For many of us who love the performing arts, quarantine hasn’t been easy. How are you supposed to go see a show at a local theater or sit in the back row of an incredibly choreographed dance performance, when neither of these things can happen? In response, many companies from the Bay Area to Broadway have found ways to expand their offerings to online platforms over the last half year.
One example of this expansion was the proshot release of the Broadway musical, Hamilton, on Disney+ on July 3, 2020. During the weeks leading up to the digital premier, ‘Hamilfans’ and newcomers alike geared up for the big day, excited to see a show at home for a month subscription of $6.99 instead of the usual in-person cost, which can be hundreds of dollars. But many wondered if the videotaped version could possibly live up to the live experience.
I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton at the Curran theater in San Francisco last year, so when I sat down to stream it, I was ready to compare the two experiences. From the first minute of the online production, I could see a huge difference. Having sat in the very last row of the theater when I saw the show in person, it was definitely a disorienting experience to have the close-up shots that come with the movie format. And although at first this seems like it would be nothing but positive, there are some cons that make themselves visible throughout the 2.75 hour long production. Perhaps the most distracting of these was the way the acting style wasn’t always able to translate from stage to screen. Those of us familiar with the distinctions between theater and film know that screen acting tends to be much smaller and subtler — because it can be when there’s a camera two feet in front of your face. But on stage, actors need to make larger choices so that the impact of the story carries all the way back to the nosebleed section. Thus, when you combine large choices with a close-up camera, the result can seem a little exaggerated.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t benefits to a close-up shot of a character when they are singing a heartbreaking ballad or a knee slapping comedic jaunt. Midway through the second act of the show, when Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) sings a heart-wrenching ballad of betrayal in “Burn,” the close-up shots of her broken expression magnify the intimacy of her performance. Similarly, during King George’s (Jonathan Groff) hilariously deadpan “You’ll be Back,” I couldn’t stop laughing at the small yet effective expressions and quirks Groff wove into the song.
Another element to consider is the frame of the video. During the large ensemble numbers, I often found myself wishing that the camera had backed out a little, so the viewer could see the full effect of the stage-encompassing choreography, but more often than not, the camera stayed focused on whichever character was highlighted in that particular section.
All in all, there are definite pros and cons when it comes to the streamable version of Hamilton — but nothing is perfect, especially not during a quarantine caused by a global pandemic! So if you love musical theater, or are just interested in learning more about Broadway productions, now might be a good time to get your $143 discount, and head to the closest television.