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Hamilton is still revolutionizing Broadway through accessibility

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There’s an exchange in Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery movie Knives Out that perfectly portrays Don Johnson’s character, Richard, as obnoxious, elitist, and out-of-touch. While praising his late father-in-law’s housekeeper, Marta, he grins and says as an aside, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” He’s quoting the smash Broadway hit Hamilton, which he thinks gives him credibility as a sensitive, in-the-know ally to people of color. “I saw it at the Public,” he says, referring to the show’s celebrated off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan.

The reference is so potent, it hurts. With even the crappiest seats going for hundreds of dollars, even long after the famous original cast left the show, seeing Hamilton live was a signifier of both privilege and literacy in hip, up-to-the-moment culture. Richard wields Hamilton like cultural capital, and it’s a recognizable enough currency that it works as a shorthand, one the general moviegoing public will likely understand.

Now that a filmed version of Hamilton is available on Disney Plus, the cultural capital of seeing the show live hasn’t been voided, but the metaphorical exchange rate has gone down. Anyone with a Disney Plus account can see Hamilton as it was originally staged, with its original cast. It’s a major step forward in making the famously expensive, location-bound, inaccessible institution more accessible to the general public. And the filmed version helps cement Hamilton’s legacy as a revolutionary piece of musical theater.

Photo: Disney Plus

Broadway-lovers without the disposable income for tickets and/or easy access to the new shows and all-star casts that originate in New York City typically have two avenues for exploring the medium: cast albums and film adaptations. The former helps buzzy shows reach wider theater-loving audiences, while the latter canonizes popular shows in the general pop-culture zeitgeist. Chicago and Phantom of the Opera are the two longest-running Broadway musicals of all time, but when the average person pictures those shows, they’re probably picturing the movie adaptations, not the Broadway runs. Ditto to Mamma Mia! and even Rent, which features most of the original Broadway cast, even though most of them were far too old for those roles.

This also means that equally popular, critically acclaimed Broadway shows that don’t get film adaptations aren’t as well-known as their counterparts. For example, Aida, Elton John and Tim Rice’s adaptation of the Verdi opera, was a hit when it premiered in 2000. The show won four Tony Awards and the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Disney was reportedly in talks to produce a movie starring Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera in 2007, but it never materialized. An Aida revival is planned for 2021, so it’s possible that we’ll eventually get an Aida film after all. But as of 2020, it’s hard to find someone who can sing along to “Written in the Stars” the way they can to Dreamgirls’ “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” even though the former reached #2 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart.

It’s hard to say whether Hamilton would eventually have followed the path to relative obscurity without a filmed version. That feels impossible, given the show’s popularity, but it’s neither the highest-grossing nor the most-awarded show in Broadway history. (Those honors go to The Lion King and South Pacific, respectively.) The Hamilton film ensures that the show’s legacy will live on even after it’s stopped playing on the stage. But it’s not an actual film adaptation — it’s a recording of the stage musical.

Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) holds Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) as they gaze into each others’ eyes

Photo: Disney Plus

It’s rare for a Broadway show that’s still running, especially one as popular and lucrative as Hamilton, to be released on video. Stage recordings certainly exist (see: Newsies, Shrek The Musical, Company, Into the Woods, and the streaming service BroadwayHD) but it’s much less common than adapting the show into a movie, and often comes with considerably less fanfare. The best-known filmed stage show is probably the 1998 home video release of Cats. (Though it wasn’t technically a recording of the live show — it was filmed without an audience, and some cuts were made to shorten the runtime.) That Cats recording helped popularize the show to those who couldn’t get to London or New York to see the staging, so without that recording, it’s possible we would have never been blessed with Tom Hooper’s beautifully nightmarish film adaptation.

While debuting the Hamilton trailer on Good Morning America, Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda admitted, “Our biggest issue has always been accessibility.” By releasing this definitive version of the show with the original Broadway cast, Hamilton’s producers have narrowed the divide between those who watch the show live on stage and those who watch it from their living rooms. Everyone who sat down with the recording can say they’ve seen the original production of Hamilton.

But Hamilton has always worked toward a more accessible Broadway. In 2016, Miranda, Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, and The Rockefeller Foundation announced a student matinee program that would allow 20,000 New York City public-school students to see the show, including Q&As with the cast and performances from student representatives after the performance. Tickets for those students cost just $10. The producers also also run a lottery offering a small block of $10 tickets to each show.

Hamilton isn’t the first Broadway show to offer student matinees or lottery tickets, but it is unique in how aggressively it celebrates those opportunities. The student matinee program is combined with a school curriculum that teaches about the founding of America through the Hamilton lens. It’s a lot more work than just inviting students to come see the show. But the Ham4Ham (Hamilton for a Hamilton, aka a $10 bill) program was by far the most revolutionary way that Hamilton tried to make the show more accessible.

For a little over a year, Miranda took the Hamilton lottery to the streets, literally. On most Wednesdays and Saturdays, he would offer a free performance outside the stage door while the gathered crowd entered the lottery via a slip of paper in a bucket. Sometimes Hamilton cast members sang pop songs. Sometimes other Broadway stars dropped by to sing songs from their own shows. On the day I entered (but sadly didn’t win), the Hamilton orchestra gathered on the small step to play a medley that isn’t on the cast recording. And even when the crowds grew too large and the outdoor performances had to stop, Miranda still released digital Ham4Ham videos. It turned the lottery into a celebration rather than an afterthought, and allowed those who couldn’t get tickets (lottery or full price) to still engage with the show.

Now that Hamilton is available to watch on Disney Plus, it’s far more available to the public. (Though they’ll still have to pay the monthly $6.99 subscription cost for ongoing access.) The move fits neatly into the show’s themes of legacy and “who tells your story.” It also embodies the juxtaposition and paradox that comes with telling a story about America’s white founding fathers, but primarily casting Black and brown actors, who lay out the history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B.

By putting Hamilton out into the world as it was originally conceived, Miranda and the show’s producers have defined Hamilton as an accessible work of musical theater, even though (or perhaps because) it was and continues to be one of the most expensive Broadway tickets on the market. There will, of course, still be elitists boasting about seeing Hamilton at the Public. But they ultimately saw the same show that musical-theater-loving kids in the Midwest are now watching on their TVs, and that’s pretty cool.

Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) take a break from hating each other to share a laugh

Photo: Disney Plus

It’s too early to say whether Hamilton will lead to other smash-hit shows getting released this way. The circumstances surrounding its release are certainly unique — in the words of Miranda and Hamilton, “The world turned upside down.” The filmed version of Hamilton was originally slated for a theatrical run in 2021, but with the COVID-19 pandemic scrambling release schedules and shutting Broadway down at least through the end of 2020, Disney chose to drop it onto Disney Plus instead. We don’t yet have viewership numbers from Disney, but judging from social media, it seems like everyone and their mother watched Hamilton over the July 4th weekend.

It’s clear that there’s an appetite for a more accessible Broadway, but theater producers have long been hesitant to release filmed versions of shows, fearing that accessibility will drive down ticket prices. Why would a theatergoer pay $600 on a ticket, the thinking goes, when they could pay $6.99 to watch the same show in their own home? With Broadway closed for the time being, we won’t know for a while whether Hamilton on Disney Plus will affect ticket prices for Hamilton on Broadway. But Hamilton’s producers seem willing to trade slightly lower profits in exchange for securing its legacy. Hopefully other Broadway producers will see this as an opportunity to do the same, and (I promise this is my last Hamilton reference) will not throw away their shot.

Hamilton is streaming on Disney Plus.

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