By Mary Boyle
One doesn't need to be a Musical Theatre nerd to know about Hamilton: Composer, lyricist, and performer Lin Manuel Miranda's award-winning production, based on the biography by Ron Chernow, about our Country's first Secretary of Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. The craze over the musical rapidly moved outside of the theatre world and into pop culture after its opening on Broadway on August 6, 2015, and has done nothing but gain in popularity since, racking up award after award along the way. You may have wondered, "Is it worth all of the hype?" The short answer is: yes.
Hamilton is simply revolutionary -- and not just because the Revolutionary War is a part of the musical. As Miranda, himself, has said, "History is entirely created by the person who tells the story." At face value, this is the story of the relationship between Alexander Hamilton, our Country's first Secretary of Treasury, and Aaron Burr, the third Vice President of the United States, and the events that led to the duel between the two that resulted in Hamilton's death. We may even go so far as to say that it is the tale of the founding of our nation through the lens of these two key players. Both of those descriptions would be accurate...but...Hamilton is so much more than that. Quite simply, it is the "realest" story of our Country that has ever been told, because the person who is telling the story has — finally — included everyone and, in doing so, he has changed history. The real revolution happens when you realize that the Revolution never ended; in fact, this is not an old tale at all, but a very current one that is still being written.
Miranda grew up in New York, the son of mostly Puerto Rican immigrants, and the very definition of "melting pot." His influences reflect a life surrounded by true diversity, from hip-hop to musicals and Shakespeare to films, and they all come through in Hamilton in varying degrees. He wrote his first musical, In the Heights, as a Sophomore at Wesleyan University, which made its way to Broadway in 2008, winning three Tony Awards and a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. The success paved the way for Hamilton, which Miranda worked on for several years, while also making film and television appearances and working on other musicals. He seemingly has the Midas touch.
Oskar Eustis, the Director the The Public Theater in New York where Hamilton made it's Off-Broadway debut, said, "Lin does exactly what Shakespeare does...he takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse." I couldn't agree more, but the Shakespeare comparison goes further than that: When I first heard the opening song of Hamilton, my initial thought was that it was laid out exactly like a Shakespearean prologue. Miranda references Shakespeare numerous times over the course of the production, as well, but you will also find his other influences, particularly through the different musical styles: jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, and more. The broad range of cultural diversity is part of what makes Hamilton so identifiable to so many people, but the lyrics are just brilliant. You will laugh, and you will cry but, at the end, you will feel more a part of your Country than you have ever felt. This is the power of theatre being used to its greatest potential: to bring people together; to change the narrative.
The success of the musical inspired a PBS documentary, Hamilton's America, as well as a book, Hamilton: The Revolution, both of which detail the creation of the musical and offer behind the scenes information, which is revolutionary in that the creation of no other musical has ever been so thoroughly documented (nor has one ever been so primarily created by one person). In fact, Hamilton has been so successful that the US Treasury Department changed their plan to take Alexander Hamilton off of the ten dollar bill, and decided to remove Andrew Jackson, instead. So successful that the production opened in Chicago in 2016, a US Tour is currently running in Los Angeles, and the show will open in London this December. Recently, it was announced that a production will open in Puerto Rico in 2019, with Miranda, himself, reprising his role as Alexander Hamilton.
There are some downsides to all this success. One is that tickets to the shows are incredibly expensive. The other is that fans (myself, included) have been listening to the Cast Album for a full year before Hamilton opened in downtown Chicago last year, and even longer for the other productions, so they already have a firm idea of how the characters should look and sound and, of course, the other productions are not going to be exactly the same, which sets you up for disappointment. I'm here to tell you that even if you've listened to the Cast Album a hundred times, watched the documentary, and read the book, there is still more to be gained from seeing the show.
The stage design in Chicago is an exact replica of New York, and the cast, as a whole, does an admirable job (I especially loved Chris De'Sean Lee as the Marquis de Layfayette and Thomas Jefferson and Jose Ramos asJohn Laurens and Philip Hamilton). The CIBC Theater, located at 18 W. Monroe Street in downtown Chicago, is quite ornate, historic, and intimate. Beware: there are many seats with obstructed views, but even if you're in the very back row, the venue is small enough that you can still see and hear very well. Allow plenty of time to deal with downtown traffic. The Lottery (a chance to win $10 seats) is available for the Chicago performances, and tickets can also be had if you're willing to wait until the last moment and seats open up. For tickets to Hamilton in Chicago, go to http://www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/hamilton-an-american-musical/ or call Ticketmaster at (800) 775-2000.
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