10 Commandments of Turning 'Hamilton' Into a Movie Musical - Rolling Stone
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10 Commandments of Turning ‘Hamilton’ Into a Movie Musical

How not to screw up the Broadway phenomenon’s inevitable big-screen adaptation

Lin-Manuel Miranda; Hamilton; Movie MusicalLin-Manuel Miranda; Hamilton; Movie Musical

Lin-Manuel Miranda, center, and the cast of “Hamilton,” at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York.

Sara Krulwich/The NY Times/Redux

Hamilton — the Broadway sensation that’s added a long-overdue splash of color to the Great White Way, revitalized America’s origin story, and revolutionized musical theater in the process — is going to be a movie. That’s not a fact, but it’s inevitable: Broadway and Hollywood are becoming more symbiotic by the day, and we now live in a world where a Jack Black comedy about a substitute teacher has been adapted to the stage by theater god Andrew Lloyd Webber. (For perspective, that’s roughly the equivalent of Ridley Scott directing a blockbuster adaptation of Cats.)

And it’s not as though Hollywood has been shy about its interest in turning this revolutionary Broadway hit into a multiplex blockbuster. Speaking to Playbill last August, Miranda said that he was “amazed at the filmmakers who have expressed interest in adapting Hamilton.” At an awards dinner in November, Creed director Ryan Coogler declared that “anyone who ever picked up a camera” would be interested in the gig, and that it’s “all people are talking about in California, right now.” J.J. Abrams is such a fan that he created a role for Miranda in The Force Awakens.

So a movie shouldn’t be too hard to picture, right? Imagine taking an immaculately engineered muscle car, violently stripping the vehicle down to its chassis, and then trying to reconfigure the mess of spare parts into a spaceship. It might be possible, but odds are that it’s going to burn up in the atmosphere if it ever manages to get off the ground. Still, that won’t stop someone from trying. So we’ve summoned all the courage we require to share the 10 Commandments of Adapting Hamilton for the Big-Screen.

No. 1: Blow Us All Away
You can’t play it safe. Hamilton “rewrote the game,” and the movie should feel empowered — perhaps even required — to do the same. If you want to err on the side of caution and timidly import the Broadway show from stage to screen, you might as well make Aaron Burr the lead character.

It’s true that simply putting a camera on a tripod in the fifth row and recording a performance of the show would be enough to satisfy most fans; when the cast performed the opening number during the Grammys, it felt like the whole country was pressing its face against the TV. But there’s a difference between recording something for posterity and using the tools of a new medium to fundamentally transform it, and transformation is often the best opportunity for growth. Much like a war was the immigrant hero’s only chance for upward mobility, that fluid, molten moment when something is shape-shifting is its greatest chance to evolve. You don’t want another Rent, which, for all of enthusiastic performances, feels like a distant echo of the Broadway show rather than a self-contained artistic work with a heartbeat all its own.

Phillipa Soo; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Anthony Ramos; Hamilton

No. 2: Get Your Right Hand Man Back
The choice of director is key. A handful of filmmakers have displayed the nerve and creative vision required to not throw away this shot — Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, for example, is an opulent masterclass in how to break a biography into a work of art. And let’s not forget how Kanye West, a nascent filmmaker in his own right, practically is a modern day Hamilton (“When was the last time I wasn’t in a hurry?,” he raps on his new album). But Tommy Kail, who directs the show’s current incarnation, is the best choice for the job. Not only has he been Miranda’s right-hand man from the beginning, but the staggering visual dexterity with which he helmed Fox’s recent Grease: Live (seriously!) is proof that his creative vision is only clarified with a camera lens to his eye.

No. 3: You’ll Be Back
It goes without saying, but the cast has to be the cast. Yes, John Legend would make a killer Aaron Burr, but replacing any one of these people with a bona fide celebrity would be needless and potentially ruinous. Hamilton has already achieved a brand allure on par with that of Marvel or Star Wars, and the name alone would drive sufficient interest. And don’t even start with the racial element. “I would insist that the movie be exactly the same in terms of diversity,” Miranda has said, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be foolish enough to challenge him on that point (not least of all because this movie could singlehandedly fill most of the Academy Awards’ acting categories with people of color).

No. 4: Stay Live
Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables movie took that musical to the guillotine, but he deserves credit for insisting that his cast perform their songs live. The technique created a sense of  immediacy that would be absolutely crucial to a Hamilton film, as the crux of Miranda’s story is about how the past is always alive — never static — constantly mediated by the present. “America then, as told by America now,” reads the tagline. Theater offers a responsiveness that cinema can’t, but having these actors sing for real will make it feel like the raps are being freestyled before our very eyes. 

No. 5: The Greatest City in the World
Among the biggest challenges of adapting Hamilton would involve figuring out how to capture old New York. The show hops between so many different locations (often within the same song) that no amount of backdrops could hope to keep up, but Kail’s direction is brilliant in its minimalism — he forgoes backdrops altogether, relying instead on clever lighting and a rotating stage to goad the audience into using their imaginations. As a result, every viewer contributes to the telling of Hamilton’s story in their own way, our involvement effectively answering the rhetorical question the show poses with its final number.

