In advance of its arrival on the Disney+ service, Marjorie Brennan provides a dummy’s guide to the hugely successful musical Hamilton
Originally scheduled to hit cinemas in October 2021, the eagerly-awaited live film version of the musical Hamilton, filmed on Broadway with the original cast in 2016, will now be shown on Disney Plus on July 3 (just in time for Independence Day).
Disney acquired the worldwide film rights to the live version of Hamilton for $75 million, reported to be the most expensive single-film acquisition in Hollywood history.
Here is all you need to know about the show that reinvented musical theatre and became a cultural phenomenon.
What is Hamilton about?
Hamilton is the story of lesser-known US founding father and the first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, told through rap and hip-hop. It focuses on Hamilton’s role in the American fight for independence and his rise to a position of power in the nascent state, and his relationship with Aaron Burr, which ends in tragedy.
Who’s behind it?
Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, 40, was born in New York and is of Puerto Rican descent. His mother is a clinical psychologist and his father a former political consultant to the Democratic Party. A prodigious talent, he began writing musicals in high school, later going on to act, including a now famous brief appearance as a hotel porter in The Sopranos. As well as writing the music, lyrics and book for Hamilton, Miranda played the lead role of Alexander Hamilton in the original cast production.
The inspiration Miranda “just wanted a big book to read” while going on vacation in 2007. Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, published in 2004, was that book. “I knew that he [Hamilton] was on our $10 bill in the States and I knew that he died in a duel….and that was about it,” he said.
Miranda said he was swept up by the story of Hamilton’s rise from his humble beginnings as an orphan in the West Indies, to a pivotal role in shaping a young nation.
Recalling the first time Miranda presented him with material from Hamilton, Chernow told the New York Times: “He sat on my living room couch, began to snap his fingers, then sang the opening song of the show. When he finished, he asked me what I thought. And I said, ‘I think that's the most astonishing thing I've ever heard in my life.’ He had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song.”
Labour of love
Hamilton may have been an instant smash-hit but it was seven years in the making. Miranda had already achieved critical and commercial success with his first musical In the Heights, set in the Hispanic-American neighbourhood of Washington Heights, near where Miranda grew up.
However, he found Hamilton wasn’t an easy sell, and he was told by many people — including his mentor, musical legend Stephen Sondheim — that it wouldn’t work. Miranda persevered — he said that after finishing the rousing opening number, ‘Alexander Hamilton’, it took him a full year to write the song ‘My Shot’ — and Hamilton ultimately made its debut at the New York’s Public Theatre in 2015, immediately garnering rave reviews and moving to Broadway months later.
White House love….
Years before it hit Broadway, Miranda took Hamilton to the White House, performing extracts from its initial incarnation, The Hamilton Mixtape, at a poetry and spoken word event there in 2009.
“No one besides my wife and the shower had heard ‘Alexander Hamilton’ until that night,” Miranda said. He and Alex Lacamoire, later musical director of Hamilton, received a standing ovation from US President Barack Obama and wife Michelle.
They returned for a poignant and charged performance with main members of the cast just before the Obamas left office.
Which brings us to Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, who, unsurprisingly, definitely isn’t a fan of the musical. At the end of a performance of the show in New York in November, 2016, which was attended by then vice-president elect Mike Pence, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon (Aaron Burr) made a statement emphasising the need for the new administration to work on behalf of all Americans. The following morning, Trump tweeted that the Hamilton cast had “harassed” Mr Pence and had been “very rude”.
Hamilton combines hip-hop, rap and more traditional show numbers to potent effect. Miranda has said the hip-hop element came from the fact that Hamilton reminded him of rapper Tupac Shakur.
“The idea of hip-hop being the music of the Revolution appealed to me immensely,’’ Miranda told the New York Times. “It felt right.’’
The lyrics Hamilton’s all-conquering effect on popular culture can be seen in the way lyrics from the show have entered the everyday lexicon.
The line “Immigrants (we get the job done)” from the song Yorktown has been adopted as a rallying cry by the millions of American immigrants who have been disenfranchised under Trump’s leadership.
Even former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton has jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon, calling his recent controversial memoir “The Room Where it Happened” after one of the musical’s most popular numbers.
The Hamilton team is a pioneer of ‘colour-conscious’ rather than ‘colour-blind’ casting, and all productions feature mainly non-white actors. Women are also given prominent roles in the show, in the shape of the Schuyler sisters, one of whom, Eliza, went on to marry Hamilton. As Barack Obama said at the cast’s White House performance: “With a cast as diverse as America itself, including the outstandingly talented women, the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men—and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.”
The numbers Hamilton had grossed over $622 million to the end of 2019. The show opened in London’s West End in October, 2017, and until the Covid-19 crisis, was playing in several cities across the US. And, while tickets for Hamilton can go for hundreds of dollars, the Hamilton lottery allows people buy last-minute tickets for $10.
Hamilton tickets are notoriously hard to come by but thanks to one of the biggest-selling musical soundtracks of all time, the show is loved by millions of fans around the world who have never actually seen the show.
Online clips are rare but the hugely popular #Ham4Ham shows— pre-show sidewalk performances by cast members to entertain the queues of $10-seat lottery hopefuls have been widely shared on social media, adding even more to the cult of fandom surrounding the show.
What they did next
Miranda’s enviable work ethic can be seen in the sheer range of projects he has been involved in since Hamilton, including starring roles in Mary Poppins Returns and the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and producing the biographical mini-series Fosse/Verdon.
He is currently working on a movie version of In the Heights, directing a Netflix adaptation of the musical, Tick, Tick... Boom, producing Disney's The Little Mermaid live-action remake, and making a documentary about actress Rita Moreno. He is also active in social justice causes — in 2018, he did a three-week run of Hamilton in Puerto Rico to raise money after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Other original cast members have been busy too — Christopher Jackson (George Washington) starred in a lead role in the CBS series Bull and appeared in Netflix’s When They See Us. Jonathan Groff (King George) starred in the acclaimed Netflix series Mindhunter, while Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) has appeared in the Netflix adaptation of Snowpiercer and will lend his voice to the upcoming Pixar movie, Soul.
Hamilton will be available to stream on Disney+ from July 3