Perhaps one of the most resonating sounds of last year was when people at home, after weeks of lockdown anguish and abject fear of the unknown in a brand-new pandemic, was the joyful shriek heard ‘round the nation when Disney+ announced that the cinema-bound film of the Broadway juggernaut “Hamilton” would be instead be viewable on TV screens on the July 4th week of 2020. This led to a massive spike in Disney downloads and opened up the conversation for the upside of easy access to Broadway entertainment, particularly in a time when nobody could physically attend a show.
“In March 2020, two weeks before the lockdown, we began a process to think about what we wanted to look at and how we wanted to finish the film,” says he movie’s editor Jonah Moran. “Then, we basically took a two-week hiatus while everyone figured out what was going on in the world, and in that time Disney sort of made the decision to move up the release date. And [director] Thomas Kail called me one Sunday as I was walking on the beach with my wife and said, ‘How would you feel about getting ready for a July release?’ ‘I’d better get to work’, I said!”
What resulted was boosting the reputation of a piece that not only transformed its stage origins, but possibly even in how to further create this specific type of live-capture performance. There is very little park-and-bark staidness on view in the film version of “Hamilton”, instead it has cameras literally whirling all over the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and even right on stage and behind the actors in several moments.
“I mean, we had a few goals sort of happening simultaneously,” says Moran. “One was to certainly preserve and present what was happening in that theater. And the other was to create an emotional journey through this story as you would experience in that theater. What I found a lot of the time was trying to build space around close-ups where the play wants to move on to the next beat, but you haven’t registered enough of an emotional time with Angelica or with Hamilton or with any of your characters. So, it’s often just stealing frames to kind of create that space.”
Moran had actually not seen the production or heard the cast recording at length before he came aboard but had a history with both “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as the editor of the PBS documentary “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” which chronicled Miranda’s other Tony-winning property that became a major motion picture, and also director Thomas Kail, as an editor on the FX miniseries “Fosse/Verdon” which Kail directed half of (and in which Miranda actually cameoed as Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz” in one episode). The offer was just too good to pass up, knowing how historically notable it could end up being, even in its originally intended cinematic form. But like Broadway life, it’s a challenge to work around a schedule that’s full steam ahead, eight shows a week.
Says Moran: “We had 10 cameras rolling for two and a half hours for two days. And then we had probably an additional 40 minutes of six-plus cameras roll rolling for six-to-eight-minute takes, and this was including two live performances, and after one of the matinees and before the Tuesday show we shot specialty numbers so you could see the intimate dynamic and richness of the characters and the costumes. The emotion of the show is always your guide.”
The success of “Hamilton” has undoubtedly informed similar upcoming features such as the AppleTV+ “Come from Away” film and Netflix’s “Diana” musical, which will premiere on the streaming service one month before it begins previews again on Broadway, and Moran is energized by the attention being paid to live theater and the broadening of its appeal.
“There’s a fear that pieces like this might take away from box office or people’s interest in going to the theater, but I feel like it’s the opposite,” says Moran. “There’s definitely an argument for its ephemeral nature, but I also think theater is something that can be remembered for the ages. Imagine being able to see first productions of “West Side Story” or “Chicago” or “A Chorus Line” with these incredible casts that were legendary. You can go to the library and see some of those things, but they aren’t brought to life with the dynamic love that I think they really deserve. We had the opportunity to bring you inside of every moment that was vital [in “Hamilton”], which I think is the benefit of this project. And hopefully, it creates a space where both things are important.”
“Hamilton” is now available to stream on Disney+