Hamilton is the rare pop-cultural phenomenon that lives up to the hype. The 2015 musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on a 2004 biography from author Ron Chernow, received almost universal critical praise, won the Tony and the Pulitzer and remained the hottest ticket in the theater world. Hamilton hopefuls routinely entered digital lotteries or waited in cancellation lines to score seats, despite next-to-zero odds of success. Even touring productions often sold out in a matter of minutes. Now, an ironic turnabout will finally give fans the chance to see it. In perhaps the most surprising coronavirus-related entertainment announcement so far, Disney has decided to release a filmed production of Hamilton a year early on Disney+.
Let’s start with what Disney gets out of the deal. The corporation – losing billions with parks closed and summer blockbusters shelved – seems to have decided that maintaining a strong relationship with its extremely loyal customers is its best path forward. That strategy relies heavily on Disney+. It’s already made recent theatrical releases like Onward, Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker available on the streaming service much earlier than expected. Disc and digital sales revenue might have taken a small hit, but the early streaming premieres made fans happy and increased subscriptions. The streaming service just surpassed 50 million paid accounts in five months, the fastest any such company has reached that milestone.
That’s impressive, but it’s still less than a third of Netflix’s market share. Until recently, there were two reasons to sign up for Disney+: access to classic movies and The Mandalorian. Fans of animation and Star Wars account for a sizeable percentage of the population, but if it really wants to compete in the streaming wars, Disney needs to draw in different demographics to its service. Hamilton offers the service a new level of prestige.
An influx of new households will surely register for Disney+ accounts between now and July 3rd. After all, tickets to Hamilton routinely cost hundreds of dollars, while a Disney+ subscription can be had for a mere seven bucks a month. As those who’ve had the good fortune to nab tickets only come out of the experience as bigger fans, Disney can be assured that those who’ve seen it and those who’ve always wanted to see it will tune in on July 3rd.
The show and the studio will both benefit from the timing as well. It’s no coincidence that the production, which plays like a fast-motion history of the American Revolution era set to crowd-pleasing music, will launch on the eve of Independence Day. In this way, Disney and Miranda are, yet again, making Hamilton a must-see cultural event. Not only will there be little entertainment competition with movie theaters in all likelihood still closed and empty, but with social distance guidelines still in place and many summer plans thwarted, Hamilton will have a bored captive audience who might need an extra patriotic pick-me-up this Fourth of July. Miranda has already been expertly using social media to encourage mass viewing of #Hamilfilm.
The writer/director/actor’s stock will rise with the Disney+ release, too. Miranda regularly composes music for the studio’s big budget films, from Moana to the new Star Wars trilogy to the upcoming live-action Little Mermaid. If Hamilton ends up being a critical and commercial winner for the streaming service, it will only further solidify his strong working relationship with Disney.
Though it’s not a Disney movie, Miranda’s much anticipated In the Heights film was delayed until 2021. The adaptation of his previous Tony winning musical was widely expected to be a sleeper hit at the box office and garner Oscar buzz. While Hamilton is the more popular play, the fact that its film is a recorded live production makes it something of an anomaly, especially when it comes to reviews and awards. Putting the Hamilton recording on Disney+ now will generate goodwill for Miranda that might pay off for In the Heights later.
The theater industry on the whole will feel the positive effects of a second wave of Hamilton-mania. With recent confirmation that Broadway will stay dark at least until September, and with regional playhouses similarly affected, the theater business is among those struggling the most. England’s National Theatre and Andrew Lloyd Webber, among others, have responded to this crisis by uploading recordings of past hits to YouTube. Hamilton will be the biggest juggernaut of this trend in streaming theater.
Getting Hamilton back in the news will keep the importance of live theater in the public conversation while productions themselves are halted. If Disney+’s Hamilton experiment goes as well as expected, it could create a new model for joint ventures that could increase Broadway’s exposure and generate much needed income as the industry looks to recover. Miranda said the film gives every everyone who watches it the best seat in the house, adding, “I’m so glad that we’re able to make it happen. I’m so proud of this show. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Hamilton will be available to stream on Disney+ starting July 3.
The filmed production's early release will elevate Miranda and Disney's reputations, while earning Disney+ a new demographic of subscribers.