Every year (aside from 2020 for obvious reasons) I go into London’s West End as part of my yearly Wimbledon visit and try and see a few of the newly opened London shows. Heading into the Victoria Palace Theatre in 2018 beyond the fact I was seeing the hottest ticket in town within the opening six months I did not have a huge amount of hype for the London production of Hamilton. There was a point about 15 minutes into the show that rarely happens in any form of media. it’s that moment when you realise as a viewer that you are in the presence of something special. I had obviously heard the name countless times before seeing the show but the truly impressive thing on that first visit was how seamlessly the show blended together so many different tones and styles to create a complete package of transcendent brilliance. Combine that with some of the sharpest ensemble work you can see on stage and you have a live experience that’s in unparalleled in my experience of seeing it huge variety of different live shows. My first point of comparison was the previous decade defining megahit that had occupied the Victoria Palace Theatre Billy Elliot: The Musical which is a show I enjoyed and has some fantastic songs ( especially Solidarity and Once We Were Kings) but outside of the music did not leave a great emotional impact. I immediately went back and see Hamilton the following year with its place firmly lodged not only among my favourite stage shows but pieces of media generally. If someone gave me a ticket tomorrow, I would go and see it in a heartbeat.
Creator and original star Lin Manuel Miranda had always talked about the fact that a pro shot of the show existed with the Original Broadway Cast and when Disney announced that they had bought the rights and were going to release it theatrically in October 2021 there was a lot to get excited about but also one major reservation. Finally this incredible piece of work is going to be widely available not only for an audience of fans who can’t afford/ don’t have access to see it performed live but also as a record of the pieces brilliance for future generations long after the productions as they currently exists in its live and touring incarnations has gone. With that said the major drawback (certainly my eyes) was that the show had one too many F bombs for Disney’s mandatory PG-13 rating. As it turned out the PG-13 decision was more likely a sacrifice to ensure this filmed edition reached the widest possible audience rather than any direct censorship on the part of Disney.
Then the Coronavirus pandemic hit and it was announced that the filmed edition would be made available 15 months early on Disney +. As both a Hamilton fan and a day one Disney + subscriber this was fantastic news. Disney + has really been struggling to craft its own identity in a post Mandalorian but pre the arrival of its big Marvel shows world and to have this potentially hugely rewatchable document of a cultural phenomenon performed by the cast who made it famous was a huge asset for subscribers. Thus, on the rainy Friday of release I sat down to watch the original Broadway Cast recording of Hamilton. Hugely excited but with the thought the pro shot sub-genre relies heavily on the cinematography and editing choices to convey the power of what makes an individual show. Does the filmed presentation preserve the shows brilliance?
The obvious answer is yes. In fact, I would argue this pro shot does exactly what it was designed to do in showcasing the amazing versatility required for any cast producing Hamilton but especially with the cast that made it such a phenomenon in the first place. There are some parts of the show that this recording completely nails. The “rewind” during Satisfied, anytime Jonathan Groft’s King George III appears, and Leslie Odom Jr’s stunning rendition of Wait For It to name a few. That said as a live experience Hamilton has some of the most electrifying choreography you can see in theatre. It never distracts from the main performers but there can be a lot happening on stage at any one time. What this means in terms of the filmed presentation Is that the majority of the show is captured in medium shots that attempt to showcase everything going on. It does go into fairly extreme close up when two characters are singing or rapping against each other and during some of these solo show stoppers (Wait For It and Burn come to mind.)
The Disney marketing team want to reassure viewers this presentation will offer them a front row seat to the show. I think it’s more accurate to say that this presentation offers a solid middle of the stalls view. The viewer doesn’t miss any important details but the one major disadvantage of the filmed edition Is that for as much as it is trying to give the viewer an idea of everything going on it doesn’t really achieve this and the impact of the brilliant choreography feels a lot more muted compared to the brilliant live experience. That said given that this filmed edition is simply included with the cost of a £6 a month subscription as opposed to potentially spending between £30-£200 on a ticket to see the show once this is very easily forgivable. There were also a few points (especially noticeable during The Schuyler Sisters) where some of the shot choices make it look as if the camera is getting it the way of the performers again Well this is noticeable it’s certainly not a deal breaker and won’t bother most viewers. It’s worth noting that Say No To This remains entirely intact tells you something about how the MPAA (and media classifiers generally) approach language compared to sexual content (or in this case heavy implication.)
Now it’s time to tackle my biggest pre-release concern. The censorship. Two F bombs have been censored in order to make the show viable for Disney + with its lack of R rated content. This includes one of my favourite moments in the show Hercules Mulligan’s rap verse during Yorktown. As mentioned this seems based on what Miranda has said like it was a sacrifice to get this version out to the widest possible audience and there seems to be an awareness that the majority or audiences (even younger ones) will have access to the original audio from the cast album and potentially already heard it dozens of times. It would be nice to have this filmed version completely uncensored (it may happen one day) but I’m not going to say the viewers shouldn’t watch this (especially when the original audio is readily available.) That send it’s definitely something fans should be aware of going in.
There are definite nit-picks you can have with the presentation of Hamilton on Disney +. At its core though it makes this brilliant piece of work more accessible while showcasing just how effectively everything comes together in the full production in a way you can only get a sense of when listening to individual songs on the cast album. Obviously, the live experience will always be better but with Broadway and large sections of the West End having to go dark until 2021 this filmed edition of a hugely important and generation defining piece of media represents a very small light passing through an incredibly long tunnel for theatre fans and showcases the arts and creative industries at their absolute best.
Live experience (London.) 10/10
Disney + pro shot . 8.5/10.