Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is one of the most popular Broadway shows ever to hit the stage, and now it’s part of the vast Disney cultural empire. Disney reportedly shelled out $75 million for the worldwide rights to the show, which includes a theatrical run followed by a debut on the Disney+ streaming service, Deadline reports.
It’s a big deal for a few reasons. First is simply the scope of the purchase: Deadline speculates it may be the single highest price ever paid for a finished film. It’s a price that speaks to both Disney’s expectations of its theatrical prospects and the importance of the future legs on streaming: Disney will almost certainly be advertising the fact that Disney+ will be the only place in the world to watch one of the most in-demand stage shows.
It’s also no secret that Hamilton was going to be a big win for a streaming service. Netflix was among the several studios The Wall Street Journal reported were bidding on the rights to the recording back in 2018. Nor is it a new idea to spin up a stage show into a multimedia franchise: back in 2008, Rent became the first major Broadway show to get a theatrical release for a recording of the stage show with Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway. But Hamilton’s release matters more both due to the current streaming landscape, as well as the far bigger scope of the property and its potential success.
The Hamilton purchase fits neatly into Disney’s existing strategy for Disney+, which we’ve already seen with series like The Mandalorian, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, and its various upcoming Marvel shows. The playbook is simple: take a a major property that already has a huge amount of hype and a large fanbase, purchase the rights, and deliver a product that can’t be seen anywhere else. In this case, that’s a version of Hamilton that doesn’t cost hundreds of dollars a ticket to see — or for fans of the musical who have seen it, a version with the original cast that no longer performs those roles live onstage.
To be clear, this isn’t a big-budget film adaptation of the stage show, like 2012’s Les Miserables, the disaster that was 2019’s Cats, or the upcoming In The Heights. Rather, it’s a filmed version of the original Broadway show (what fans refer to as a “pro-shot” musical, as opposed to dodgy, pirated bootleg recordings). The Hamilton movie that Disney will be distributing was shot two weeks before the original (and Tony Award-winning) cast left the production, over the course of three live performances back in 2016.
The Hamilton recording making its way to a broad theatrical and streaming release is also a big deal for the accessibility of Broadway shows, which aren’t readily available to people who do not live in geographic proximity to New York City or can’t afford the increasingly exorbitant prices that tickets demand.
Shows like Puffs (which offered a streamable recording of the show while it was still performing off-Broadway) and She Loves Me (which aired a single live stream of a performance 11 days before it closed in 2016) have tested the waters for the viability of offering a widely distributed and cheaper version of a show while the original was still on stage. But neither of those experiments were anything on the scale of Hamilton, which might end up having to compete with itself once the movie hits theaters and Disney+.
It’s that fear of competition that explains the extremely long lead time for that theatrical release. Hamilton won’t hit theaters until October 15th, 2021, and likely won’t hit Disney+ until 2022. That ensures there’ll be plenty more time for the Broadway stage show (as well as the various other touring and regional productions) to continue uncontested for at least another year and a half.
But if Hamilton succeeds in theaters and on streaming, and shows that this kind of wider distribution can work without cannibalizing its source (a primary fear for theater producers), it wouldn’t just be a big win for Disney. It would also be the first in a new era of more accessible Broadway shows for everyone.
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