The curious pirate Hamilton video

With the release of Hamilton on Disney+, I want to talk about another version of Hamilton that's been traded and talked about in hushed tones for the past several years.

In early 2015, I started to hear a lot of buzz about Hamilton. It had just finished its initial off-Broadway run at the Public and people were raving. In September of 2015, the original cast recording came out and though I initially avoided it for several months—hoping I’d see it one day and want to be surprised—when friend after friend was gushing about it, I sat down for a long drive one day and put it on the stereo. I played it continuously on repeat for the next six months.

The files

I tweeted out how much I wanted to see this show but getting tickets to it when I traveled to NYC seemed close to impossible. In spring of 2016, someone sent me a message with no text and just a link to a generic dropbox folder with two files on it, both roughly 300Mb mp4 videos in a folder called “Hams”.

Screenshot of the video preview

I downloaded them, pressed play, then scrubbed around to see what it was. Holy fucking shit. It was Hamilton. Yes, it was pretty low quality and barely in standard definition, but it was Hamilton.

codec info

Digging around, it appears the videos I got were ripped from a bootleg 2-dvd set. The watermark in the upper corner of the video is from a shareware DVD ripping app.

Holding out

Like the cast recording, just because I had a copy of this contraband didn't mean I wanted to watch it. I was still set on hoping I could see it in person the next time I was in NYC, and I didn't want to be spoiled. The videos sat in my Hams folder for a couple months unplayed until another friend said he fell in love with the musical soundtrack only after watching the videos and that the stage production was incredible despite the small grainy picture.

Like the soundtrack, after months of avoiding it, curiosity got the better of me as I'd heard the soundtrack album so many times and I wanted to see how they staged each song. I could finally see how the musical that played in my head for many months matched with the real thing.

The pirate production

The video starts with about 90 seconds of pitch black screen, but you hear the final house announcements then the start of the first song, and at one point you hear a shuffle and someone uncovers the camera. The video isn't jerky, it's steady. I suspect they had to use a tripod.

Animated GIF of a clip showing some panning and zooming

As characters are introduced on stage, the camera pans and follows them on the stage. During some of the solos, you see the camera even zoom in on a character singing. It's the entire original cast at the Rodgers theater so I would guess this was filmed around Summer or Fall of 2015.

You quickly get lost in the story and forget about the low quality video and just enjoy watching how incredible Hamilton is. Occasionally, you'll see outlines of the people sitting in other rows and sometimes the camera turns away from the stage at the end of songs, presumably while people are applauding (maybe the camera operator was hiding it?).

In which I see the real deal

In June of 2016, I had a trip to NYC planned and I did my best to get Hamilton tickets the usual way but in the end I found some last minute tickets on stubhub. If you could graph stubhub prices for any high demand event, you'd see a line that shows 6 months out, tickets are relatively cheap, at only about 2x face value, but about a month before a show they'd skyrocket to 5-10x the face value of a ticket. But in the last week before a show would take place, ticket holders would get nervous and drop their prices, sometimes close to face value as they tried to recoup their losses. I got a couple of those tickets.

At that time I went, I just happened to catch Lin Manuel Miranda's last month doing the show before he left to film Mary Poppins and other projects, and it was totally incredible. Everyone's performance was fantastic, and I will never forget being in the room and feeling the sound of Christopher Jackson's booming voice in his songs as Washington, which was something you couldn't experience on video.

If you had to compare...

I talked to friends that work in theater about this video, and they said it's every director's worst nightmare because if this was released widely, much of the buzz around the actual show and ticket sales could have died down, since a good stage production video is fairly close to what experiencing it is like in person (for most non-theater people).

If I had to compare the video to the real thing, I'd say that assessment isn't too far off. Like the time I watched a full production of Les Miserables on PBS and also saw a touring production of it in LA, seeing video of a broadway show feels about 75% as good as seeing it in person, and for a lot of people that's enough. Part of me is bummed I didn't "save" watching this video until after I saw the production, but at home with the video beforehand, I still felt huge surprises seeing how they staged certain scenes, and how certain characters acted on stage that were different than I expected. It's a deeply affecting emotional work both in person and through a 640x360px video playing on your TV.

Still, I know how incredibly lucky I was to see this in NYC in person, and I liked it so much that in 2017 I caught the touring production in San Francisco as well.

I still have questions

One thing I definitely remember from being in the NYC theater was the repeated warnings to not  take out our phones. Ushers were hyper-attuned to it and anyone that pulled their phone out would immediately be warned, then kicked out on the second offense. I saw ushers say something to several people at several points in the show I attended.

I have no idea how someone filmed this video without being caught by an usher. I have no idea how they figured out how to pan the camera, zoom it in and out, without being seen. I would assume this was all done on a small point-and-shoot digital camera, but it'd still give off light and beeps and require someone watch the screen to make sure they're keeping everyone in frame.

From the angle of the video, it seems like they're in an upper balcony of the Rodgers theater, and maybe if they're in the very back they could avoid being caught?

I spent a few weeks researching this in reddit and tumblr communities that traffic in Broadway pirate videos but I couldn't find any info on this Hamilton. I joined several private groups with other videos (often shared on Google Drive or Dropbox) but none of them were up to the quality of the Hamilton bootleg. Most have terrible sound and shaky video that was overexposed and poorly framed.

I still have no idea who made these videos or how they even did it, but I'm happy that Disney+ is releasing the real deal and I can't wait to enjoy it.

Despite how fun it is to go to Broadway, I don't get to NYC more than once every few years but every season there are loads of shows I wish I could see. It would be great if Hamilton marked the start of a new trend of broadcasting video of hit musicals/plays a couple years after their Broadway debut so people could watch them at home. I'd still love to see Dear Evan Hansen or The Book of Mormon or even The Spongebob musical, since I never got to see them in NYC, and would pay almost anything to Pay-Per-View them and others like them.