Review: Hamilton on Disney Plus is as good as at-home theatre gets

Thanks to COVID-19 there is no theatre in the world at which you can see Hamilton right now and on this basis alone, Disney is onto a winner.

The musical has been the hottest and most expensive ticket everywhere it has opened since 2015, so shelling out $9.99 for a month of Disney Plus is an undeniable bargain.

For superfans, the thrills will start right from the opening Disney castle sequence. The rest of you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

The musical's eponymous protagonist is Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the United States $10 bill who worked alongside the country's first President George Washington and who established, among other things, the country's first central bank.

He's of no relation to the namesake of our city of the same name, Captain John Hamilton, although both men are controversial - more on that later.

The show's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda utilised a range of musical styles from hip-hop and rap through to traditional Broadway, and the show became nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, universally praised for its exceptional performances and non-traditional casting of people of colour in the lead roles.

Director Thomas Kail and his team have done an exceptional job of filming the stage production, featuring the original Broadway cast, for the screen. 

Hamilton the musical on Disney Plus.
Photo credit: Disney Plus

For theatre regulars, there's a slight adjustment required in surrendering your gaze to the filmmakers, but the trade-off is an experience almost as rich as spending your life savings on a front row seat.

The film also makes good use of non-theatrical perspectives. The shots from upstage and above the stage are rare gems utilised to breathtaking effect.

Editing also ramps up the humour and tension in key songs. Look out for 'Satisfied', already a theatrical triumph, now taken to a sublime new level.

Andy Blankenbuehler's swirling, exacting choreography shines, although occasionally the ensemble effect is sacrificed in favour of a tighter shot.

The audio has been beautifully recorded and mixed. Those intimately familiar with the cast recording will find this version - appropriately - much more live, dynamic and ambient. 

However, it may also make you realise how terrible your TV speakers are. I recommend experimenting with its audio settings, or watching with some good headphones if you don't have a decent sound system connected to your tele.

Especially if you're unfamiliar with the material, you'll want to give Hamilton your full attention - particularly for when the ingenious double-casting kicks in during the Second Act.

Hamilton in the context of Black Lives Matter

It cannot be ignored that Hamilton is being released into a vastly different political and social climate than when it first appeared on stage in 2015.

Then, America's first black president was still in power. The musical's diverse cast and embrace of black music styles were seen as a triumph and an inspiration, a way for marginalised people to reclaim history by taking on the roles of white men.

It's now essential to approach the text with a more critical eye.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton is now on Disney Plus in New Zealand.
Photo credit: Disney Plus

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Slavery is not ignored in the musical - in fact, its abolition is expressly called for. However, certain aspects are glossed over, for example the fact George Washington and the Schuyler sisters' father Philip both owned slaves.
  • There is evidence Hamilton himself, whilst publicly denouncing slavery, was also involved in slave trading for a time. This is not mentioned, although Hamilton is far from presented as a flawless protagonist.
  • There is no explicit mention of the racial division that existed at the time (although immigrants are celebrated), and no featured Black or Native American characters.

To me, none of this makes Hamilton irrelevant or damaging. The context into which it is released now adds even more layers to an already complex text and strengthens the cry of its iconic refrain: History has its eyes on you. 

Finally I want to say - as sublime as this work is, watching a recording of a show will never replace the experience of going to the theatre. 

In New Zealand we are so fortunate our venues are able to put on shows again; go and support your local theatre company and high school. We need them as much as they need us.

It will be at least 2021 before anyone can watch Hamilton live again. Until then, the small screen experience will leave you feeling more than satisfied.