Is Hamilton on screen as good as on stage?

I’m one of the few among my acquaintances who haven’t seen Hamilton on stage. I wouldn’t pay the extravagant ticket price, contending that nothing is a must see. Besides, I expected there would be a movie eventually.

Now there is a screen version — not an adaptation but a film of the actual 2016 New York production with the original cast. It’s on Disney+, where it will remain for the indefinite future. Last weekend I had my first viewing, on a television screen, of what many consider the greatest Broadway musical of all time.

Hamilton, in case anyone doesn’t know, tells the story of our country’s founding years. Along with Alexander Hamilton, major characters are Aaron Burr, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

I don’t know what I missed not seeing Hamilton on stage, but it’s hard to imagine an improvement on the filmed version. Turning off the TV after nearly 2¾ hours, I wondered: Can a stage production seen on screen be as good as the real thing?

I expect theater people would answer no. In The Guardian, theater critic Mark Shenton said just that, in fact, about the transmission of London plays into cinemas. (He mentions National Theatre London productions, a couple of which I saw at the Gene Siskel Film Center last year.)

“[I]t’s a second-best and also second-hand experience,” Shenton wrote. Among his arguments: Because the experience “lacks liveness,” the “circuit of communication between stage and audience” is missing. Film editors make the choice of what to look at for you.

Hermione Hoby, The Observer’s arts writer, made the counterarguments. She saw Rory Kinnear’s National Theatre performance as Hamlet not at the National Theatre but in a movie house. “[W]atching Hamlet through cameras in fact made me look harder,” she said. “There were things I would have missed had I been watching from the auditorium.”

I agree. Any ticket I’d have bought for Hamilton would have been for a seat too far from the stage to see facial expressions. The screen provided close-ups. “The best seat in the house . . . actually kind of better than the best seat in the house,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton creator and star, has said about watching on film. (Admittedly, he has a self-interest in promoting the film now.)

Hoby’s arguments were premised on watching a filmed play in a movie theater with an audience. I missed an audience experience of Hamilton, since I watched it alone in a living room, but there came a point where I stopped being aware of where and how I was watching the musical. I was simply engrossed. I loved the performances, the story, the music and lyrics.

Shenton has seen a lot more plays and knows a lot more about theater than I, so I’m hesitant to say he’s wrong. I’ll just say that what he calls merely a “better than nothing” experience was more than good enough for me, who’s more like the average audience member.

And let’s be honest: One thing that makes a play (or a movie) a must-see is that it’s hot at a moment in time; if you see it then you’re able to be in the conversation when everyone around you is talking about it. That I did miss, but I coped. I’d be happy to discuss Hamilton on Disney+ with anyone interested.

 

*****

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    Hi Marianne. I just finished watching Hamilton for the fourth time on TV and I also saw it on stage more than a year ago in Chicago. Each time is better than the last. On TV I can see details like King George spitting out his words that I could never see on stage. But the overview and the electricity of seeing it live can't be duplicated on a television screen. This screen version is exceptionally true to the stage production since it was filmed in the theater, but the multiple camera angles and closeups give you more than you could see on stage. A theater production is always a moment in time. If you see a performance one night and return to the same cast, the same theater the next night, there will be differences. The recording doesn't change yet each time I see it I notice something I failed to notice before. Each time I have watched the television version I have been sharing with a few friends (social distancing of course) and the conversations do add to the experience.

  • Spoken like a true drama critic! Good points, and good to hear from you, Sue.

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