How To Make a Hamilton Movie

Lin Manuel Miranda in Hamilton

It is inevitable that Hamilton, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical and unstoppable phenomenon, will one day be adapted for the big screen. The show, a hip-hop oriented re-imagining of the life of Alexander Hamilton and his impact on the early days of America, has reached levels of critical, commercial and cultural popularity that few things in entertainment, let alone musicals, can ever hope to attain. Two years after its off-Broadway debut, the show is still selling out at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, even with a production running simultaneously in Chicago, a planned nationwide tour kicking off next month, and the West End opening date set for October.

With 11 Tony Awards under its belt, as well as a Grammy, Hamilton's status as a milestone of musical history is secured - so it's only natural that a movie will be made some day. That day, however, probably won’t be for a very long time. Miranda said in an interview with Rolling Stone last year that Hamilton will be made into a movie, but "probably not for, like, 20 years." More recently, when asked again about whether a Hamilton movie will happen, the auteur replied, "Yes!" but quickly added, "Who knows when?"

While the lack of concrete plans may disappoint countless fans unable to make the pilgrimage to New York, London, or the nearest tour stop, it’s a common situation for shows of Hamilton’s level of popularity and cultural prescience. Most Broadway hits that cross over into the mainstream don’t make the leap to film until their stage run has made as much money as possible. Les Misérables waited close to 30 years from its West End debut before hitting the big screens, while Phantom of the Opera had a more manageable 18 year wait, one year less than the stage-to-screen jump for Rent.

Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain
Singin' in the Rain

By the time the aforementioned musicals were adapted for the screen, they had either closed on Broadway or made so much money that their box office returns wouldn’t be diminished by offering audiences another means of seeing it. Given that Hamilton was said to have recouped its entire $12.5m investment in less than a year (around 80% of all Broadway musicals fail to break even, much less profit) and premium seats are priced at a record-breaking $849, the chances are good that Hamilton will never stop making money. That means a movie certainly won’t happen within the next few years, and may even take as long as Miranda’s joked-about two decades.

However, a Hamilton film adaptation would be continuing a trend that has been part of film since its birth. Musicals have been part of film as long as the talkies have existed, from The Jazz Singer to Busby Berkeley and the Fred and Ginger years, and Hollywood has always turned to Broadway for material to freshen up its screens. In 1930, an adaptation of William A. Drake's play Grand Hotel became the fifth Best Picture Oscar winner, followed by fellow Broadway adaptations Cavalcade and You Can’t Take It With You. Hollywood had its own plethora of talent helping to craft the cottage industry of film musicals for many decades, including iconic hits such as Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born, but once that trend died out Broadway became the major source of musical material.

The mega-musicals of the '60s fell out of fashion after Hello Dolly flopped disastrously, and film musicals became more intimate and challenging affairs, such as Cabaret, or cult favorites like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even as Broadway became bigger and more epic in scale in the 80s (thanks to the British invasion of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Tim Rice and Cameron MacKintosh), Hollywood shied away from tackling the big hits, leaving Disney to fill the musical void. By the 2000s, musicals had something of a resurgence of screen, with major hits such as Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Hairspray and Les Misérables. This year the odds-on favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar is an original musical, something that hasn’t happened since Gigi won the category in 1959. Between La La Land and Hamilton, the musical is at its most culturally potent since Chicago won Best Picture, so bringing the latter to the screen could be a defining moment in the genre.

The problem with bringing Hamilton to film is less in its cultural impact and more in its inherently theatrical form and structure. The show is three hours long, almost entirely sung or rapped through – meaning every moment is musical in some way and there’s no talking – and takes place across several decades. Its uniqueness as a piece of theatre makes its transfer to the language of cinema a tricky task, one that many film-makers have tried and failed in the past.

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret
Liza Minnelli in Cabaret

For every Chicago, where the musical numbers are expertly molded into hallucinogenic fever-dreams of the characters, there is a Rent, where the songs are perfunctorily staged and large swathes of the music turned into clumsy dialogue. Tom Hooper’s take on Les Misérables was shot with handheld cameras and felt more like a war movie in tone than a musical, which divided audiences and critics, while the failed movie musical of The Producers resembled little more than the stage show filmed beat for beat, rendering the entire experience rather redundant.

As for adaptations of plays, the HBO mini-series Angels In America embraced the extravagance and Brechtian qualities of Tony Kushner’s work, having actors play multiple roles like the original show, but keeping the claustrophobic melodrama key to Tracy Letts’ August Osage County made John Wells’ film version feel over-laden with false nobility. For Hamilton, a show that combines a variety of traditional theatrical techniques and modern storytelling to create a wholly unique experience, following the path of Broadway adaptations before it presents many issues.

There are elements of the above films that would work well in Hamilton’s favor for the transfer to the big screen: Keeping the musical numbers live like Les Miz rather than mimed to a pre-recorded track would keep the spontaneity of the show and heighten the immediacy of the ensemble’s interactions; The dream-like structure of Chicago, where the characters delve into dazzlingly staged musical numbers to spill their secrets, could add to the urgency of Hamilton while emphasizing the story’s larger-than-history nature; Angels In America’s multiple castings and use of explicitly theatrical techniques would allow Hamilton to keep its specific style and pace while playing up its unique status as a tale of history told by the modern age.

Emma Thompson in Angels in America
Emma Thompson in Angels in America

Theatricality has its place in film when done right, as demonstrated by Joe Wright’s unique take on Anna Karenina, where the story unfolds on a single sound-stage, standing in for an abandoned theater. Yet a more traditional cinematic narrative wouldn’t be out of the question for a Hamilton movie, even though it would require some major structural changes. Miranda himself noted in a Rolling Stone interview that he wrote the show as if it were a movie, saying:

"I'm just as fluent in Kurosawa as I am in f--king 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 s--t."

A straightforward take would bleed the story of some of its unique zeal, but would also give the material a chance to embrace the more epic nature of history, including battle scenes and a true sense of the scope of America’s origins as a nation. If Miranda is involved with any film adaptation (which is all but inevitable given his recent success with movies such as Moana) he would have the ability to change elements as he saw fit, adding or removing scenes in order to use the medium to his advantage. Many playwrights and creators have done this with their adaptations, including Peter Schaffer with Amadeus, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

While adapting a property as wildly popular and impactful as Hamilton would prove difficult for even the most skilled director, it would also be an incredible opportunity to experiment with a deep, complex theatrical work that is equal parts inspired by West Side Story, The West Wing and the Wu Tang Clan. Any director willing to take on the lofty prospect of adapting Hamilton for the screen would need to be as daring as Miranda was in conceiving the show, and ready to walk off the beaten track while remaining aware of the history and influences surrounding it. A movie probably won’t happen any time soon, but its potential remains tantalizing, and there are plenty of people in Hollywood who won’t want to throw away that shot.

Next: Lionsgate Considering La La Land Stage Musical

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