It’s been a long road for the company of “Hamilton” in Los Angeles — just eight hours before opening night back in March 2020, the show was shut down as fears swelled over a looming pandemic. Little did the cast know at the time, it would take 523 days for their production to finally reach audiences at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
Speaking to Variety just hours ahead of the show’s new opening night on Aug. 17, 2021, Rory O’Malley, who plays King George III, was already reeling from emotion. “I just hope I don’t sob the entire time. I don’t think that would be a good acting choice for the king.”
The Tony nominee, who previously portrayed the flamboyant monarch both on Broadway and on the show’s national tour, says the importance of live theater’s return can’t be overstated. “I grew up in Cleveland, and the theater was my second home in my local community, and I know that’s true for so many young people across the country. A theater isn’t just a building to them, it’s their second home. It’s their church,” he says. “The fact that we get to commune together and do what we love, and we’re finding a safe way to do that…it’s beautiful. It’s truly history.”
Joanna A. Jones, who was cast as Eliza Hamilton back in 2019, calls it an “honor and a privilege” to finally get back to the role, reflecting on the difficulties of the last year-and-a-half. “As an artist, to have [theater] not be allowed and have it not be essential…it’s hard. It’s what we love. It’s how we communicate our art, our expression, our creativity. To see it start to creep back, it just feels like hope is starting to bubble up.”
Her excitement isn’t without a healthy dose of anxiety, as she gears up for eight weekly performances of the nearly three-hour show once again. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for that other than just being in it. We’re still going to have to figure out what our stamina is. We’re athletes up there. We have to restrengthen and retrain the muscles. And so it’s definitely scary, but I think I’m slowly starting to get the hang of it again. Slow and steady wins the race.”
O’Malley, on the other hand, says stamina won’t be an issue for him. “This interview has now lasted longer than my stage time in ‘Hamilton,’” he quips, adding that he’s “floored and amazed” by his cast mates. “I was at rehearsals watching them, and I truly asked a couple of times, ‘Was there another rehearsal that I didn’t know about?’ How do they remember every single dance move? I am just blown away by their talent and their ability, and I know it’s just going to be an amazing show tonight.”
He was certainly right about the show. The company’s excitement was shared by the audience at the Pantages, who erupted into rapturous applause and cheers at every opportunity. During high-energy performances like the “Cabinet Battles,” one could easily confuse the atmosphere in the theater with that of a Lakers game.
O’Malley shared that during a dress rehearsal performed in front of first responders on Aug. 15, he noticed people singing along with his show-stopping number, “You’ll Be Back.” “I definitely heard people singing ‘da-da-da-da-da’ back at me even through their masks, which is such sweet thing.” And, of course, the opening night crowd did not disappoint, with another singalong echoing throughout the orchestra seats.
Pantages Theatre general manager Jeff Loeb spoke to Variety after the show about the venue’s journey to welcoming patrons again, revealing that the process began with improving the building’s HVAC system, upgrading the filters to maximize fresh air coming inside. Then, on July 30, the theater announced that all patrons would require proof of full vaccination.
Loeb says he hasn’t seen any resistance to the safety precautions, telling Variety, “The Los Angeles audience seems to embrace what we’ve put out there, to be a safe venue for everyone.”
“I feel more safe backstage in ‘Hamilton’ than I do anywhere else,” says O’Malley. “We are all wearing masks backstage. So who knows, we might accidentally forget and walk on stage with a mask!”
Luckily, opening night went off without a hitch (and without a stray mask on stage). If the crowd’s electric energy is any indication of what’s to come, the “Hamilton” company is in for a triumphant and jubilant run in the coming months.
Loeb hopes the musical is among the first of many productions to bounce back after a devastating era for theater. “It’s a great bellwether for the entire industry to say, ‘We’ve taken the appropriate steps to open safely, and here we are, and we’re doing it correctly, and we get to invite people in safely to enjoy the craft that they all love.’”
“As the first industry to first shut down and the last industry to come back, I think this was a great moment for all of us,” says Loeb, already expressing his excitement for the venue to welcome “Moulin Rouge!” in 2022. “This may be kicking off ‘Hamilton,’ but for us it’s really kicking off that Broadway is back in Hollywood.”