With Disney+ releasing a never-before-seen 2016 filmed performance of Hamilton starring the original Broadway cast later this week, we asked Kelly Kessler, author of the new book Broadway in the Box: Television’s Lasting Love Affair with the Musical to weigh in on this latest development in Broadway’s decades long flirtation with the small screen.
As portions of the country open back up and folks cautiously plan their Fourth of July celebrations, the entertainment industry remains at a crossroads. With most movie theaters still shuttered, summer concert tours canceled, and Broadway staying dark, some of America’s favorite summer pastimes are gasping for relief. Broadway has been hemorrhaging $35 million a week on ticket sales alone, and AMC recently reported a $2.4 billion first quarter loss. Prospects moving forward remain unclear and perhaps even bleak, but as always seems to be the case, The Mouse marches on. And so here it comes, during one of the nation’s most troubled years in modern history, shifting gears to drop Hamilton on Disney+ just in time for America’s birthday.
Just as it did in 1954, when shakeups within the Hollywood Studio System led Walt Disney to branch out into television—targeting baby boomers in their living rooms and using ABC to help finance and market its new theme park—Disney will use its sizzling new streaming service to draw captive Americans to Broadway’s hottest ticket of the last decade. Watch out Baby Yoda, here comes a rap battle Revolutionary War. Sidelining their February announcement that they would release the stage-bound taping of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip hop retelling of the country’s founding fathers in movie theaters on October 14th, 2021 (followed by a 2022 Disney+ run), Disney has instead apparently decided “there’s no better time than the present.”
On July 3, while many stay home to avoid coronavirus crowds, Disney+ subscribers can revel in a full 2016 performance of Hamilton, starring the show’s original Broadway cast, including Tony-winners Mirada, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. For nearly five years, audiences have clamored for firsthand glimpses of Miranda’s cultural phenomenon. Prior to March shutdowns, the show had settled into long-term runs in NYC and London and four more successful tours with medium-to-short-term runs booked around the U.S. But that was 2020 B.C. (before COVID).
Less than a month and a half before all industries imploded, Disney won the bidding war for the Broadway blockbuster, paying a record $75 million for the show’s worldwide film rights. Now, almost five months later, Disney is doing its best to make live theatre’s loss the media monolith’s gain, releasing the Broadway show to its more than 54-million Disney+ subscribers two years ahead of its scheduled streaming release. There’s a clear double standard at play here. While Disney is holding back big budget Summer 2020 releases like its new live-action Mulan and Marvel’s Black Widow, they’re merely rerouting the Tony-winner straight-to-streaming. But what will this jump to TV mean for Hamilton’s live productions? That remains to be seen.
To be clear, none of this is entirely new. The musical has had a century long flirtation with unconventional distribution methods. By the twenties, theatre producers had already entered into a love/hate relationship with radio broadcasters, worrying that too much airplay would discourage people from attending live theatre on the road. In the forties and fifties, Broadway helped amp up TV’s cultural cache, with its songs, singers, and producers appearing everywhere from The Ed Sullivan Show and What’s My Line to remounted productions of Panama Hattie and Anything Goes. Mary Martin’s iconic televised Peter Pan was even contracted for its small screen airing on Producers’ Showcase prior to its Broadway opening.
By the early 1980s, increased U.S. penetration of cable, satellite, and Pay-Per-View (PPV) offerings led to Broadway contract disputes and inter-industry clashes. In 1982, Broadway’s Sophisticated Ladies became the first still-running Broadway show to appear live on U.S. television, notably via a PPV deal that resulted in relatively few viewers and a significant boycott from the show’s Broadway cast. Comparable transfer efforts with 1990s productions of Damn Yankees with Bebe Neuwirth and Smokey Joe’s Café with Gregory Hines hit similar roadblocks, with neither production ultimately making it to the small screen.
In this same era, Universal Pictures picked a fight with movie theater owners by releasing their 1983 motion picture version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance — starring many of the 1981 Broadway revival’s heavy-hitters — on PPV and in movie theatres on the same day. While Universal saw this as a prime opportunity to capture stay-at-home musical lovers, exhibitors saw it as a shot fired across an evolving industrial bow. Now, with the increasing popularity of (and competition between) streaming services, the musical has returned to the center of the action.
Theatres are shuttered. Productions have ceased. The Hamilton machine alone has laid-off hundreds and hundreds of actors, artists, artisans, stage managers, company managers, and members of its administrative staff while the world readjusts to the new normal. And not inconsequentially, the global culture industry looks much more like the one Walt Disney had seen crumble just prior to his jump into small screen production than the one which framed battles between new distribution services and Sophisticated Ladies or The Pirates of Penzance. But today, Disney is not just a player trying to find a place in the system. The Mouse controls the system.
In this deal, the Hamilton machine got theirs; as always, Disney will get theirs—both in the form of streaming views and possible future brokered deals with Miranda; Hamilton fans who couldn’t travel across the country and/or pay upwards of one-thousand dollars per ticket will get theirs; but what’s going to happen to the scads of laid-off Hamilton employees when live theatre finds its post-COVID feet? Will they have jobs or will they have fallen victim to the The Mouse? What role will this marriage between Broadway (or Miranda) and Disney play? Will this move impact future Broadway distribution strategies? Is this just a one-off financial boon or something bigger? In the words of Miranda’s King George, “What Comes Next?” In the words of Miranda’s Aaron Burr, we’ll just have to “Wait For It.”
Hamilton drops on Disney+ this 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.