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Hamilton on Disney Plus: First-timers debate whether it meets the hype

Review: The hit Broadway musical has been heaped with critical acclaim for years. So what's it like finally seeing it after so much buzz?

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Disney Plus

Is the Hamilton hype justified? Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit hip-hop musical came to Disney Plus on July 3, and fans clamored to be in the room where it happens. Disney Plus mobile-app downloads jumped 72% in the US over the weekend as the streaming service dropped the film version of the acclaimed show, which was taped in 2016 with the original Broadway cast. 

Those who have seen Hamilton in the theater before, whether in New York, London or with a touring cast, knew what to expect. Our CNET reviewer called it a heartwarming cross between play and TV movie. But what about the young, scrappy and hungry types who've never had a chance to watch Miranda's musical play out on stage? Below, CNET staffers who saw the show for the first time within days of its streaming launch share their reactions, from those who kept busy Google-searching John Laurens while watching to those who were blown away from Hamilton's arrival in New York to Eliza putting herself back in the narrative.

Hype exceeded, amazingly enough 

I went into this with a mix of trepidation and excitement. I heard over and over again how amazing Hamilton was, and I feared the hype had ruined it for me. Watching a Broadway show on the screen also felt foreign, and I worried that comfortably sitting on my couch with a phone next to me meant I wouldn't be able to focus on the two-plus hour show (splitting time between the big screen on my wall and the little one in my hands is standard practice). 

It was right around seeing King George (delightfully played by Jonathan Groff) literally spit out his lines when my concern faded away. The filmed version's ability to take you up close to the faces of the performers, from Groff ejecting saliva as he sings You'll Be Back, to the look of regret and longing from Renee Elise Goldsberry's Angelica as she sings Satisfied, is something I would've missed had I been in the cheap seats of the Richard Rodgers Theatre (which, let's face it, would've been a small miracle itself). 

The closed captions also allowed me to better follow along with the rapid-fire lyrics and helped me better appreciate the genius of the script, which references everything from complicated banking systems to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Thomas Jefferson's affinity for France.

As for the incredible levels of hype, Hamilton mind-bogglingly exceeded them. The music, the performances, the story, and how all these serve to create fully fleshed-out versions of our founding fathers, noble and petty, arrogant and humbled -- often at the same time -- is nothing short of astonishing. 

I am not a theater person -- my last Broadway performance starred a character from one of my son's favorite children's books -- but Hamilton managed to blow me away and has me wondering when we can get more productions put on streaming services. 

Roger Cheng, executive editor, New York

A movie musical done right

The first time I listened to the soundtrack, right after Hamilton became a global sensation in 2016, I stood in the kitchen, wooden spoon in hand, more transfixed by the storytelling and music than whatever I was cooking. Finally being able to see the stage production made the story feel complete in a way I didn't know I needed. Emotions sank in. Riffs and exchanges made sense. Characters crystallized. And being able to see the genius of the extremely talented Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson) in "person" blew me away. Recent movies of musicals have been train-wreck affairs, but in capturing the Broadway stage just as is, the Hamilton crew did it right. When theaters open, I'll be first in line to buy a ticket.

Jessica Dolcourt, managing editor, San Francisco

Paired with a phone, a perfect history lesson

Like everyone else in my orbit, I had really wanted to see Hamilton on stage. Everyone I knew has been talking about it for years. But as much as I love and appreciate a good Broadway production, I wasn't willing to take out a second mortgage to attend a performance in New York City. I moved from NYC to the suburbs of Philadelphia a few years ago and had hoped to see a performance in Philly, but tickets were also hard to get. 

All of this is to say I was super pumped to watch the performance from my sofa on Disney Plus. It felt like a very fitting thing to do the night before the Fourth of July, especially since due to COVID-related social distancing, my family wasn't headed to the beach for the holiday weekend. 

I really enjoyed the performances and the televised production, although it was a different experience than watching a show live. But given that I had neither listened to the soundtrack in advance nor refreshed my memory of AP American history with details about Hamilton's life, I was glad I hadn't spent thousands of dollars on a live performance since I spent a good chunk of time pausing and Googling to understand the history and the characters. 

I consider myself pretty well-versed in American history, and I'd say I know a fair amount about the Revolutionary War -- my house is within walking distance to Valley Forge National Park -- but I had no idea who John Laurens was or anything about his close relationship to Hamilton. So whipping out my phone to do a Google search was pretty helpful. 

Of course, now that I've seen Hamilton and know the history better, I plan to watch it again on Disney Plus -- this time without my phone. I'd also love to see a live performance, if that ever happens again--post-pandemic. (Fingers crossed.)

Maggie Reardon, senior reporter, Wayne, Pennsylvania

Took some time, but I adjusted

You make a deal when you walk into a theater, an unspoken pact with the performers that whatever they pretend, no matter how cringely contrived, you commit to making it real. But it's hard to make that same investment when there's a TV screen between you and the stage, and it's too easy to only see people prancing round in silly pants singing and singing and singing. So yeah, I spent the first few songs of the filmed Hamilton wondering what in the name of King George was happening. It's just such a weird idea, and I'm sorry but the exposition-heavy first song is horrible.

