Written by Rebecca Warner
Illustration by Ellen Stanton
On 3rd July, a pro-shot of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the smash-hit musical that has sold out on Broadway since its debut in 2015, was released on Disney plus. Even after making millions at the box office and innovating the genre of musical theatre through hip-hop music and colour-blind casting, Hamilton has managed to keep finding ways to bring theatre into the modern day, and this move is something theatre fans have been calling for for decades.
Hamilton, like many shows on Broadway and the West End, and despite its messaging of celebrating marginalised voices, falls into many of the same traps of musical theatre elitism. To see Hamilton on Broadway costed audiences over two-hundred and seventy dollars. Yes, you heard me right, two hundred and seventy dollars. West End tickets were much more reasonable, but still costed over fifty pounds at regular west end prices. It is worth mentioning that the Ham4Ham lottery tickets allowed some to access the show for ten dollars, but obviously these were scarce and a symptom of the larger issue at play.
The amazing thing about Hamilton is how it centered people of colour’s voices, enabling themselves to shape the colonialist realities of America’s history for their own purpose and play roles that hadn’t been afforded them in musical theatre. You might see the hypocrisy in the fact that communities most affected by poverty and disillusionment will be the ones unable to afford ridiculous ticket prices. This isn’t a new conversation – Hamilton is part of a much wider conversation that is happening about theatre, elitism and accessibility. So, was the decision to give Disney Plus the rights to stream it a step in the right direction?
The answer is that it’s complicated. You only have to look at concerts like Glastonbury and FIFA games to know that people will pay for the privilege of liveness, and that streaming is great advertising for these events. National Theatre have been doing livestreams to cinemas, which is a step in the right direction, but prices remain high at around twenty pounds a ticket. Why are we not allowing young, working, marginalised audiences the chance to glimpse at what they’re missing through lowered ticket prices, which will, in turn, draw in more audiences?
There is also the question of accessibility, of course. Theatres are difficult to access, with steps, tiny seats and inaccessible toilets. Allowing people to watch from their sofas is crucial some for who going to see the theatre is a matter of anxiety, if not impossible.
However, is immediately moving on-screen giving up on the medium somewhat? After all, there are things that could be done to improve accessibility in venues if enough money was thrown at it. New buildings can be built, ramps constructed, subtitles incorporated. Could money be found to make these changes for an industry that is balancing on a knife-edge as it is? If Coronavirus has proven anything, it is how strongly theatres rely on ticket sales to stay afloat, and that arts development is not a priority for our government.
I do take issue with the fact that Disney are the ones that gotten hold of Hamilton. Disney is a corporation which has its hands in far too many pies in the entertainment industry and is swallowing up as many film franchises as it can – the move to swallow up theatre, too, disconcerts me. They routinely drag their feet in representing the very people Hamilton is celebrating. Theatre is something I firmly believe should remain as an art form that excels when it can take risks and go against the mainstream, where unheard people can experiment and raise their voices. It should belong to people like Lin-Manuel Miranda, who are personally invested in the struggles of people of colour and have a voice worth listening to.
Something important to consider is also what is lost when you put a show onstage, and how I worry that flashy camera work is often employed in these recordings to make shows look like films. In the theatre, one of the best things about it is that you can choose where to look, what performer to watch, and each seat has its own perspective. In cinema, the camera will direct your gaze where the filmmaker wants you to look, and a lot of thought goes into that. Recordings like Hamilton’s pro-shot that massively lean into the use of close-ups and constantly changing angles tell you exactly where to look; that one performer at a time matters instead of the ensemble, which might get cut out completely.
There is also the fact that theatre is all about ‘live-ness’. That is kind of the point of it: it changes every night. You are paying for that special moment you get to share with the performers, and then it is gone forever. It says something to have live shows celebrating what is happening now, and valuing the present moment, constant innovation and change. Being with other people is the magic of theatre, and to be unable to share that experience does put a dampener on it.
It is clear from the chaos the industry has faced this year that theatre is going to have to make some changes to survive, and to be honest these changes have been long overdue. I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that the only way things can change is if we change the way we think about theatre. Only then can we protect it from being swallowed up by corporations and get the art form back to its rebellious roots.