How the Digital Release of Hamilton has Revolutionized Theatre
November 6, 2020 | Rachel Erwin
Illustration by michelle musili
The release of Hamilton on Disney+ has revolutionized the way we view theatre. Instead of fighting for tickets to see this smash hit, we can access it with the simple click of a button. We can watch it whenever and wherever we want. This seems to contradict the very essence of theatre, which is typically meant to be experienced as a fleeting, impermanent moment. However, if a global pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must learn to adapt.
Within the first 10 days of its July 3 premiere, Hamilton was streamed in about 2.7 million households. At the time, around 2.6 million people had seen the show on Broadway. Because the average U.S. household has 2.52 members, the number of Disney+ viewers may have matched or outpaced the number of Broadway audience members in just 10 days of streaming, setting an incredible record.
People across the world are experiencing theatre in a way they never have before. In the past, theatre has often been criticized as exclusive and rather homogenous in the demographic it attracts. Due to high ticket prices, many people cannot afford to see live performances, especially Hamilton, which can cost audience members hundreds of dollars. Add on potential travel and hotel costs, and it becomes an incredible financial burden to see a Broadway-caliber show.
On the other hand, a Disney+ subscription can be purchased for only $6.99 a month. This gives people who cannot afford to see Broadway theatre a chance to experience it in their own homes for a relatively low price. As a result, Hamilton has become accessible to a more socioeconomically diverse range of people. More people are being exposed to theatre than ever before, which is never a bad thing.
It is true that this new digital format blurs the lines between theatre and film. Many theatre practitioners would argue over the very definition of theatre, but it is clear that any performance is better than nothing right now. Overall, however, Hamilton retains its theatrical nature. Sweat, spit, and microphones are clearly visible. Set pieces move, and there is even an intermission. It is like being in the front row of a theater with the added bonus of some close-ups.
Theatre has always been available online. YouTube is filled with poorly-recorded Broadway bootlegs that people have been watching for years. This is piracy, however, and will never be the true theatrical experience. Hamilton, along with other shows released in a digital streaming format, like Newsies and Shrek: The Musical, takes this idea of a bootleg and turns it into something magical. You can say goodbye to shaky phone recordings, blurry faces, and the obstructed views. Instead, you get to hear crystal-clear voices and see raw emotions on the actors’ faces.
Illustration by michelle musili
What if we could use this format for other productions? COVID-19 has ensured that Broadway will not be back for at least another year, if not longer. Thousands of theater artists are out of work, and millions of dollars have been lost. As the pandemic rages on, we are going to have to get used to the concept of digital theatre, even if it seems counterintuitive.
If it could be done safely, recording other Broadway shows and streaming them on platforms like Disney+ or Netflix could be a temporary solution for this lack of work. Artists could be paid for their time, and Broadway could earn back some of the money it has lost. People are in constant search of entertainment while we are still following social distancing guidelines, and this could be the new theatrical model for the time being.
Hamilton on Disney+ is paving the way for more accessible, inclusive, and sustainable theater. Though many in the theatre community have criticized the decision to stream the show, how can we deny its benefits? The more people seeing theatre, the better.
“I think [Hamilton] was so impactful because in such a divided country, in such a divided world, there are few things that fit in that Venn diagram in the middle that sort of please everybody and bring us together rather than push us apart,” Bob Chapek, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, told The Verge. “The message of diversity that’s implicit in the production really gives us hope for a better, more unified tomorrow.”