Why it could take a decade or more to turn Hamilton, winner of 11 Tonys, into a film

Many Broadway hits never spawn movie versions, and when they do make it to the big screen, film versions often flop; besides, producers like to milk the live show, not kill it off in the cinema

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 June, 2016, 8:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 June, 2016, 8:15am

Broadway musical Hamilton has made history in numerous ways, injecting energy into the genre, populating the stage with actors from ethnic minorities and attracting a younger audience than most other productions in New York’s theatre land.

But there’s one barrier in which the musical, winner of 11 Tony awards on June 12, is unlikely to make a dent: the lag between hit show and Hollywood film.

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“I think the show will end up on screen without a doubt,” star and Tony winner Leslie Odom said at a Tonys after-party. “I just think it will be like 10 years from now.”

As with so many big Tony winners before it, Hamilton, whose subject is Americas’ founding fathers, will take a circuitous path to the cinema screen, if it gets there at all. Indeed, in the last decade, more best musical winners have come from films (three) than have been turned into films (one).

No Hamilton rights have been sold, and at least one film producer said that when they sought to have a conversation about them, the show’s team, led by its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, politely said: “Thanks but no thanks, at least for now.”

Musicals are enjoying a mini-renaissance in Hollywood, whether in the form of original animated pieces like Frozen or live telecasts of classics such as The Wiz and Grease. So why have new Broadway works not been part of this resurgence?

To a large degree, it’s because theatrical producers are reluctant to cannibalise sales of hit shows. Hamilton is raking in eye-popping numbers on Broadway, nearly US$2 million per week. With a national Hamilton tour not beginning until spring, in Los Angeles, and with possible foreign engagements to come, producers are in no rush to kill the golden goose.

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Hamilton is a show that will make more than Star Wars. Why do they have any incentive to try to be like Star Wars?” asked one Broadway producer who declined to be identified because the producer was speaking about a rival production.

The cautionary tale is War Horse, the West End smash whose film adaptation came out in 2011, the same year the show opened on Broadway. The production ran only about a year after the movie opened, and some point to the film as the reason for the early shuttering. Why lay down a few hundred bucks on Broadway, many consumers reason, when there’s Netflix?

Audiences are also less likely to embrace a movie until the original – and often more urgent – theatrical version has receded from memory. The evidence? Some of the most successful modern movie musicals (Chicago, Dreamgirls) came a quarter-century or more after their Broadway openings. Toss in all of Hollywood’s usual development friction and creative disagreements, and you have a recipe for a lot of waiting.

This larger reluctance plays out in particular ways with Hamilton, whose principals have their own reason to be gun-shy.

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Miranda has expressed scepticism about Hollywood adaptations of theatrical pieces; if he has Hollywood ambitions, it’s as an original composer or actor – Star Wars, a new Mary Poppins. (He will, however, work with Harvey Weinstein on another attempt to get his 2008 best musical winner In the Heights off the ground and on to a set. Weinstein, who was making the rounds at Tony events on Sunday night, is keen for another adaptation of a stage hit à la Chicago.)

Meanwhile, Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller has his own uneven experience to draw from. Seller was also the man behind Rent, the mid-’90s Broadway sensation that, in fact, helped turn Miranda on to the possibilities of theatre. The film came out nearly a decade after the show opened, and still it was a commercial and critical disappointment.

Indeed, capturing the energy of a live show on screen is an imposing challenge. For every Chicago, there are five misfires. Jersey Boys, one of the few recent best musical winners to become a film, was a flop, even in the hands of Clint Eastwood and much of the Broadway cast. Ditto for The Producers, which retained much of the stage talent behind and in front of the camera when it came out four years later, to a great eye roll. And let’s not even get into Rock of Ages.

Years ago in the Hollywood development world, new bits about the film version of the 2003 Broadway hit Wicked arrived with the regularity of an 8 o’clock curtain. Producer Marc Platt had made new hires, or the project had new energy, or … And still a film waits.

Wicked has been too big a hit in too many places for anyone to rush. Star Idina Menzel, the original Elphaba, has taken to joking that so many years have passed that she couldn’t star in the movie even if she wanted to – unless it were as the Wizard.

That doesn’t mean Hollywood and Broadway won’t strengthen their ties. Some of the biggest Tony nominees in recent years have come from film, including past best musical winners Once and Kinky Boots, The Producers and this year’s commercial breakout, Waitress.

But the challenges for Hamilton will remain in the stage realm. With the show’s Tony triumphs in the bag and its first anniversary on Broadway approaching, the question will be how to keep the momentum going.

Some of that, as recent media speculation has had it, is due to the possible departure of Miranda and other principal cast members. But some of it is also about a show finding a niche.

Many of the longest-running productions on Broadway tend to locate a consumer sweet spot. Jersey Boys has the people in the New York suburbs. Wicked has teenage girls. The Book of Mormon has comedy-seeking tourists. Hamilton has a cool factor. But to sell out for years, past a point when it’s novel and when many of the principals have moved on, a show needs to lock down an audience that will come out reliably and repeatedly.

In this way, Broadway actually has a lot in common with Hollywood: finding a target demographic is never easy.

Los Angeles Times