The coronavirus pandemic has cruelly stripped away our right to attend live theatre and with many organisations from the Southbank Centre to the Royal Albert Hall at risk of insolvency, it feels a very sad time for the theatre world indeed.
For audiences, however, there have been some bright moments thanks to initiatives such as the National Theatre’s YouTube Lives and platforms such as Marquee.TV. The brightest moment is coming this weekend with the arrival of Hamilton the Musical on Disney’s streaming service, Disney+.
The platform launched last year in the US, before arriving in the UK in March and has already surpassed the 50 million subscriber mark. With a performance like Hamilton up its sleeve, this is sure to be a big weekend for Disney+.
“No other artistic work in the last decade has had the cultural impact of Hamilton — an inspiring and captivating tale told and performed in a powerfully creative way,” said The Walt Disney Company’s executive chairman Robert A. Iger, when the company announced the partnership. “We are thrilled to bring this phenomenon to Disney+ on the eve of Independence Day, and we have the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda and the team behind Hamilton to thank for allowing us to do so more than a year before planned.”
Filmed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway back in 2016, the filmed version gives musical fans a front-row seat to the spectacle which tells the story of the American founding father Alexander Hamilton with a score that draws on hip-hop, jazz, and R&B to reimagine the classic Broadway musical.
The aim for the team, however, was how to re-create that theatre magic for the small screen. According to director Thomas Kail, the key to achieving this was to film it non-stop through a normal performance of the musical. The cameras were positioned in the theatre or on the stage to capture the show just as the audience was seeing it on the night.
“We wanted to give everyone the same seat, which is what this provides,” says Kail.
In total, there were six camera positions with six camera operators and three fixed camera positions, one dolly and a Steadicam, a crane and two angles capturing each performance. The Steadicam, crane and dolly were used on the stage to film 13 or 14 musical numbers on a day when the audience was not present - there are a total of 46 musical numbers in the show.
In addition, there was one overhead camera and one at the rear of the stage too, strategically hidden in a brick wall.
The team had to get creative with particular moments, such as the number Satisfied, which starts with Angelica Schuylerr’s wedding toast for Hamilton and her sister Eliza, before rewinding and telling the events of the previous song, Helpless, from her perspective. Kail says this re-working of time is a moment in the recorded performance when they effectively had to stop time.
“What we are doing in that song is setting up the duel … we’re setting up the bullet and what we’re able to do on film is be much more subjective with the camera so it feels a little more like we’re going inside her brain,” he explains. “The cut pattern is quite accelerated and the camera angles are quite varied, and we did that because we wanted to also break the form in the cinematic language in the same way that we break the form in the theatrical language in theatre.”
It’s interesting too for a director to create something for TV or film where you don’t have to think about really editing the story. Kail describes this as a “luxury” most directors don’t have. “Everyone was so deep in character that every take worked on a camera.
“It is a balance finding a new cadence of the cut pattern because you want to show the ensemble’s choreography but close-ups of the principals as well. The fundamental difference for the viewer is proximity … it gives you a new perspective.”
For Alex Lacamoire, who was tasked with Music Supervision & Orchestrations, he had to ensure the music in the Disney+ version came to life in the same way it would in an in-person performance. “There are a couple of moments that happen in the live performance that weren’t recorded on the cast album, and you’ll be able to see those moments in the film,” says Lacamoire.
This offered the opportunity to get a little creative. “The majority of the show’s music is the same, with the addition of the actors’ bow music, which is actually a recorded version of the exit music audiences hear when they leave the theatre during the live shows. This piece of music is a medley of multiple Hamilton songs that is not included on the original soundtrack. It’s a great jam session, recorded live with most of the original band members,” he adds.
Of course, Hamilton on Disney+ would be nothing without Lin-Manuel Miranda’s seal of approval, as the writer of the book, music and lyrics, producer, as well as the man who plays Alexander Hamilton. Luckily, he approves whole-heartedly of the finished version.
“It was an incredible privilege to be able to film the show. It’s rare when that happens, but it was important to document the communal experience.
“Good acting is good acting, whether it’s across the footlights of the stage or the camera that’s two inches away from your face.
“I’m incredibly grateful that the world will be able to see this. Theatre is a communal artistic experience and this film is a love letter to live theatre.”
Hamilton the Musical is available to stream from today, Friday, July 3, on Disney+