I originally wrote this post on Facebook just to update my friends but later realized it might make a Ham-ful follow-up to my earlier blog entry about How I Fell in Love With Hamilton. I’m still in awe at the exquisite teamwork that goes into a production like this–and it was a treat to get to peek behind the curtain. Enjoy!
Last Sunday evening, I had the good fortune of getting to go backstage with my friend and colleague, Joel Veenstra, before seeing another thrilling performance of Hamilton. We also got to hear the touring production’s stage crew speak the next night at a panel presentation. (Joel was moderating.)
They asked us not to take photos backstage—sorry!—but I can share with you some cool things I learned:
• The show gets managed from just off-stage right, about six feet from the wing of the set. There are three monitors, including one with an infrared camera (so they can see people on stage even when lights are down). Every cue for lights and entrances and exits is written down in binder that the person calling the show goes through each night.
• They have a full mock-up of the dual-turntable floor in NYC for rehearsals so that new cast members for upcoming runs in London and Seattle can get the full sense of the choreography and sequencing.
• Cast changes can happen last minute. The night we went, one of the principals was scheduled to sub out—apparently she had not been feeling so well—and the programs had gotten a printed insert to suggest that she’d not be in the show. Less than an hour before the show, though, as were chatting standing on stage with the stage managers, she got put back in. As a result, they had to redo the (perhaps usually recorded?) King George III intro so they could let us know who was in fact playing the role.
• Though the show involves “the same work as any other show,” Hamilton is particularly challenging emotionally. One stage manager said, “When we were first learning the show, we spent 6 weeks of rehearsals crying [during the post-duel scene] because we’re just that close to those raw emotions. And the cast does that every night.”
• These stage managers choose their work based on the people they’ll be working with more than based on the show they’ll get to do—though they also recognize the special phenomenon that Hamilton has become.
• Because the show purposely reaches out to historically underrepresented communities for its casting—including folks who may never have been on Broadway or with long-term-engagement touring companies before—they have to spend a lot of time working with new cast members to get their minds and bodies in shape for the required long-haul endurance.
• The show has over 1300 (!) lighting cues, more than 30% more than a usual light-busy Broadway show.
• It can actually be easier to have shorter stays in touring cities (rather than the extended four- or five-month stays in SF and LA) because after three weeks, company members tend to come up with personal and physical issues they wouldn’t otherwise have or notice. When it’s a shorter turnaround time, the variety and newness of the theater and the host city helps folks stay more focused. There’s constant stimuli so the show stays tighter. And the cast and crew are more likely to stay in the same place overnight so they’ll get the increased camaraderie and family feeling that way.
• The current “Angelica” touring company in LA only has 11 crew members: 2 carpenters, 2 electricians, 2 wardrobe managers, 2 sound folks, 2 props crew, and 1 hair specialist. They do pick up another 11 folks locally, including 8 more wardrobe people (!) and a full-time physical therapist/bodywork person.
• There are over 500 props used in the show, each left in a precise spot after the show. They shared a funny story about that: they realized that it seemed there were a couple champagne glasses backstage that were never getting moved, just staying on a particular shelf. So they started tracking more closely: what if they turned them upside down? Or moved them a few inches? Nope, they weren’t getting used. Turned out that someone had left them backstage after a rehearsal and no one had dared move them because they all assumed they had been carefully and intricately choreographed into that spot!
• There are only a few pockets of space for cast members to add their own interpretations or improvisations. The choreography is so precise and the dialogue so fast-moving that there’s just not much room. Interestingly, though, where there is room, different folks playing the same role tend to gravitate toward certain interpretations. The stage managers attributed that to Lin Manuel Miranda’s great writing. I’d add “and the actors’ great acting.” As with great Shakespeareans, they’re getting themselves out of the way and letting the text speak through them. It uses them for the show’s larger purpose.
• Favorite moments for different stage managers: 1) at the end of the show, when the audience feeds you back all this energy and love and you know you’ve affected them; 2) getting to share holidays with the cast and crew; 3) the always-amazing feeling of coming out the stage door after the show and seeing all these grateful, anticipatory, excited eyes waiting for the actors to show up.
• If they were looking to hire new stage managers, they’d want applicants to have technical lighting and building and organizational skills, yes, but more importantly, people skills: flexibility, ability to handle complexity, to stay calm in chaos, to read a room and know what response is needed, to put the cell phone away and stay fully present. Hmm. Sounds like improvisation!
• Hamilton’s high profile as a show makes for very strict guidelines about social media and security at the theater. They were a little more careful after Lin’s back-and-forth tweets with the president and then again after the shooting in Las Vegas.
Thanks to Kim Fisk, Steve “Paco” Henry, Katrina Stevens, and Travis Blackwell. Your commitment to your craft and generosity with your insight both proved inspiring.
And thanks, again, to Joel Veenstra as well for the awesome opportunity!