Before “Hamilton” even hit Broadway, it became a cultural phenomenon.
Everything about the play — the hip-hop songs, the casting of African-American actors as our nation’s Founding Fathers, the unabashed celebration of the American Experiment — appealed deeply to American audiences looking for a reminder during divisive times of what it is that binds us together, or at least what should. Perhaps never before did nontraditional casting — people of color playing dead white men! — seem so right.
But of course. What better way to say that we are one nation because of the values we share, and not because of skin color or language or religion?
African-American high school kids in New York saw the play Off Broadway, at the Public Theater, and were blown away.
“We had students who were in tears because they felt like they were American for the first time,” a theater executive told the New York Times way back then, a mere year and a half ago.
Now “Hamilton” comes to Chicago, opening in the Loop on Sept. 27, and we look forward to the play casting the same spell on the Windy City that it did on the Big Apple. In New York, high school history teachers built classes around the play and an education foundation created a study guide. The Rockefeller Foundation kicked in $1.5 million to provide subsidized tickets to 20,000 students from low-income families, with the producers of the play discounting those tickets further. The producers have offered a lottery for discounted tickets before every performance, and until recently they offered impromptu free mini-shows outside the theater’s stage door.
In Chicago, as Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss reported Tuesday, producer Jeffrey Seller, along with Broadway In Chicago, will continue the lottery tradition here, with 44 day-of-show tickets to be sold for every performance for $10 each. Not a bad deal given that official posted ticket prices range from $65 to $180 and online scalper prices have reportedly reached as high as $8,000 a piece.
Here’s hoping a big local foundation or two gets on board next, as they did in New York, and builds bridges between the play and Chicago’s schools, making dull and dusty history come alive.
Strictly speaking, scholars says, “Hamilton” is flawed history. The real Alexander Hamilton, our nation’s first treasurer, was a more complicated figure, they say, and Thomas Jefferson wasn’t so bad. And because the show’s entire cast is multi-racial and multi-ethnic, our nation’s original sin — slavery — is somewhat obscured.
That said, the general consensus seems to be that “Hamilton” is mostly on the money, certainly by the standards of pop culture depictions of history. The show’s creator, Lin Manuel-Miranda, consulted closely with Ron Chernow, who wrote the best-selling book, “Alexander Hamilton,” that inspired the play. Chernow has given his seal of approval.
In an interview with Weiss, Chernow noted that hip-hop, more so than other musical forms, can pack in a lot of words, allowing for more information. “The show’s first song,” he said, “accurately and penetratingly tells you all you need to know about the first third of Hamilton’s life.”
Miranda chose black and Hispanic actors to play the Founding Fathers because, as he told the New York Times, he wanted a cast that “looks like America looks now” and he wanted to make the story “more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”
But Miranda, whose family was from Puerto Rico, obviously was making another point: We are a nation built on shared convictions, not on demographics.
“Immigrants,” Alexander Hamilton declares in the play, “We get the job done.”
That line always draws huge applause.
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