Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past.
One of the most anticipated film events of the decade is now available to stream with a Disney+ subscription. Hamilton, the meticulously shot and edited document of the Broadway show of the same name, is a hot ticket and well worth your time, regardless of how you’d categorize its existence. And whether we’re talking about the stage production or this film that captures its phenomenal performances for posterity, there are plenty of other movies and filmed shows that came before it that are also worth a look.
Some of these are works that inspired Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, and some of them are less directly influential but are part of the historical lineage of either the show or the filming of the show. My recommendation does not mean that it’s as good as Hamilton or something you’d necessarily like if you enjoyed Hamilton. They’re just part of Hamilton‘s DNA and good for context and greater appreciation. Honestly, I wish there were more to spotlight of the precedent or equivalent variety, but there’s really never been anything quite like Hamilton before.
Alexander Hamilton (1931)
When Lin-Manuel Miranda first got the idea for Hamilton, he was surprised that Alexander Hamilton hadn’t been portrayed on stage or screen more, recognizing a 1917 Broadway play, also titled Hamilton, and this retitled Hollywood adaptation as the only real precursors (there were also some earlier short films about him). Like his own Hamilton, the 1917 production starred one of the play’s writers, George Arliss, in the titular role. Arliss reprised the portrayal in the movie version, which follows the historical figure after the end of the Revolutionary War during his first acts as Secretary of the Treasury.
Aaron Burr is not a character in Alexander Hamilton, which focuses instead on Hamilton’s rivalry with a fictional senator, as well as Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe (not Madison) — who were played by actors associated with villainous roles to emphasize to the audience that they were also antagonists here — while also covering the sex scandal involving Maria Reynolds. Basically, the movie only parallels Act II of Hamilton, minus the man’s death, as it’s intended to take place strictly during George Washington’s presidency. Arliss almost starred in another play about Burr, but it never happened.
We Work Again (1936)
When it comes to productions for the stage featuring actors of color as characters historically or traditionally known to be white, Orson Welles’ 1936 production of Macbeth was probably the most famous — if not likely the first — before Hamilton came along. Nicknamed “Voodoo Macbeth,” the all-Black-cast show was made as part of the Federal Theatre Project, and the only known existing footage of its performance features in the short documentary We Work Again, which specifically promotes Work Projects Administration’s efforts to employ and train African Americans.
Unlike Hamilton, which casts actors of color to portray real people who were white, Welles’ Macbeth was not a straight production of Shakespeare’s play as written and based on historical figures. Instead of medieval Scotland, this version is set in the 19th century on a fictional Caribbean island (somewhat based on Haiti). Instead of witchcraft, the magic of this Macbeth involves voodoo, hence the nickname. The section seen in We Work Again, which is easily watched online as it’s in the public domain, consists of the play’s final four minutes, starting right before the arrival of Macduff at Dunsinane.
Although Hamilton is an unprecedented work for many reasons, it’s not the first musical telling of the birth of the United States. Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’ 1776, which premiered on Broadway in 1969, presents the story of the Founding Fathers in the months leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As Alexander Hamilton was not one of those men whose name is on the document, he is not a character in this show. The main characters of 1776 are John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, neither of whom are characters in Hamilton.
Like Hamilton, 1776 won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Unlike Hamilton, 1776 quickly spawned a movie adaptation. Like Hamilton, 1776 managed to spark some political controversy involving a presidential administration — for Hamilton, this was the famous critical address of Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the stage, leading to President-elect Donald Trump requesting an apology; for 1776, this was the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” offending then-President Richard Nixon, who managed to influence the number’s removal from the original theatrical cut of the film.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Lin-Manuel Miranda has cited many musicals as inspirations for both his career as a whole and Hamilton specifically. Some of them, like Evita, Rent, and Les Miserables, have spawned film adaptations that aren’t up to snuff in my opinion. But he’s also always included Jesus Christ Superstar, a student production of which he starred at Wesleyan. The original 1971 musical, by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is a sung-through show, like Hamilton. And it covers the last week in the life of Jesus, to whom Hamilton isn’t exactly comparable as a famous figure, though he’s got his own Burr in the form of Judas.
