Movies

You Don’t Need to Watch Hamilton

Everything that’s groundbreaking about the musical is already on the album.

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton. Disney

Starting on July 3, Disney+ will begin streaming a filmed version of Hamilton, making the notoriously expensive Broadway sensation much easier to see across the country and around the world. This long-awaited “Hamilfilm” even has the original cast, including creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role. But while the musical’s widespread availability will make for a nice Independence Day double feature with 1776, the truth is, you really don’t need to see Hamilton. And that’s not because the show isn’t as revolutionary as it once seemed or because it’s overrated or because the ghost of Alexander Hamilton might suddenly appear in your living room and reveal himself to be a major dick. No, it’s because everything that’s great about Hamilton has already been widely available for years, in the form of the musical’s cast recording.

This is in part because Hamilton is a sung-through musical, meaning there aren’t any scenes of spoken dialogue in between the songs. Everything in the show is right there on the album—with the exception of one very brief scene in which Hamilton learns of the death of his friend (and in countless fan fictions, his lover) John Laurens. All of the qualities that made the musical such a sensation in the first place—the mingling of American history with contemporary sounds, Miranda’s virtuosic way with words, its postmodern play with touchstones from hip-hop and musical theater, Daveed Diggs’ speed, Leslie Odom Jr.’s passion, the sheer chutzpah of its vision—have been available for nearly five years, for the still-unbeaten price of listening to a few ads on Spotify.

As for what you can see, there’s really not much to look at, anyway. Hamilton’s barebones set is little more than scaffolding on a revolving stage with some furniture that gets dragged in and out. It’s more notable for what isn’t there than what is. And that’s exactly how it should be, considering the pace of the musical itself, which doesn’t leave time for a ton of changes, or much space in the audience’s brains to pay attention to much more than the density of wordplay, allusion, and storytelling. The visuals simply serve the music. That’s also true of the (Tony-winning!) costumes, which occasionally catch the eye—I’m thinking mostly of Thomas Jefferson’s purple coat—but are often quite literally stripped-down (in the ensemble’s case, to the skivvies), and otherwise pass for fairly conventional period dress. Meanwhile, not everything in the show is perfect, and that includes its visuals. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, while it results in some striking tableaux, is needlessly convoluted and at times downright distracting. (Yes, the man is a three-time Tony winner, but if you want to see his choreography, you can just stream Cats.)

That’s certainly not to say that you shouldn’t watch Hamilton. It’s always exciting to get closer to experiencing something that was, for a long time, only available to the privileged few. And there are a handful of highly theatrical choices in the staged version that you almost certainly won’t see when the movie inevitably gets a big Hollywood treatment someday: For instance, Hamilton’s last monologue takes place entirely as the bullet travels slowly toward him in the fingertips of a member of the company, an effect that could easily be replaced by traditional slow-motion. But for the most part, if you decide to watch the movie, you won’t be adding all that much to the experience. Plus, you’ll be losing some things, too—namely, two F-bombs. But it’s not always bad to leave a couple of things to the imagination.

For more of Slate’s Hamilton coverage, listen to this spoiler-filled discussion of the movie.