Watching Hamilton Is Like Opening a Time Capsule

Disney+’s filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical feels dated, timeless, and vital all at once.

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In an ideal world, I’d expect a Disney+ edition of Hamilton to have some real Broadway flavor. Perhaps there’d be a filmed rendering of waiting in line to have your ticket ripped at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, or a re-creation of buying an overpriced drink before taking your seat. But the stage recording of the hit musical, which starts streaming today, offers no such thing. It begins instead with a Skype clip in which the show’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, acknowledges the sad circumstances of Hamilton’s online release: The musical wasn’t supposed to arrive on Disney+ until October 2021, but it dropped early to help distract audiences from the ongoing pandemic.

Watching the show from my couch in 2020, four years after I saw it on Broadway, was a strange throwback in more ways than one. I was reminded of the cruel reality that Broadway’s theaters will remain closed for the rest of the year because of COVID-19, a blow for an industry that relies on packed houses. Revisiting the show during another election year, it was hard not to think about how Hamilton was indelibly shaped by the more hopeful times of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The musical is, after all, an earnest work that celebrates patriotism and diversity, one that tries to distill the Founding Fathers’ revolutionary vigor into something modern. But in 2020, pride in most American institutions is at an all-time low, and the iconography of figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson feels ever more fraught. So when households across the United States watch the streamed version of Hamilton this holiday weekend, the musical might register as a surreal artifact—of a political moment that was defined by optimism, and of a pre-pandemic live experience that people clamored to see.

Hamilton is a definitive cultural work of the Obama era. The show can trace its origins to a 2009 White House poetry jam, where Miranda performed an early version of the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” and earned cheerful applause from the president. What started out as a 2013 Vassar College workshop production evolved into a 2015 smash hit at the Public Theater and quickly leaped to Broadway. Miranda had succeeded in making a hip-hop musical about the first secretary of the Treasury feel stunningly dynamic, with talented young actors of color taking on mythic roles such as Hamilton, Washington, and Jefferson. Disney+’s filmed recording of Hamilton captures that vitality—it was shot in June 2016 as the show’s original cast prepared to depart, lending it the aura of a swan song.

The show’s bubble of optimism burst that November, days after the election of Donald Trump. Vice President-Elect Mike Pence went to see the musical, and after the curtain call, the cast member Brandon Victor Dixon addressed him from the stage: “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us,” he said, adding, “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents.” The statement, crafted by Miranda and the producer Jeffrey Seller, was predictably slammed by Trump on Twitter. The entire episode, a cultural flash point from the beginning of the Trump era, feels like it happened a thousand years ago. Where Obama had greeted the tenor of Miranda’s project with enthusiasm, Trump responded with angry tweets.

The Hamilton performance recorded that year still plays powerfully today. The first act of Disney+’s film, which focuses on the Revolutionary War, is as vigorous as ever—full of patriotic fervor as the characters foment rebellion and fight their war of independence. I had worried that the musical’s energy might fall flat compared with the Broadway performance I saw, but rewatching “My Shot”—the show’s third, tone-setting song—largely assuaged those fears. In that angry and bold number, a young Hamilton (played by Miranda) entreats fellow revolutionaries such as Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) to “rise up” with the American colonies and overthrow British rule. The song is also a marker thrown down by Miranda for the viewing audience. He’s a Latinx performer stepping into a role he would’ve been traditionally barred from playing, just like the Black and Latinx actors alongside him, and he’s proudly seizing the opportunity.

Hamilton is a very sincere work, one that filters out some of the more uncomfortable and ugly realities of the American Revolution to present a familiar narrative of freedom and justice overcoming oppression and tyranny. Hamilton himself didn’t own enslaved people, but he was involved in purchasing them for family members; in general, the show’s references to slavery present Hamilton as an activist for abolition, which historians have criticized as overstated.

Though the show’s potted American history is a little too glossy, that’s mostly because Miranda’s storytelling focuses on characterization, depicting an ambitious immigrant (Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis) trying to effect real change in the world. Miranda brings an impressively angry streak to his performance, and is at his best when he highlights the massive chip on the shoulders of Hamilton and his rival Burr. Both characters know they belong at center stage; each resents any person or institution that might hold him back. That sense of determination and pride is even more profound in the context of a show that has a whole ensemble of actors playing historically white figures—something that wouldn’t have happened in an earlier Broadway era.

What most stuck out to me about the show in retrospect was how Miranda wove his own ambition into the character he played. Divorcing Hamilton from the ecstatic praise that quickly surrounded it can be difficult, but the filmed presentation helps underline how risky a proposition the musical was. Miranda’s passion for the subject is clear, but this is still a show in which people in tricornered hats twirl around the stage as politicians have rap battles about fiscal policy; it could’ve very easily come across as too nerdy to find any mainstream success.

The Hamilton film’s moving cameras and quick editing can’t convey the experience of seeing the story unfold all at once onstage, of course, but there are some advantages. The director Thomas Kail swoops in dramatically close to the actors’ faces, capturing raw emotional moments that would’ve been impossible to see if you were seated in a mezzanine. This intimacy particularly benefits Miranda, Phillipa Soo (as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza), and Renée Elise Goldsberry (as her sister Angelica), a trio whose quieter, melancholic moments in the second act get more of a showcase on camera. Kail does his best to take in the total spectacle too, but there’s no way to absorb the full power of a Broadway show without being, well, in the room where it happens.

The time-capsule quality of Hamilton can serve as a bracing throwback, both for new viewers and returning fans. Yes, there was once a time, not too long ago, when a Tony-winning composer could debut snippets of his new American-history-themed musical at a White House poetry event. Pop culture has continued to move at warp speed since then, and Hamilton’s brassy tale of the founding of America’s governmental institutions plays in a different light in 2020. But the show is not irrelevant. Hamilton existed to both celebrate and reframe the past; it now functions as a reminder that the country’s history and future alike are still being written and rewritten.