In some interviews, Miranda admits that the first thing he thought of after coming up with the idea for Hamilton was that it would be his Jesus Christ Superstar. What he meant was that it would at least be a hip hop concept album and maybe later a show, just as Jesus Christ Superstar began as a rock opera album before being produced for the stage (Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Evita originated the same way). Hamilton began with a plan for what’s known as The Hamilton Mixtape, so the songs similarly existed before the musical that would house them.
Give ’em Hell, Harry! (1975)
After directing both the stage production and the movie of 1776, Peter H. Hunt returned the subject of American history and politicians with the Samuel Gallu-penned play Give ’em Hell, Harry! It’s a one-man show, which originally starred James Whitmore as Harry S. Truman, portraying the 33rd president in a handful of scenes from his life, including one during World War I, another just after he inherited the presidency following FDR’s death, and during his opposition to the McCarthy hearings. Even more than 1776, this show features a direct jab at Nixon, albeit after he’d left the White House.
The idea of filming plays and musicals in their stage setting goes back to the early years of cinema, and broadcast and videotaped presentations of theatre productions were a staple of television from its beginnings, as well. Give ’em Hell, Harry! is notable because while many other filmed plays, musicals, and operas were done in studios with recreated sets and without a live audience, this play was literally a recording of the play as performed live in front of a crowd in a Seattle theater with all the editing also done live under the direction of Steve Binder.
Yet Whitmore managed an Oscar nomination for acting in a performance designed and intended for one art form, theatre, not cinema. The circumstance of that recognition has been brought up as a precedent for how performances in Hamilton could also wind up honored at the Academy Awards. Other examples include Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute, which was nominated for its costumes, and the 1965 version of Othello, which received four acting nominations, but both of those movies were shot in a studio and so aren’t quite the same as this and Hamilton.
Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus (itself inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play Mozart and Salieri) might not have been a direct inspiration for Hamilton, but the two productions have a similar foundation. Both are about young talents with jealous older nemeses, whose perspectives at least partially inform the narratives. And although Antonio Salieri did not actually kill Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in real life, as Burr did Hamilton, the Salieri character confesses to murdering his rival in this highly fictionalized telling. In Pushkin’s play and a subsequent opera and film, the murder is depicted.
Milos Forman’s Best Picture-winning adaptation of Amadeus is one of the best examples of how to make a movie based on a play that doesn’t seem like it’s based on a play. Aside from some of the monologuing, it’s cinematic and opens up the story to create a fantastically fancy and often funny biopic and one of the least stuffy period pieces, especially for its time. The adaptation definitely contrasts against what’s done with this Hamilton film, which isn’t an adaptation. After watching the Hamilton film with its capturing of the stage phenomenon, I believe it’s the best sort of film for that particular musical.
Beat Street (1984) and The Little Mermaid (1988)
Here are two formative movies in the life of Lin-Manuel Miranda. We might not have Hamilton without either of them, though Miranda likely would have found inspiration from somewhere else in becoming the icon he is today. Beat Street, a very different sort of music-related movie released the same year as Amadeus, is a hip-hop dance film heavily inspired by real stories and people as they were depicted in the 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars. Miranda admits to seeing Beat Street in the theater as a kid and at that moment immediately being turned on to rap music.
Four years later, Miranda would see Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the animated feature credited with starting the studio’s renaissance. Although Miranda grew up on show tunes, he claims that one of the first musical numbers to really change his perception of musicals was the “Under the Sea” sequence from The Little Mermaid. How did it influence Hamilton? I’m not sure, but considering the movie has seemed to touch most of his life and career, from naming his son Sebastian to working on Moana and now the live-action version of The Little Mermaid, I’m sure it’s in Hamilton’s DNA somewhere.
