HOLLYWOOD—Every lyric, note, and beat of the hit musical “Hamilton” has been engraved in my mind since I gave it a chance. Admittedly, I was a little late on the train. Hip-hop was never my style of music, but my love for history won the fight. When I started AP U.S. History classes I thought I could get something useful out of it. To this day, I credit my relative success in that class to “Hamilton’s” music.
If you are not familiar with the show, know that it is extremely popular amongst both the theater community and mainstream media. For this reason, ticket prices are through the roof. Those willing to spend that amount of money, face the added barrier of even finding seats. So when Disney+ announced it would release a professionally filmed version about 4 years after its Broadway debut, theater fans like me went wild.
So after gathering my entire family in front of the TV on July 3, I finally saw “Hamilton” in its entirety. The following is a list of pros and cons regarding the viewing experience of Hamilton at home.
One of the biggest challenges with watching the musical live, apart from current social circumstances, is the price of a ticket. That, sandwiched by the fact that performances are booked out months in advance, do not make the experience very accessible. With this filmed format, any room can be the room where it happens. One month of subscription to Disney+ is around $7. According to the Wall Street Journal, a top tier ticket to a “Hamilton” show in 2019 was around $850. However, prices have always fluctuated. The WSJ even argues in the same article that the show was underselling itself.
For those waiting to see the show, it seems like a no-brainer. The cheaper option of getting a probably temporary Disney+ subscription to watch the show will save a lot of cash.
Professionally filming Broadway shows is not a new thing. Disney itself previously had a Broadway show professionally filmed and released. In 2017, the filmed Broadway rendition of “Newsies,” starring Jeremy Jordan was released. One thing it has in common with the Hamilton recording is the decision to keep audience reactions. This may seem like a trivial matter, until you find yourself laughing alone in a dark room, unsure if what you heard was even funny at all.
During these past months, Broadway legend Andrew Lloyd Webber began a theater initiative. In the absence of live theater, he has been releasing professionally filmed versions of some of his shows. I have attended most of them almost religiously. One Friday, I found myself watching an audience-less version of “The Wiz.” The retelling of the “Wizard of Oz” made me realize jokes hit differently without the cue of everyone else in the theater laughing.
Audience reactions during “Hamilton” were big and audible. The sound of people laughing with me really added to the experience of watching the show. Jokes that I knew were coming were suddenly funnier than before. I even discovered new jokes. The contrast of a deafening silence spreading through the theater in serious moments really helps carry the roller-coaster of emotions the show brings.
The Camera Angles
If you didn’t plan in advance for months and months, chances are your tickets might have landed you in the very back row of the theater. Sure, you would hear great because the speaker was literally behind you, but the nuances in acting, costume, and choreographies would have been blurred together.
The advantage of a professional recording is that close-ups allow for every seat to be the best seat in the house. Some shots are so clear and crisp, you can see Jonathan Groff’s spit as he sings King George III’s “You’ll be back.” It really just kept coming. Nuances in facial expressions are also very clear.
The costumes themselves could have an entire piece dedicated to them, and the professional recording really does them justice. Every jewel on George’s crown shines under the spotlight. Every pleat on the women’s dresses is viewable for appreciation at one point or another. Everyone really gets a chance to have their shot.
The Camera Angles
The greatest blessing can also be the greatest curse. Though there really is a lot to admire with the cinematography of the recording, it really limits the at-home audience as well. The audience’s line of vision is always directed in a specific direction, whether through zoom-ins or close ups, and this has two limitations.
The first is that it fundamentally prevents the entire piece from being taken in as a whole. Wide shots are rare, as the camera is usually focused on the main action. This causes the company to become a background to the main characters, seen only in the corner of a shot. The full effect of intricate choreography cannot be appreciated at times.
Some people, like my mother, pay close attention to the interactions going on in the ensemble. Many times, performers create their own stories, their own characters, that move in the background of a piece. However, with the focus of the camera excluding them from shots, their work is less visible and less appreciated than it would be live.
Sound and Volume
This point might depend on what device you are using in your viewing experience. Often throughout the piece, we found ourselves having to adjust the volume. A big number would come blasting through the speakers, so the volume would be turned down. Then a softer song, such as “Burn,” would play and no one would be able to hear it. The volume would be adjusted again. Again, this could seem trivial. However, in a room with six people arguing over the remote control, it becomes a bit of a bigger problem.
There were also times when the balance between singer’s microphones and the music was off. Specifically, at the end of “Schuyler Sisters” when several vocal lines get layered. The music was much louder than the singing, causing the actors to barely be heard. It can be argued that this happens in live theater as well. However, with the time Disney has had to ensure the recording they put out is flawless and perfect, attention to details like this should be expected.
The final con of the experience is the length of the production. Movies are, on average, between 1-2 hours long. Some cinematic versions can even be 2.5 hours, and that’s already considered long. The “Hamilton” recording lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes. Only one of those minutes is allotted for an intermission. The show felt so long that even a super fan like me agreed to watch the second act the next day.
Now, it is not uncommon for musicals to be this long. However, when in the theater, it is much easier to be fully immersed in the experience. No one is talking, no one is complaining about the volume, no one asks to pause the performance for a bathroom break. The translation of duration from the stage to the screen becomes a bit of an uncomfortable factor in the experience. If you plan on watching it yourself, be mindful of this and don’t start too late in the day.
Overall, I still loved the musical. Not only that, but some of the non-theater viewers in my family also enjoyed the watch. In the end, the trades made in exchange for access to one of Broadway’s most Tony Award winning musicals might not be worth it for some. For me, after years of waiting to witness the phenomenon, they definitely were.