Hollywood Boulevard, 4:45 a.m. The sky is charcoal-colored and hazy, the nearly empty streets bathed in a blur of red, orange and green from a thicket of neon signage — the W Hollywood hotel, Deco-era apartments, Dunkin’ Donuts.
Suddenly a spot of white appears in the distance. Two 18-wheel trucks roll into view, cutting through the glow of the lights. The unmarked trucks could be carrying produce to nearby restaurants or T-shirts to a souvenir shop. But as they rumble and turn onto Argyle Avenue, a finely printed slogan becomes visible on the truck’s side: “Let’s get the show on the road.”
That show would be “Hamilton.” And the cargo would be pieces of the set, to be installed at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for opening night Aug. 16. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, the Broadway version of which won 11 Tony Awards last year and sparked a fan frenzy driving resale ticket prices into the thousands of dollars, is on tour and making its first jump from city to city. Arguably the most anticipated production in American theater history has — at long last — arrived in Los Angeles.
But here’s the thing: As those white trucks back into the Pantages’ parking lot in the pre-dawn darkness, the “Hamilton” national tour is still playing its first stop at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. So what, exactly, is in those white trucks?
A second “Hamilton” set for touring, driven from New York.
Moving the production city to city is a far more complicated undertaking than it might seem, says production supervisor Jason Bassett, responsible for every aspect of the physical transfer, an endeavor that includes more than 100 people and 14 trucks in all. No fewer than 42 wardrobe gondolas, manned by eight dressers, two pressers, a stitcher and full-time laundry person, are making the move along with 513 lighting instruments, prop trunks and a full-time physical therapist for the cast. Even the copy machine that’s part of the company’s mobile management office travels with the show.
Whereas the Broadway and Chicago productions of “Hamilton” have permanent sets secured to their theaters’ stage floors and walls, the “Hamilton” tour must be more nimble, so it can pack up and move easily within a few days. For many touring shows, that means scaling back the set’s grandiosity, with less furniture on stage or soft backdrops instead of hard ones because they’re easier to disassemble. But for “Hamilton,” Bassett says, the creative team of Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music supervisor and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire made a strategic decision: Except for its cast and crew, “Hamilton” on the road will be an almost identical replica of “Hamilton” on Broadway. So rather than scale back the touring set, they built a second, full-size stage floor — the most cumbersome element to install — that arrives before the props, costumes and other scenic pieces.
“ ‘Hamilton’ decided, ‘We’re not gonna compromise anything.’ Because they can afford it. Not every show can,” Bassett says. “They decided, ‘We’re gonna invest’ — more people, more time, doubling up on pieces of the set — so we get the highest quality of everything and that when the country sees it, they’re seeing the same show they would have seen on Broadway.”
The “Hamilton” set is fairly simple. Battered wood catwalks and stairways, adorned with heavy ropes, represent early New York and have a ship-like quality. The stage floor, called the deck, features two concentric turntables that often move characters in opposite directions. The tour considered paring the set back to have just one turntable — far quicker to install, city to city — but that would have meant rejiggering the show’s choreography.
Instead, a new deck has arrived in L.A. early, along with much of the lighting package, the sound package and other infrastructure like chain motors, cables and the portal of wood beams that frames the stage. When the Los Angeles run closes Dec. 30, the L.A. deck will go into storage, temporarily; props and costumes will travel to San Diego, where the San Francisco deck will have already been installed in advance. The two decks then leapfrog each other for the duration of the tour.
As Bassett explains all this, it’s now daylight on Hollywood Boulevard. A local moving crew of about 30 people in hard hats is hauling bulky stage rigging from a truck and into the Pantages, which has just laid 6,000 square yards of new, plush red carpet in preparation for the first preview Aug. 11.
A detail-oriented young man with tortoiseshell glasses and a yellow legal pad wedged under his arm directs the movers with one hand while signing delivery confirmations with the other. Franklin Swann is with Hudson Theatrical, which is executing the move under Bassett’s direction. The deafening roar of about half a dozen trunks-on-wheels trundling over concrete fills the loading entryway while in the background, a towering wood plank wobbles on a scaffolding-like metal truss.
As Aaron Burr might have noted, like Alexander Hamilton these guys are nonstop — and if not all young, then definitely scrappy and hungry.
