When Hamilton premiered on Disney+, the internet exploded as viewers suddenly clamored for the release of more captures of Broadway musicals. Yet “releasing the tapes” won’t offer viewers that same experience—that marriage of live theatre and pristine cinematography—because most captures don’t look like Hamilton. But one upcoming release will: David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBOMax (out October 17).
“We use that word ‘capture’ very carefully because I think as much as it's a reality of what we're doing, it's sometimes been abused in terms what we call the ‘cinematic interpretation’ of a show,” says John Kamen, founder and CEO of RadicalMedia, the company responsible for these interpretations. For Kamen and co, a capture is the archival footage every Broadway production (and select Off-Broadway) has received since 1970 for historical purposes.
With properties like Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (the original cinematic interpretation), Shrek The Musical, Hamilton, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello! On Broadway, and now American Utopia, Radical pioneered the hybrid form that brings the Broadway experience (“full appreciation of what it could be like in the theatre,” as Kamen says) to the big screen.
The key is that Kamen and Radical’s President of the entertainment division Dave Sirulnick love theatre, come from theatre, and, therefore, understand theatre. “I went to Mason Gross School of the Arts for theatre at Rutgers,” says Sirulnick, “and the idea of as I was studying theatre and you could never see those wonderful plays or musicals from the past … it just felt like a loss.”
Still, there has long been reticence from the theatre industry about taping productions, worrying that it could negatively impact ticket sales. But Sirulnick (and box office numbers) show the opposite.
“In the mid-20th century, the advent of the soundtrack shows was so additive because you could bring a piece of it home. And it's not the same as being in the theatre, but it's so evocative,” says Sirulnick. “When you advance through 50, 60, 70 years later to now, nothing will ever replace being in the theatre—that idea of the strength of a community, watching a story, being told by members of the community on stage actual people—nothing replaces that energy. Watching it in a big movie theatre or on a TV screen, you're getting a new version of it.
“We're putting you in not just one seat and that's the view, what we’re saying is we're going to put you in many seats in places that you couldn't normally go, and we're going to create with the creators of Hamilton or Oh, Hello or American Utopia or any of the others,” Sirulnick exclaims. “We're going to do this new form … and you're going to get a closeup that even if you were in sixth row center, you're not seeing what Leslie was seeing when he’s looking at Lin.
“Let’s make something that’s additive of what already exists.”
For every cinematic interpretation Radical collaborates with the creative team of the stage production from phase one. They emotionally engage with the material. “We spent a lot of time watching the original production and follow it as faithfully as possible in terms of really capturing the essence of it,” says Kamen, while capitalizing on the power of film. “When you're watching a show and you zoom in on that little flicker of a match [with your eyes], suddenly we call that a cue for a cameraman to make sure they get that they get that.”
Radical films multiple performances with an audience—meeting with the Broadway team each night to see what they missed. (They usually only have one more shot to get it.) They also film after live shows, without an audience, to get those new angles onstage and from the wings that no one has ever seen.
And American Utopia was its own beast. “Stop Making Sense [from David Byrne and Talking Heads in 1984] was probably one of the greatest of all time music documentary/concert films, so we were like a dog with a bone wanting to film American Utopia,” Kamen confesses. The chance to work with Spike Lee as their film director didn’t hurt either.
“Spike Lee did an amazing job and it was a great team to work with,” says Kamen. “Again, that integration of a film team and a theatre team coming together.” The group shot over two performances, one full day without audiences, and one outdoor day (for a special new shot) in February 2020. Thirteen cameras glided and hovered and swooped to evoke the same hypnotics of Byrne’s music that you felt lift you out of your seat at the Hudson Theatre. Unlike Hamilton or Rent, the narrative isn’t as structured. The magic of American Utopia is literally in the expansion and contraction of the air in the building; the groove of Annie-B Parsons choreography; the rhythm of nine vibing band members and two vocalists. When the downbeat hits on HBO, Kamen and Sirulnick transmute that spirit. And while folks should be able to go see American Utopia back on Broadway September 2021 (if the Hudson can truly reopen), Kamen and Sirulnick believe their film will only increase the demand.
“This is not going to cannibalize people's desire to go see live theatre when it comes back—because it will come back,” says Kamen. “It's the oldest form of art and it will come back. But this film and, perhaps, some others that we’ll do even in the darkness of the theatres today will revive people's desire to see live theatre.” That is something worth capturing.
Tune in to David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBOMax beginning October 17.