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Seamless And Moving, 'Hamilton' Streaming Works Stunningly Well

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. The trajectory of "Hamilton" the musical from the very start has been phenomenal. It's playwright and composer, Lin Lin-Manuel Miranda, first unveiled a snippet of "Hamilton" in 2009, surprising and delighting the Obamas when performing it during a night of poetry and music at the White House. The full-length musical premiered six years later at Joseph Papp's Public Theater, then moved uptown to Broadway later that same year in 2015.

Miranda and "Hamilton" smashed box office records and won a Pulitzer, some Grammys and 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. And in June 2016, shortly before Miranda and some of his fellow original co-stars left the show, "Hamilton" was filmed three times for a movie version - twice in front of an audience and once with Steadicam and crane operators swooping around and above the stage. That film version was intended to be locked away for five years until its planned national movie release in the fall of 2021.

But because of the pandemic and because both movie and Broadway theaters are currently shut down, Disney's streaming service, Disney+, is releasing the movie version of "Hamilton" today as a special treat for Independence Day weekend. The production is so good and so eagerly anticipated, I predict a major TV blockbuster. "Hamilton" the stage musical is such a massive hit, it could afford to do everything right in mounting a movie version and has. It captured the actors at the very height of their performance and comfort levels, with most members of the company having played their roles onstage for more than a year.

Film director Thomas Kail, who also directed the Broadway version, preserved the theatricality of the stage presentation, yet knew when to zoom in for some emotional and revealing close-ups. Best of all, he knew when to include reactions from the audience, who could be heard, but not seen, responding to some of the musical's best bits. These include the time in the film when Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, and Daveed Diggs, as the Marquis de Lafayette, serve up one of the play's most famous lines.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

DAVEED DIGGS: (As Lafayette, rapping) Monsieur Hamilton.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Hamilton, rapping) Monsieur Lafayette.

DIGGS: (As Lafayette, rapping) In command where you belong.

MIRANDA: (As Hamilton, rapping) How you say, no sweat. We're finally on the field. We've had quite a run.

DIGGS: (As Lafayette, rapping) Immigrants, we get the job done.

MIRANDA: (As Hamilton, rapping) We get the job done.

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING)

MIRANDA: (As Hamilton, rapping) So what happens if we win?

DIGGS: (As Lafayette, rapping) I go back to France.

BIANCULLI: The audience reaction is also key when Jonathan Groff sings his first song as King George barely moving and cocooned in a ridiculously heavy robe, but commanding attention in every sense of the word. The images shift between longer shots of him very alone onstage and camera angles almost comically tight. But it all combines to make the essence of the King George character and the words Groff is singing even more clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAMILTON")

JONATHAN GROFF: (As King George, singing) And, no, don't change the subject because you're my favorite subjects, my sweet, submissive subjects, my loyal, royal subjects, forever and ever - and ever, and ever, and ever.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: (As King George, singing) You'll be back like before. I will fight the fight and win the war for your love, for your praise. And I'll love you until my dying days. When you're gone, I'll go mad. So don't throw away this thing we had. Because when push comes to shove, I will kill your friends and family...

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: ...(As King George, singing) To remind you of my love.

(LAUGHTER)

GROFF: (As King George, singing) Da, da, da, dat, da. Dat, da, da, da, da, ya, da. Da, da, dat, dat, da, ya, da. Da, da, da, dat, da. Dat, da, da, da, da ya, da. Da, da, da, dat, dat, da, ya, da. Da, da, da, dat, da.

BIANCULLI: This dual approach, combining scenes filmed before a Broadway audience with one's photographed with just actors and camera operators, works stunningly well. For one thing, you can't even see the seams. For another, it allows for an intimacy even the best Broadway seats can't provide. In Act 2, when Hamilton's story becomes as personal as political, we get so close we can see the tears and feel the emotion, especially when Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, played by Phillipa Soo, are shown walking the slow and silent road to reconciliation.

The spiritual forefather to "Hamilton," in terms of the Broadway and movie musical, is "1776," which centered on John Adams and his stubborn efforts to advance an American revolution. The 1972 movie version of that musical adopted the standard approach to filming a stage hit, opening it up to grander and more realistic sets and locations and doing away with the audience. The best efforts using this approach, such as "Chicago" and "Cabaret," prove it's a perfectly valid and artistically creative way to do it.

But this new "Hamilton" movie provides another option, one that may, in time, prove revolutionary. And for now, it's arriving at a time when its political messages are amazingly resonant and at a time when we can't go see "Hamilton" on the stage or in movie theaters. So "Hamilton" is coming to us this weekend, courtesy of Disney+, which makes your living room, if you're one of the more than 50 million subscribers to that streaming service, the room where it happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS")

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Burr, singing) No one else was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened. No one else was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened. No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made. We just assume that it happens. But no one else is in the room where it happens. Thomas claims...

DIGGS: (As Jefferson, rapping) Alexander was on Washington's doorstep one day...

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Padma Lakshmi. She hosts the cooking competition series "Top Chef" and has a new series, "Taste The Nation," in which she travels around America to learn how the recipes immigrants brought with them became part of what we think of as American food. She emigrated to America from India when she was 4. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help from Charlie Kaier and additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS")

ODOM: (As Burr, singing) But no one else is in the room where it happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM BEARD'S "HOLIDAY (FOR PETE AND GLADYS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.