What exactly is Disney+’s filmed version of “Hamilton”? Is it akin to a documentary, with a film crew observing the performance in the same way as its live audience? Or is it a narrative film, where the set just happens to be the stage of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre?
When talking about painstakingly produced, filmed versions of stage productions like this, co-executive producers Jon Kamen and Dave Sirulnick of RadicalMedia offer some novel terminology: cinematic interpretation.
“Part of what makes something a cinematic interpretation is the planning, the preparation, the attention to detail brought to these, and treating them as a separate work. When we first sat down with Lin[-Manuel Miranda] and Tommy [director Thomas Kail] and Jeffrey Seller, the producer, the first question was understanding their vision for what they wanted to achieve with a filmed version of this incredible piece of art they had made,” Sirulnick, RadicalMedia’s president of entertainment, told IndieWire.
“This was not going to be ‘Lets just put a few cameras in the house and point them at the stage,’ because that wouldn’t have done honor to the incredible work they’ve done.”
While the genre is nothing new (Kamen produced 2008’s “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway”), the executives suggest audiences are going to be seeing a lot more of these kinds of movies. With Broadway set to remain closed through the rest of the year due to the pandemic, they foresee filmed stage productions as a way to help the industry get back on its feet — these films don’t compete with live theater, but exist as an accompaniment to shows both beloved and new.
“We believe this interpretation of ‘Hamilton’ will make you want to see the show live again that much more,” Kamen, RadicalMedia’s CEO, said. “We believe our role in filming those shows will help bring Broadway and the West End back, rekindling everyone’s love for live theater.”
Far from the shoddy concert movies of yesteryear, the executives detailed how exactly the film crew and theatrical creative teams collaborated to create something that’s equal parts fresh and a celebration of the beloved musical — an approach that could serve as a roadmap for future productions.
One guiding edict for “Hamilton” was to give viewers perspectives impossible to see from even the best seats in the house. That meant cinematographer Declan Quinn (“Leaving Las Vegas,” “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway”) and his crew of camera people filmed from 13 positions in the house during three 2016 live performances in front of sold-out audiences.
Then, with a ramp built over some of the seats for tracking shots, the crew filmed around 16 numbers without an audience. Some were filmed with a steadicam onstage, which had two moving turntables for actors.
“There’s so much activity on the stage that the steadicam operator has to understand the choreography as he’s moving and following Renée [Elise Goldsberry] or following Lin. He also has to know what’s happening around him,” Sirulnick said.
Then came the sound, in the form of 104 stems, recorded by an audio truck parked next to the video truck on 46th Street. Everything was seamlessly mixed by the sound department, while film editor Jonah Moran’s work helped establish a rhythm of the film and direct the viewer’s attention to specific action over his months of work. The result is that one song might feature shots from any of the live performances cut with the “inserts.”
“The cast is so expert in their roles that you can’t practically tell the difference of what we’ll call inserts,” Kamen said. “It comes from their professionalism as a cast, how rehearsed they were, how much Tommy knows his cast.”
Intended to be a theatrical release when Disney acquired the film earlier this year for a reported $75 million, “Hamilton” was released on Disney+ over the July Fourth weekend. While Disney hasn’t reported viewership numbers, all signs point to success: Disney+ app downloads were up 74 percent around that time, compared to previous weekends, according to analytics firm Apptopia.
Viewers were indeed treated to a one-of-a-kind experience that offered new perspectives compared to seeing the musical live, like Jonathan Groff’s moist-lipped and spit-heavy performance as King George III. That was something that caught the attention of Miranda and his team when they first viewed the locked picture. “We said don’t worry we can clean that up — they were like ‘No, leave it!,'” Kamen recalled.
It turned out to be a wise call, as Groff’s wet annunciation has gone on to spawn media articles and social media posts. Not bad for a show that ended its Broadway run four years ago.
HBO will premiere RadicalMedia’s latest filmed stage production, “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” later this year. The Broadway production, directed by Spike Lee, saw Byrne and his fellow musicians performing songs from his 2018 album of the same name, plus classics from the Talking Heads’ catalogue and Byrne’s solo career.
Kamen said he’s heard from Broadway producers interested in interpreting their productions for film and he envisions the format becoming a kind of 21st-century original cast album.