Last week, when the Kennedy Center announced its ticketing plans for “Hamilton,” which will arrive in Washington in 2017, it made a serious public relations blunder. The center, one of the premiere arts institutions in the region, emphasized that the best way to guarantee access to tickets was to buy two seasons-worth of very expensive theater subscriptions, but somehow failed to have a clear explanation in place for how less-wealthy Washingtonians might be able to see one of the buzziest theater sensations in years.
It’s true that other cities and other theaters are including “Hamilton” in subscription packages, though sometimes at less-extortionate rates and patrons only have to buy tickets for a single season. But the question of whether the Kennedy Center is behaving differently from other arts institutions is a distraction from the real challenge and paradox, that the wild and wonderful popularity of “Hamilton” has rendered a groundbreaking musical that created important parts for actors of color inaccessible to all but the wealthiest theater patrons.
It’s true that there have been all sorts of efforts to get students and lower-income ticket buyers in to see “Hamilton” in New York. The White House has hosted members of the cast, streaming their performances of numbers from “Hamilton.” PBS plans to air a “Hamilton” documentary as part of its Great Performances series. But these are bits of access, rather than the whole experience. And these fragments point to an obvious solution: it’s time for a movie adaptation of “Hamilton.”
“Fruitvale Station” and “Creed” director Ryan Coogler mentioned in January that there’s enthusiasm for the idea in Hollywood and that he’d love to be the person who got behind the camera for the adaptation. But I’m willing to bet that he’s going to be fairly tied up on Marvel’s “Black Panther,” especially after the enthusiasm that greeted T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) introduction in “Captain America: Civil War.”
If Coogler’s unavailable — and even if he’s free — I’d also venture to suggest Spike Lee as a potential “Hamilton” director.
I’ve written before about “Passing Strange,” Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s terrific rock musical, as a show that, like “Hamilton,” broke interesting racial and musical ground on Broadway. And that show is widely accessible in part because Lee shot a wonderful adaptation of “Passing Strange” for film. The sets for “Passing Strange” were even more minimal than those for “Hamilton”; they were basically limited to a wall of lights and parts of the stage that could rise and be lowered, depending on whether the band that provides the show’s score is meant to be part of a scene or not. Lee took great advantage of that minimalism to play with camera angles and capture the raw energy of the cast. Lee could capture the epic sweep of “Hamilton” without needing to move the cast off a theatrical stage.
But if a director was going to turn “Hamilton” into a full-blown period piece, with the action taking place on flushed-out sets and location shoots, Richard LaGravenese might bring a nice touch to the show. His adaptation of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan as a couple taking turns narrating the rise and dissolution of their marriage was nice, subtle work. He placed the characters on Brooklyn streets and docks by Ohio lakes without creating great dissonance between the real world (and real emotions) and the trappings of emotional theater.
Maybe both of these approaches would work; certainly, I’d be curious to see them. But however “Hamilton” gets adapted, I’m just looking forward to seeing it on the big screen. A movie might cut into theatrical tickets sales slightly, though I’m willing to bet people will still shell out for the live experience, especially given the cast’s penchant for things like lively Prince tributes and the credibility that comes with seeing the show on stage. Fans who will never get a chance to see the show on stage keep loving “Hamilton” anyway; a movie adaptation would spare them of the pain of having to wait for it forever.