But then I adjusted. The heartfelt performances, the relentlessly flowing lyrical narrative and the historical tension really drew me in. I'll cheerfully admit there were tears in my eyes by the end. The whole thing may be an utterly bizarre concept, and a filmed play still has a certain cringe factor, but I definitely see why people love Hamilton.

I do have one potentially controversial view though: Lin-Manuel Miranda should have played the other guy. 

Richard Trenholm, senior editor, London

Missed being part of an audience

I'd hoped to see Hamilton on stage, but with two young kids, my trips to the theater are few and far between. So I was excited to watch it for the first time on Disney Plus. TL;DR, I really enjoyed it, but not everything translated from the stage to the TV screen for me. 

Don't get me wrong, there was a lot about Hamilton that lived up to the hype. All the performance were amazing, though King George III, played by Jonathan Groff, and Thomas Jefferson, played by Daveed Diggs, were the standouts for me. Being able to watch with captions on also let me appreciate every line, including things I likely would have missed in person. 

What didn't work for me was more about the theater experience than the show. I missed being in an audience and hearing the emotions, laughter and applause of the people around me. Also, Hamilton is long (two hours and 40 minutes with a one-minute intermission). I didn't get to start Hamilton until after 9 p.m. and struggled to stay focused during the second half of the show. 

Hamilton is still definitely worth watching on Disney Plus, and I look forward to turning on my favorite numbers whenever I want. 

Carrie Mihalcik, editor, Baltimore

American history, with a cool vibe 

Hamilton puts a contemporary spin on a historical tale through the use of hip hop and pop music. I've heard all the hype, but I've never seen the musical because the tickets were pricey and in high demand. So when I heard it was going to be on Disney Plus, I subscribed to the video service. 

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I didn't listen to the soundtrack beforehand, so in my mind, I thought the music was going to sound like something from Les Misérables. Musicals tend to follow a certain formula, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear rapping and even beatboxing throughout. What stood out to me were the instrumentals, which give the play's history lesson a very cool vibe.

I've only seen a handful of musicals on the stage (The Music Man, An American in Paris and Into the Woods) so I know watching a play on the screen versus in person is a different experience. The benefits of watching a musical on a screen is you can see the facial expressions of the actors up close. The downside is I also get easily distracted by my phone or the sound of fireworks outside so I actually watched Hamilton over two days. I've also noticed a lack of diversity in the theater world so it was refreshing to see a musical with Black and Puerto Rican actors in lead roles. Overall, Hamilton lived up to the hype mainly because it was different from other musicals I've seen before. It challenged my expectations of what I thought a musical would look and sound like. 

Queenie Wong, reporter, San Francisco 

A show for our times

I've seen a lot of theater productions, but never Hamilton. It translated brilliantly to TV, with the almost-three-hour play remaining captivating and engaging the entire way through. One thing that made me smile was seeing Alexander Hamilton and his crew and the Schuyler sisters each in a different brightly colored costume -- which is necessary to distinguish between characters when sitting in a large theater far from the stage, but isn't really needed for a TV production. 

What more can be said about Hamilton that hasn't already been shouted in praising reviews? The play itself is brilliant -- the quality of the production and acting, the genius of the lyrics, the balance of humor and politics, the songs that stay stuck in your head for days after seeing it. 

What's important now is how Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought Hamilton to a low-cost streaming platform during the time of both COVID-19 quarantine and Black Lives Matter. Bringing a prohibitively expensive theater show with notoriously difficult-to-obtain tickets out of the big cities and into houses everywhere is equalizing access to a learning tool about America's past that's deeply relevant today. 

Hamilton has a racially balanced cast, discussions that acknowledge slavery, and it uses rap battles as a vehicle to portray political history, making it well suited to help teach and learn at all levels. Much like the founding fathers were, we're now in a time where we need to push great change, and we need to do it through understanding and respect. There's never been a more poignant time for Hamilton to become accessible to everyone. 

Corinne Reichert, senior reporter, San Francisco

One happy Hamilfan 

I won't say I was dragged kicking and screaming to the Chicago stage production of Hamilton, but I wasn't looking forward to it. A history lesson wrapped in hip-hop? No thanks. But my mom wanted to see it and wanted the family to see it with her, so off we went.

Can you guess where this is going? I'm now as rabid a Hamilfan as they come. I've read the books. I've spent entire flights and train rides listening to the original cast recording end to end, a true pleasure. I even won the Hamilton ticket lottery the following year, allowing me to see the show again in Detroit -- second row!

As others have noted, Hamilton on TV lacks the intimacy of a shared theater experience and the added punch afforded by a loud, live orchestra. But actually getting to see the original cast members play these roles? Up close, so you can read their expressions of joy and anguish? That's actually better than the theater can deliver. Hamilton, the musical, is a work of art. Hamilton streaming on TV is one of the few bright spots of 2020. Dim the lights, turn off the phones, crank the volume.

Rick Broida, senior editor, Detroit