Kelly Kessler is the author of the new book Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical.
The bidding war for Hamilton’s theatrical distribution rights was unlike any in Broadway history. When Disney came out on top of that battle, who could have guessed that a global pandemic and nationwide swell of anti-racist protests would coalesce to make Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop Black and Brown retelling of America’s Founding Fathers the ideal birthday present to a country forced (yet again) to confront its racially fraught past and present. But that’s exactly what Disney+ will be delivering when it premieres the theatrical juggernaut on July 3rd.
When it was announced in early February that Disney had paid $75 million for a 2016 filmed performance by Hamilton’s original cast, Americans were living in a vastly different day-to-day. Only eleven coronavirus infections and zero related-deaths had been confirmed in the U.S. It would be five more weeks before the World Health Organization even labeled the virus a global pandemic. It was also five weeks before the fatal police shooting of Louisville’s Breonna Taylor and over 3.5 months prior to the killing of an unarmed George Floyd by a policeman’s knee to his neck. Disney’s conquest was months before coast-to-coast anti-racist protests began loudly challenging policing systems and practices. But Hamilton, its cast, and its creator, with their on-and-offstage messaging about immigrants, diversity, and rebellion, had been preparing for just this kind of wide distribution.
Despite the fact that Miranda felt he needed to issue a public apology for Hamilton’s initial silence regarding Floyd’s death and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, he and various Hamilton cast members had been using their platform to preach truth to power and acknowledge the pain of BIPOC within a systemically racist America for the last half-decade. Less than two weeks after Donald Trump shocked many by winning the 2016 presidential election, Vice President-Elect Pence attended a Broadway performance of the sellout musical. The cast used the curtain call and the power of social media to transform the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre into a more overt kind of political platform. Brandon Victor Dixon, the production’s Aaron Burr, offered some prepared words to Pence (who fled his seat before Dixon could even speak). Still in costume, he proclaimed, “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”
Within a day, President-Elect Trump had taken to social media and accused the cast of “harassing” his soon-to-be second-in-command and demanded the cast apologize. He went on to decry that “theater must always be a safe and special place,” lamenting the use of the art to address politics. A #BoycottHamilton hashtag followed on Twitter, and a subsequent Chicago performance of the show was interrupted by an infuriated audience member shouting, “Our side won! Our side won! F*** anyone who didn’t vote for Trump, you don’t belong here!” in response to the show’s now iconic line: “Immigrants, we get the job done.” But the cast and crew of Hamilton were not deterred.
One month later, the company doubled down on its message of anti-racism in the wake of a presidential campaign that questioned the value of bodies of color. Cast members performed a heart wrenching, choreographed mashup of Miranda lyrics, “America the Beautiful,” Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” for the Gypsy of the Year Competition. Winning the competition and raising nearly $300 thousand for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS in the process, the performance peppered Marley’s calls for unity with Hughes’ “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed,” “America was never America to me,” and “Who said the free? Not me?”
Miranda and Hamilton’s various casts went on to use their celebrity and the phenomenal success of the show as platforms to confront racial, ethnic, economic, and gendered injustice. Whether the women of Hamilton performing at the 2017 Chicago Women’s March, Miranda taking Trump to task for his attacks on San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, or the superstar launching a new touring company of the show and reprising the role of Hamilton for a 17-day San Juan run that helped raise millions for arts organizations in the ravaged U.S. territory, the voice of Hamilton has become one synonymous with dissent.
Of course, some will see the show’s emergence on Disney+ as merely an opportunist move on the part of a media giant struggling to readjust to a pandemic landscape where summer blockbusters have been shelved as theaters remain shuttered. In the context of Hamilton's activism and nationwide anti-racist protests, Disney’s rationale becomes secondary at best. The cultural meaning of Hamilton on 2020’s Fourth of July weekend (pardon the phrasing) trumps the company’s intent. Whereas access to tickets were often limited to the privileged, with sold-out performances leading to a secondary ticket market often demanding up to $1500 for single seats (and up to to $10,000 for Miranda’s final Broadway performance), the Disney+ release will democratize the show’s availability at a time when its message couldn’t be more important. Disney’s intentions truly don’t matter.
To be sure, a remaining level of privilege is still needed to access the production. Viewers will need a subscription (or a “borrowed” login) and access to Wi-Fi or cellular data, but the 54.5 million Disney+ subscribers — and anyone else they can squeeze into their virtual living rooms — greatly outweigh those who have been able to access the show’s performances thus far. For nearly three-quarters of a century, television has allowed Americans access to a (given somewhat problematically curated) vision of U.S. race relations. News footage of 1965’s Bloody Sunday, the 1968 CBS documentary series Of Black America, ABC’s 1977 Roots miniseries, the 1991 Rodney King beating, trial verdict and subsequent riots, the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, the 2015 funerals of Charleston Emanuel AME massacre victims, and 2020’s anti-racist police reform protests have all provided glimpses into the systemic racism of the nation's "democratic experiment."
This Fourth of July weekend, while Americans negotiate the upside-down nature of 2020, Miranda’s Hamilton can serve as a socially distanced moment of cultural reflection. Despite the president’s calls for “safe” entertainment, the musical’s streaming premiere will offer an opportunity for viewers to embrace Miranda’s ethos regarding art and politics. Hopefully people will take heed. In a 2019 Atlantic feature the composer and lyricist proclaimed, “I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.” To be clear, Hamilton is in no way the solution to the nation’s social ills, but this Independence Day weekend’s premiere couldn’t be timelier.
Hamilton drops on Disney+ Friday July 3rd.
Kelly Kessler, a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, teaches television and film studies at DePaul University and is the author of the new book Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical.