How Hamilton brought its 'Hurricane' from stage to screen
Lin-Manuel Miranda and director Thomas Kail break down one of the filmed production's pivotal moments.
There are few certainties in life, but before Broadway went dark in March, one of them was that no ticket was more coveted than Hamilton. Now, theaters have been closed for months due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and will continue to be through at least the end of this year — but there’s a bright spot on the horizon in the midst of this particular storm.
On Friday, the long-awaited filmed version of Hamilton will arrive on Disney+, nearly five years after the show opened on Broadway and became a runaway hit and cultural touchstone. Shot over three days in June 2016, shortly after the musical won 11 Tony Awards and just before creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda and other members of the original cast began to depart the show, the result is a portal into the Room Where It Happens that even those lucky enough to have seen the musical have not had previously. “When you watch this movie, you have a house seat that never existed,” Miranda says, “and that none of us in the show ever had.”
Thomas Kail, director of both the musical and the film, brought nine cameras into Hamilton’s New York home, the Richard Rodgers Theatre, capturing the musical during a Sunday matinee and a Tuesday evening performance. Between those live shows, the cast and crew shot close-ups on stage Sunday evening and Monday, times the show would normally be dark. “Everyone in that cast had probably done 300 or 400 shows” by that point, Kail notes. “They knew who these characters were in a way that was profound, it was molecular. So, I didn't need to tell anybody to do more or to do less. I just told them to do their show.”
When EW asked Miranda and Kail to break down a Hamilton scene’s journey from the stage to screen, the longtime friends and collaborators chose “Hurricane,” a pivotal song for the titular founding father and one that showcases the blending of the live performances and additional shots that bring the film together — the convergence of making theater and making theater that’s filmed. “This is one of the numbers where we went on stage, outside of the runs that we did on Sunday and Tuesday,” Kail explains. “We were six inches away from Lin with a Steadicam. So the point of view that the [film’s] audience is given is quite different in terms of its proximity.”
“Hurricane,” for those who may be unfamiliar with the show (or U.S. history), is a moment of reckoning for Miranda’s Hamilton, an introspective number in which he reflects on the hardships of his past to make a decision that has massive ramifications for his future — going public with an extramarital affair to preserve his political reputation, at the expense of hurting his wife and family.
From a writing perspective, Miranda says, “This is usually the point in the evening, in any other musical, where the main character realizes how and where they f---ed up and sing a big song about how they're going to make it right.” But, he continues with a laugh, that’s not what Hamilton does here. “[He’s] faced with this information that his enemies have on him and he wills himself into making a very damaging decision. He basically writes an essay in his own head as to why he should do this stunning act of self-disclosure — he wrote his way to all of these places, he wrote his way to the position he's in now. If I can write my way out of it, I'll be okay, and he's super not going to be.”
The scene begins in a moment of stillness, with Hamilton in the eye of his own personal storm. “Everyone is in repose in the very beginning of the number,” says Kail. “If you watch the entire company, they all are facing away from Hamilton in some way, and Hamilton is in the center of this thing.” Then, the stage’s turntable starts moving and the number comes alive, bringing the audience inside his mind. “What we were able to do was create a closeness to the decision with the lens by really being up with Lin. It's also a moment that feels like you can create that stillness. There's a way that the Steadicam floats which feels a little out of time — it's a contraption that's on somebody's body so it breathes with the person, even though they're holding it completely still, there's still a movement to it that's very different than a handheld camera or a camera that's on sticks. So, it felt like a chance to be with Hamilton in the midst of this stillness before the explosion. And yet, the camera is not locked off in front of him, the camera also has a little bit of movement to it. I think that that creates a sense of anticipation for what's about to come. There's an activity to his thinking that becomes physicalized.”
Despite having a camera in such close proximity on stage, Miranda says he didn’t have to make adjustments to his performance. “The whole time I was thinking, this is a document of what these audiences have been seeing for a year. It was only about a week and a half, two weeks before I left the show, so the muscle memory of having done it so many times was almost too strong for me to do anything else. But knowing cameras are there and are recording this for all time does change the equation for you. So your challenge is just sort of to get that out of your head and simplify and do your show.”
Adds Miranda, “What's so fun about the way Tommy and [choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler] have staged the number is that they place all the chess pieces in place. It's, I think, one of the most stunning tableaus in the show. The tableau around him — which never stops moving, even though it slows down — you see the Revolutionary War, you see [Hamilton's mistress] Maria Reynolds, you see all the players. It's like a CAT scan physicalized in time. It always sort of knocks me flat. I really love how Tommy captured it on film.”