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'Hamilton' airs on Disney+: For people of color, an American story 'that could be theirs'

The show’s diverse casting and contemporary sound, says Princeton professor Brian Herrera, makes the past seem relevant and accessible.

To borrow a phrase from the Broadway smash "Hamilton," this weekend millions of Americans will have the opportunity to be in "the room where it happens." Only that room will probably be their living room.

Just in time for an Independence Day weekend without the usual crowded throngs and baseball games, Lin-Manuel Miranda is bringing his multicultural story of the Founding Fathers to streaming TV. "Hamilton" will premiere exclusively on Disney+ on Friday.

"Hamilton" had originally been scheduled for a theatrical release in October 2021. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the show's debut was advanced and made available on streaming.

"I'm so grateful to Disney and Disney+ for reimagining and moving up our release to July 4th weekend of this year, in light of the world turning upside down," Miranda said in a statement in May. "'I'm so grateful to all the fans who asked for this, and I'm so glad that we're able to make it happen. I'm so proud of this show. I can't wait for you to see it."

That so many people potentially will be able to view the show is a minor miracle. Despite "Hamilton's" global popularity, many of its fans have never actually seen it. Since it opened on Broadway, "Hamilton" has been sold out, and ticket prices have soared. During the 2017 Christmas holidays, a single premium seat cost $1,150. Now the show is available for less than the cost of a movie ticket; a monthly subscription to Disney+ costs $6.99.

Reactivating optimism in a time of crisis?

"Hamilton" arrives at a moment when the country is reeling from a pandemic, a polarized political climate and protests over police brutality against African Americans.

Brian E. Herrera, associate professor of theater at Princeton University, is interested in how the show reverberates with a broad audience. "As a historian, I think of 'Hamilton' as encapsulating the inclusivity and promise of the Obama era. Now we've realized that that promise may not have been permanent, and it will be interesting to see if the show reactivates that optimism again."

"Hamilton," Herrera said, is brilliant because it invites audiences, particularly young people and people of color, to think of the American story as one "that could be theirs." The Founding Fathers and most of the cast are Black and brown, and Miranda imagines the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr, for example, as a rap battle.

The show's diverse casting and contemporary sound, Herrera said, make the past seem relevant and accessible. "The show opens up the proximity of the past and raises important questions like the role of government during a time of crisis," he said.

Critics have already praised the movie version of "Hamilton," with The New York Times noting that it "arrives just in time — vital and more challenging than ever."

In a short introduction to the movie, Miranda says, "So much of what 'Hamilton' is about is how history remembers and how that changes over time."

The movie is premiering when there is virtually no live theater in the country. Because of the coronavirus, Broadway shows suspended performances on March 12 and are not expected to resume them before 2021. "Hamilton" companies around the U.S. and overseas have likewise shuttered. Movie theaters have closed, and the film version of Miranda's first hit, "In The Heights" (which coincidentally has a storyline centering on the Fourth of July), has been postponed until next year.

Those circumstances have contributed to the pent-up demand for "Hamilton." On June 21, Miranda tweeted a clip of the film, which has been liked and retweeted hundreds of thousands of times. Excited by the news of the movie, fans have made "#Hamilfilm" trend on social media worldwide.

"Hamilton," inspired by Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, began at New York City's Public Theater in 2015 and then transferred to Broadway. It swept the Tony Awards in 2016, and Miranda later won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2019, Miranda took "Hamilton" to Puerto Rico to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria.

The show is credited with introducing a new, younger generation to Broadway and with highlighting performers of color. The "Hamilton" movie is a filmed capture of the show, recorded in 2016, with original cast members including Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr. and Daveed Diggs.

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