That stripped-down approach may not translate to film. There would need to be a sense of scale — you would have to give the audience something to look at, but not too much. Instead of trying to work around the Broadway show’s rotating stage, the film should build on it. Let the world spin and turn upside down as fluidly as the cast already does. As Miranda borrowed liberally from Eighties rap in order to write “My Shot,” the movie could borrow from the likes of Joe Wright’s opulent Anna Karenina, which transformed 19th Century Russia into a constantly spinning carousel of war and peace. Wright’s approach heightened the theatrical nature of the aristocracy, while still allowing for the bluster and bombast of an epic.

No. 6: Look Around at How Lucky We Are to Be Alive Right Now
Any self-respecting Hamilton movie is going to run at least two-and-a-half hours, because cutting any one of its songs would be like playing a game of Jenga with your elbows. But the fact is, a legitimately great adaptation would have to be even longer. (Miranda will have to make that clear to studio execs from the start — and you don’t want to be in the room when that happens.) Without puncturing the very particular rhythm and pace in the soul of the show, a film version would be challenged to build a wider world in the small pockets of time that it might find between certain numbers.

In most cases, one song runs into another — “History Has Its Eyes on You” is only so powerful because of how “Guns and Ships” bleeds into it, Washington’s measured wisdom tempering the revolutionary zeal shared by Hamilton and his friends. On the other hand, people who have seen the show already know how powerful an interstitial scene can be (no spoilers here). And so it’s worth considering, for example, how the margin between “Meet Me Inside” and “That Would Be Enough” is wide enough to paint a more vivid picture of how the war is straining Hamilton and Eliza’s marriage. It could be as simple as a few wordless beats when he arrives home from battle; a series of gestures or exchanged looks that convey what he has been missing. When his wife sings “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now,” we should get to see exactly what she means.

Lin-Manuel Miranda; Hamilton; Alex Lacamoire

No. 7: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
The cast of a Hamilton movie won’t be able to see the crowd, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to lose sight of them. The audience is absolutely critical to the show, and not only because the characters so casually obliterate the fourth wall that one of them even hands the conductor a copy of The Reynolds Pamphlet. Miranda’s musical has made history by dramatizing the indivisibly human process by which history is made, and the final number makes clear that the value of telling a story rests with the effect it has on those listening to it. So even though the musical’s hip-hop style is so fluid that its songs often feel more like hyper-real conversations than they do Broadway numbers, most of them still have to pointed out towards the seats. On the other hand, the camera can get super close for intimate songs like “Best of Wives and Best of Women,” giving us a view that even first-row tickets can’t buy.

No. 8: This Is Not a Moment, It’s the Movement
You gotta keep the chorus. A small group of shape-shifting background singers is onstage in one form or another throughout the majority of Hamilton, even though they spend much of that time hiding in the shadows. On a practical level, their bodies add scale to the show and their voices flesh out the drama of the musical’s biggest songs. On an abstract, and more fundamental level, their presence helps articulate how history so often rides on currents of momentum — listening to the ensemble mindlessly repeat the claim that Hamilton’s “Never gon’ be President now,” it’s hard not to think of how today’s political rhetoric is shaped into soundbites and repeated to (and by) the masses.

If the audience is conscripted as history’s witness, the chorus serves as both its conduit and its conscience, and they can’t be dropped from the movie just because their presence would look really strange on film. This, as much as anything else, is why the adaptation would need to abandon all pretense of reality. The ensemble can enjoy all the costume changes that the stage show doesn’t allow them (one minute they can be King George’s dancing servants in “You’ll Be Back,” and soldiers of the revolution in “Right Hand Man” the next), but they have to be there.

Daveed Diggs; Lin-Manuel Miranda; Hamilton

No. 9: Take a Break
A Hamilton film would be wise to maintain the intermission. Inserting a break doesn’t have the same practical purpose in a movie as it does in a Broadway show (and that’s doubly true for this play, in which many of the cast members return from the break as different characters altogether). But movie audiences still need to feel the time that passes between when Hamilton begins writing The Federalist Papers in 1787 and when Thomas Jefferson returns to America in 1789. The two-year ellipsis during which Broadway audiences get to stretch their legs represents the period when America was cooking in the kiln; Act One is Hamilton trying to cobble together a country, and Act Two is him struggling to live in it. Denying people that separation would lessen the distance between the lead character and Angelica, make Lafayette look schizophrenic, and really confuse the relationship between Hamilton and Laurens.

No. 10: Let’s Get This Guy in Front of a Crowd!
Finally, it’s important to remember that Hamilton was kind of conceived as a movie. From the very beginning, Miranda has refused to yield to the accepted rules of musical theater, and one of the most radical aspects of his approach was writing a stage show that flows like a film. In an unpublished excerpt from his Rolling Stone interview, Miranda discussed how he often thinks in a cinematic language: “I’m just as fluent in Kurosawa as I am in fucking Sondheim, and that informs Hamilton. There are seventy different scenes, seventy different set pieces in that show, and the challenge for my collaborators was to figure out how to stage all this shit — how to just go from ‘we’re on a battlefield’ to ‘we’re in a cloakroom.'”

In other words, Hamilton is made possible by cuts. “I’m just picturing the movie of it in my head. I’m not picturing it stage-wise, I’m really not.'” Miranda’s collaborators did such a good job that it became extremely difficult to imagine how this story might work in another medium, but there’s a million things that could be done. Just you wait.


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