. He wanted the movie out, he says, as soon as he saw Kail’s first cut in late 2016.
“The conversation has always been: Have we played enough cities? Have we given enough people a chance to see the show live before releasing this?” says Miranda. “In a lot of ways, the question was answered for us.”