“Whoa, steady, steady,” one crew member bellows as they carry a load in.
“Eventually, we have to get this down to 15 hours,” Bassett says, thinking ahead to stops on the tour.
Installing an advance deck is common practice among big musicals. The national tours of “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon” all brought their decks to the Pantages. The “Hamilton” set is pared by comparison, says Bob Willen, one of today’s truckers. He drove the sets of “Wicked” and “The Phantom of the Opera” to the Pantages when they came through L.A., he says, showing smartphone pictures of the “Wicked” journey.
“‘Wicked’ had, like, 12 [advance] trucks, ‘Phantom’ had 17. This one’s only two, today anyway,” he says. “Way smaller.”
A third “Hamilton” truck, in fact, will arrive at the Pantages later in the morning, and another will show up the next day. When props, costumes and wigs arrive from San Francisco a week later, one of the most delicate items being transported will be King George III’s crown, because it’s carefully miked. There are also about 50 paper props — letters and such — that while not delicate are integral to the story and must be packed into cartons and tracked.
Nick Lugo, the show’s general manager, is responsible for moving the 32-member “Hamilton” cast, along with core crew and musicians. That means finding housing for more than 60 people in each city. Many will stay in corporate housing; others live with friends or family or spend their per diem on other accommodations.
The San Francisco-to-Los Angeles move is the show’s first jump in a tour that has more than 20 stops and is scheduled through 2020 (with an expectation that its itinerary will continue to expand later). Along the way, “Hamilton” has idiosyncratic challenges.
One scene, for example, has Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, burning a stack of his letters. The fire itself is minuscule. Actress Solea Pfeiffer drops the paper into a pail treated with a chemical that extinguishes the fire immediately. Still, because fire regulations are different city to city, theater to theater, clearing that scene with a local fire marshal in rehearsals is always a little different, Lugo says. “Chicago has very strict fire rules that we’re not encountering in San Francisco,” he says. “In Chicago, we have to have a fire marshal on hand for every performance.”
Also challenging on the road, Lugo says: holidays.
“We’re heading into Thanksgiving, and most of these kids are not from L.A. And we have a show Friday afternoon, right after Thanksgiving,” he says. “So we’ll host a big dinner for cast and crew — the Ham-Fam, we call ourselves.”
Then there are the surprises.
In San Francisco, during one preview, a bird on the roof of the Orpheum tripped a fire alarm just before curtain and the building had to be evacuated. The audience and a half-costumed cast flowed into the street, delaying the start of the show.
These sorts of incidents, while humorous in retrospect, can be terrifying for company managers, Lugo says. “We’re the troubleshooters, we’re the phone call, we have to take care of it immediately. Because the show must always go on.”
The San Francisco and L.A. runs of “Hamilton” are far longer than other tour stops, which typically last three to six weeks. To make for even more efficient turnarounds after L.A., Bassett says, the set may feature more chain motors to hang set pieces and lighting from so they can be lifted up and loaded out more quickly. On Broadway and in Chicago, speakers were hung from the set, and that took time. In San Francisco and L.A., the speakers were built into the set.
“Sometimes it’s the minutia that saves you time,” Bassett says. “All these little things add up.”
A second national tour will kick off in Seattle in February, prompting “Hamilton” to give each production a nickname: The show opening in L.A. this week is the “Angelica tour,” after Hamilton’s sister-in-law. The second touring production is the “Philip tour,” after Hamilton’s son. Each will have two sets that leapfrog each other to their respective stops around the country.
As movers scamper around the Pantages stage, measuring the floor with red laser pointers and tape, Bassett watches the action from the 2,700-seat theater’s audience floor, a computer open on his lap.
“We’ve done an immense amount of planning and discussion about each aspect of this, and we’re working with a very experienced, smart team,” Bassett says.
There is a boom and clank onstage. Then a giant, canvas storage bin flies through the air on a chain motor and disappears into the theater’s wings.
“But you never really know until you start actually physically doing it,” he says. “This first move, there’s a lot that’s being tested here to make sure it all works.”
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When: Previews begin Friday Aug. 11, opening night is Wednesday Aug. 16, ends Dec. 30
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
Information: (800) 982-2787, www.hollywoodpantages.com
You can find all of our latest “Hamilton” national tour coverage at latimes.com/hamilton.
Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin