Is ‘Hamilton’ better as a movie or onstage?
Deseret News reporters Lottie Johnson and Sarah Harris saw the touring production of “Hamilton” when it came to Salt Lake City in 2018. They also watched the Disney Plus film over the weekend.
SALT LAKE CITY — Five years after its Broadway debut, ”Hamilton” continues to be all the rage. Disney Plus saw a 72% bump in mobile downloads as a filmed version of the Broadway phenomenon became available last Friday to a wider audience than ever before.
We — Lottie Johnson and Sarah Harris — saw the touring production of “Hamilton” when it came to Salt Lake City in 2018. We also watched the Disney Plus film over the weekend.
Which was better — the stage version or the movie? Is the original Broadway cast better than the touring cast? Here’s what we have to say about it.
The scope of this musical ... and the power of subtitles
Lottie Johnson: I was sitting near the back of the Eccles Theater when I saw “Hamilton” two years ago. Even at that distance, I was floored by the scope of this musical — from Alexander Hamilton’s arrival in New York, the Revolutionary War, the first presidential administration, the cabinet battles with Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist papers and, of course, the Aaron Burr/Hamilton duel.
I recently read an article that said if “Hamilton” were sung at the pace of other Broadway shows, it would take anywhere from four to six hours. This musical does so much in under three hours, on just one stage. Watching it on Disney Plus reminded me of that.
Sarah Harris: The musical scope of “Hamilton” is also astounding. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score covers a wide range of musical genres, from hip-hop and R&B to pop and show tunes. One moment you’re in the thick of a rap battle, and the next you’re enjoying a true musical theater number.
The fact that the rebellion of the American revolution is expressed through rap, and that the genre of each song changes to match the historical event it represents, is brilliant. And to see a talented cast, either on the stage or on the screen, master such diverse music is incredible.
LJ: That’s such a great point. I’m reminded of a story I wrote two years ago, where I interviewed history professors about their takes on “Hamilton.” One professor praised the different musical styles — and how they’re used. For example, when Thomas Jefferson returns from France, he’s singing jazz while everyone else in America is rapping. It takes him some time to catch up.
Considering the scope of this musical, it’s amazing to me how effortlessly the production flows from one scene to the next. Watching it up close, it hit me that for such an in-depth story, very few props are used. The sets aren’t flashy. The power of this musical is in the words, which fly out at a remarkably rapid pace.
Thank goodness for subtitles (seriously, this musical MUST be watched with subtitles). I didn’t realize how much I was missing — or misunderstanding — when I first saw “Hamilton.”
SH: Agreed. Seeing “Hamilton” up close and with subtitles were two of many ways seeing the musical on Disney Plus made it more accessible. I loved the freedom of being able to sing along, make comments, etc., without fear of judgment, and by that same token not be disturbed by other patrons in a theater.
Seeing “Hamilton” live was also an exclusive experience for those who could get tickets, so it was fun to hear the reactions of family and friends who had never seen the musical before, and to be able to talk about it with them. Not to mention that with many people posting about the experience on social media, it brought a sense of unity to a time of physical separation amid the coronavirus pandemic as well as civil and political division.
LJ: So true. Four days later, and my Twitter feed is STILL dominated by people’s reactions to “Hamilton.” When “Hamilton” came to Salt Lake City, it practically broke my heart that my husband, a longtime “Hamilton” fan, couldn’t secure a ticket — shows for the three-week run sold out in under four hours! At that time, I wasn’t as much of a fan as he was, so I felt guilty that because of work, I was seeing it before him.
But now, thanks to Disney Plus, I feel (almost) guilt-free. This is the original Broadway cast, available at people’s fingertips at any time of day, for $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year (way cheaper than a ticket). That kind of accessibility is unprecedented, and very welcome, as we now know Broadway will remain shut down for the rest of the year.
LJ: With Broadway being shut down, it’s thrilling to see the original Broadway cast: “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role — although he definitely isn’t the strongest singer of the bunch; Jonathan Groff in all of his slobbery glory as King George (so much spit!); Renee Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo’s powerful performances as Angelica and Eliza Schuyler (“Satisfied” and “Burn” seriously brought me to tears); and the masterful Leslie Odom Jr. as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr who, in my opinion, steals the show anytime he takes the stage.
This is a stellar cast. But I want people to know that they’re not getting cheated with a touring production. The cast I saw in 2018 was just as strong. I’ve seen touring productions of other Broadway shows where there was a noticeable difference in quality. “Hamilton” is a musical that people haven’t stopped talking about since it debuted on Broadway in 2015, and I don’t think producers could get away with casting mediocre talent for this one.
SH: I loved both casts as well. It’s interesting to see how each actor or actress interprets his or her part a little differently. I have enjoyed listening to the original Broadway cast recording of the “Hamilton” soundtrack, and to see that brought to life watching the original cast act in the Disney Plus movie was amazing.
Something I have appreciated about “Hamilton” from the beginning is the fact that the roles are played by a diverse cast since this tells the story of our Founding Fathers in a new way and makes the play all the more symbolic of America today. The focus is on each performer’s talent, and having a front-and-center view of the play on Disney Plus brought a welcome added connection to and understanding of the characters.
LJ: I absolutely loved getting to see all of the characters up close — something I definitely didn’t get from the back of the theater. Watching “Hamilton” on Disney Plus was a more emotional experience for me than it was in the theater.
The facial expressions from all of the performers made it clear that every single person was living in the moment and feeling the messages of this musical — the pained face of Miranda’s Hamilton as he loses his son, Philip, and reconnects with his wife, Eliza (don’t even get me started on his performance of “Quiet Uptown”); the sweat coming off of Christopher Jackson’s George Washington as he sings about not running for reelection; the emotional power ballads of the Schuyler sisters and, of course, the spitting frenzy of Groff’s King George III.
The up-close shots of this film really provide a more intimate view of the production than one typically gets in the theater — although those who sat in one of the first several rows on Broadway probably got well-acquainted with Groff’s spit.
Live vs. film
SH: There are added benefits to seeing “Hamilton” as a movie on Disney Plus, but I hope people will continue to see the musical live because there is nothing quite like the theater experience. You can hear the audience applaud and cheer in the film, but it’s just not the same as being there in person.
Everyone in a theater audience has invested time and money to be there, and there is something magical about that level of commitment to a performance, as well as seeing a cast act out a story in real time before your eyes.
LJ: You really can’t beat a live performance. For me, the absence of live entertainment has been one of the hardest parts of this pandemic. When I saw “Hamilton” at the Eccles Theater, I was surrounded by 2,300 high school students. These were students who had taken on an extra class and done additional schoolwork so they could see the musical. They had studied up on American history, and weren’t taking lightly their shot to see “Hamilton” in person.
As a result, that Friday afternoon played out like a rock concert. The students cheered when the Schuyler sisters took the stage for the first time, laughed at King George’s antics and reacted to the cabinet battle arguments as if they themselves were active participants.
In turn, you could feel the performers responding to and feeding off of that energy. It reminded me that every performance is different. We’re lucky to have this wonderful Broadway performance of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus, but it’s also making me really miss the power of live theater.
My fingers are crossed that a touring production of “Hamilton” will still make its way to Salt Lake City in December.