“Aaron Burr” (1993)
Can I qualify a commercial as a short film? If any could be made a case for, this advertisement that kicked off the “Got Milk?” campaign would surely be up there. Not only is it one of the most famous commercials of all time, but it helped launch the film directing career of Michael Bay. And it’s likely the main reason so many people had heard of Alexander Hamilton, specifically for his duel with Aaron Burr, before Miranda’s musical came about. The ad is about a history buff whose lack of milk causes him to lose a radio quiz that he’d have easily won if his mouth wasn’t full of peanut butter.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
I know, you’re thinking this one seems even more out of place than the Little Mermaid recommendation. But Lin-Manuel Miranda has acknowledged a kinship between the first installment of the Harry Potter franchise (whether the original book or its film adaptation) and his hit musical. Never mind any of the seemed influence of Othello or Amadeus as far as the Burr and Hamilton rivalry goes. The real inspiration, besides the actual historical records, is another modern phenomenon involving a boy wizard and his nemesis, Draco Malfoy.
“I steal a little bit from Harry Potter,” Miranda told actress Emma Watson when she interviewed him UN Women HeForShe Arts Week. “Because the opening scene, Hamilton meets Aaron Burr and he says ‘Aaron Burr, help me, I want to be in this world,’ and Burr gives him the opposite advice of who he is. And then he meets his real friends: Mulligan, Lafayette, and Laurens. And it’s exactly Harry Potter meeting Malfoy first and then seeing his real friends on the train and being like, ‘I like these guys better.'”
You’ll notice there is no year affixed to this recommendation. The truth is, there is no official film or video of any production of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Assassins, that I’m aware of. But there are some unofficial recordings of anything from Broadway to school productions, and even a Swedish adaptation out there, and you’re welcome to give them a look for the time being. Sondheim is one of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s idols, and Assassins is one of Sondheim’s clearest influences on Hamilton, if only because of its historical subject matter.
First staged in 1990, Assassins is a revue-style show portraying various presidential assassins and would-be assassins, from John Wilkes Booth through Ford’s attempted killers Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore. Many productions also involve at least one dual-role casting, as Lee Harvey Oswald is often played by the same actor who performs the narrating Balladeer. In an interview for Deadline, Miranda notes that Assassins was conceived with a wider scope and what happened there led Sondheim to give Miranda this advice for Hamilton: “Stop trying to get it all.”
Alexander Hamilton (2007)
You’ve already been directed to watch an earlier Hamilton biopic, and there are other dramatic films you could watch to fill in gaps in depictions of the dawn of America. As Eliza sings, all the other Founding Fathers have their stories told regularly. Check out Jefferson in Paris to see where he was before he got back and wonders what he missed. And there are many made-for-TV movies and series that focus on George Washington, John Adams, and others, plus documentaries with reenactments, like 1997’s Liberty! The American Revolution, which features Colm Feore as Alexander Hamilton.
Ten years later, Feore was brought back for another PBS documentary, this one specifically about Hamilton. The actor did not reprise his role, however; he was cast as the narrator of the doc, which is an installment of American Experience helmed by Grey Gardens co-director Muffie Meyer, instead. It’s a similar production with many reenactments (Hamilton is played by Brían F. O’Byrne this time), but outside of you reading a book such as Ron Chernow’s biography that inspired Hamilton, this is where you’d go for the straight story as opposed to the embellished fictionalizations in the entirely dramatized biopics.
Hamilton’s America (2016)
When Hamilton’s America was announced, that was a big deal because the documentary was going to be the first official plays to see clips from the Broadway show. In fact, that footage was to come from the shoot that took place in the summer of 2016, which is now presented in full as Hamilton the film. Looking at how well-produced and shot and directed and edited the film on Disney+ is, I find it hard to believe that they weren’t at the time planning for it to be used for anything but excerpts for this PBS documentary. See how brief the clips are in Hamilton’s America, and you’ll be shocked as well.
If Hamilton’s America isn’t easy to locate, don’t dare bother with Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway, a lesser documentary about the making of the show. It doesn’t have any footage of the musical itself (just stills), but hey, you’ve watched that already, right? Well, here’s the other thing: Hamilton: One Shot to Broadway is, oddly, almost entirely told through interviews with white guys. I do often like to recommend films that aren’t great, just for contextual purposes, but this one is not worth it even for the awareness that, especially with Hamilton, who tells the story is always important.