This year’s Independence Day weekend was marked by an egalitarian moment of victory in a media revolution that has been taking place for more than a decade. That moment was when Disney+ made Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” available for streaming. From the comfort of their home and on any device that connects to the internet, an entire family can now view a high quality recording of the stage performance with the original cast for a fraction of the cost of tickets to the live event.
Recognizing the significance of this moment is not about diminishing the value of the live performance. Ever since the show opened in 2015, until the recent suspension of its run due to the Covid-19 pandemic, those who could afford tickets have been treated to a spectacle unreproducible outside of live theater in sheer electricity. But Hamilton’s current availability as a streaming experience allows those unable to afford the live event to gain exposure to the aspects of this show that are accessible on film.
That accessibility is realized through the collaboration between the show’s director, Thomas Kail, and cinematographer Declan Quinn, who harmonize the media of stage and film to convey a sense of the live performance, while also guiding the viewer’s gaze into key points of action and moments of intimacy with the characters. Through this realization, the viewer is drawn into Miranda’s artistic impression of the life of Alexander Hamilton, and that impression is a revolution in its own right.
Miranda’s Hamilton takes inspiration from the facts of history in a way similar to Shakespearean theater. It culls from the profiles, relationships and conflicts of the past to formulate a story that transcends history. Miranda utilizes historical profiles to create characters whose aspirations for love, honor and freedom connect with our own. He utilizes their relationships to help us see how personal ambition can both unite and divide us. And he utilizes their conflicts to make us feel empathy in the way all great tragedy does.
Hamilton raises the highest ideals of our nation’s founders to shine above even their deepest flaws so we can see how the greatest goals of their vision, when fully realized, might elevate us all. The fact that those ideals are salvaged within this work by a cast of mostly Black and Latino actors is an astonishing charity to our nation that resounds as profoundly as the greatest mercies ever expressed in art.
Miranda’s title character hungers above all for opportunity, as he riffs at one point, “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” and Hamilton has come to represent opportunity on multiple levels. It represents opportunity in casting and the hope for equalized opportunities on stage and screen for actors from previously underrepresented communities. It represents the opportunity of the American Revolution, when the founders resolved to build a nation dedicated to the principles of liberty, equality and justice. And it represents the opportunity sought ever since by generations of Americans who have struggled to move this nation toward the moment when we would fully live up to those principles of liberty, equality and justice for all.
Finally, with its new accessibility via streaming, Hamilton also comes to represent opportunities to connect broader audiences with both live theater and higher quality films. Filmed versions of live theater are a key way for the industry to remain relevant during this time of social distancing. The hope is that filmed versions of these events will not compete with live theater but rather pique interest in the full experience of being present for performances once venues reopen. Hamilton draws attention to this streaming trend in theater and holds out the hope of expanding audiences for other players in the industry.
Though the streaming revolution has come to a point of technological victory in the way film is consumed—and Hamilton’s availability on streaming is just one of many signifiers of that victory—the overall quality of the content from the film industry still leaves much to be desired. If Hamilton paves the way for theater to gain attention and exert a greater influence in the streaming world, it could create opportunity for the production and dissemination of more thoughtful, inspiring, enjoyable and community-building content.
One month before the release of Hamilton on film, a much quieter occurrence demonstrated the opportunity to improve content within the streaming world. In early June, the Vatican collaborated in the launch of VatiVision, a streaming platform promising to harness the power of film to disseminate content related to faith and culture. It is currently available only in Italy, but a release is planned for the United States and other countries.
Speaking to reporters about the endeavor, Paolo Ruffini, head of Vatican communications, addressed the challenge of finding content in media that responds to the deepest longings of the human soul. “Here we have the beauty of being able to connect the past, the present and the future and to offer a response to the questions that in some sense we all have,” he said.
As Hamilton sits on offer in the streaming world, it might also be seen to represent the opportunity that exists for new creators who seek to capitalize on the demand for better content. Many of those creators are “young, scrappy, and hungry” and from marginalized communities and places of poverty; many struggle to break through the barriers of exclusion that have stood for decades in theater and film. Those barriers will be dismantled when enough people seek content that celebrates the depth and breadth of the human soul, and reward the creators and distributors of that content with time and attention. Hamilton and Disney are not in desperate need of our time, attention, or money, but viewing Hamilton, sharing it with others, and contemplating and discussing its cultural significance is a great starting point for those looking to join the revolution it represents.