No doubt about it. Lin-Manuel Miranda got lucky with the name.
Just say it: Alexander Hamilton. It has a built-in rhythm — perhaps not a strictly Shakespearean iambic pentameter grouping of beats, but its seven syllables fall so rhythmically, and so trippingly on the tongue (without any distortion of the natural pronunciation of that Founding Father’s name) — that it seems made for music.
‘HAMILTON’ When: Begins previews Sept. 27; opens Oct. 19 Where: The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe Tickets: $65-$180 Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com Run Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
Or perhaps that is only because the name, once primarily known for having his face on our $10 bills, has become such a part of the popular currency since the arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “Hamilton. The show, of course, caused an immediate sensation at its Off Broadway debut at The Public Theatre in February 2015, transferred to Broadway six months later, and triggered near hysteria when, last December, it was announced that the first production to be staged outside New York would be at Chicago’s PrivateBank Theatre, where it begins previews Sept. 27 and opens officially on Oct. 19. (Subsequent editions are already set for San Francisco and London.)
“Yes, the name was a gift,” said Miranda, during a recent phone chat. “But I already had practice with Washington [as in Washington Heights, the setting for his first Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, “In the Heights”].
The truth is, many things were already in place to enable Miranda to transform that rhythmic name into something wholly remarkable — an almost entirely sung-through musical about the Founding Fathers of this country that not only mixed rap with a pure Broadway sound, but meshed with the zeitgeist by warping elements of time and tradition in a winningly “revolutionary” way, and fusing a great historical drama with a hint of life as it is now.
There was, to be sure, a singular talent at work. For proof, all you need do is watch Miranda’s multimedia book report from his days as a third grader (a home video now on YouTube). His grade school dramatization of the popular children’s novel, “The Pushcart War,” suggests that Miranda, now 36, was a born actor and writer with Cecil B. DeMille pretensions from the start.
He also possessed a natural gift for working with collaborators. The childhood video was a family affair; his creative family now includes director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music supervisor and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, all carryovers from the “In the Heights” team.
In addition, there were Miranda’s immigrant roots. (As a child he spent time each summer living with his grandparents in Puerto Rico; Hamilton was born in the nearby British West Indies.) And there was political savvy. (Miranda’s father was an adviser to New York Mayor Ed Koch, a founder of the powerful Hispanic Federation, and a successful lobbyist, and he admits to picking up “a healthy cynicism from seeing that you can vote for people you hope will live up to your values and wishes, but don’t necessarily have to.”)
All these things also fed into Miranda’s immediate connection with Ron Chernow’s biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” the inspiration for the musical. (Chernow has described Miranda’s brilliance this way: “He accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute [opening] song. And he forged a unique idiom that blended formal 18th-century speech with 21st-century slang.”)
And then there was Miranda’s early encounter with Stephen Sondheim, the late 20th century grand master of Broadway he toasted so memorably when he won his first Tony Awards for “In the Heights” in 2008, rapping “Mr. Sondheim! Look, I made a hat! Where there never was a hat!”
“I first met Steve in my senior year at Hunter High School in New York,” recalled Miranda. “I was friends with the daughter of his collaborator, John Weidman, who directed our school production of ‘West Side Story,’ and Sondheim came for a lunch hour visit. I sang a song written for Riff that had been discarded. It was the most significant lunch hour of my life. And when we met years later during ‘In the Heights,’ he also remembered that day.”
“There are rap lyrics in my musicals that are faster than Steve’s lyrics for ‘Not Getting Married’ [the panic-driven song in “Company”],” said Miranda. “But rap is like Shakespeare. Most people, including me, have a mild anxiety attack when they first hear it, but then the brain flips, the lungs adapt, and you’re in. I lied to myself for three years, thinking ‘Hamilton’ was not meant to be a musical, but should be a concept album, like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ a show I loved, that began that way. The key was finding a satisfying density of language and ideas that could hold up to repeated listenings. And I knew I had the collaborators who could stage those lyrics.”
As for how he hit on the idea of casting the Founding Fathers with black and Latino actors, Miranda said: “It came hand-in-hand with writing the score and tapping into Hamilton’s life, which was like the life of our hip-hop artists today. He was a guy who understood money and power and drive. And Tommy [Kail] elevated that principal, so the cast looks like what our country looks like now, which is not a painting by John Trumbull [the Revolutionary War era painter whose work decorates the U.S. Capitol].”
“[‘Hamilton’s] got everything — a hero who comes from nothing, a love story with someone waiting at home, and a villain, which [he laughs, gleefully], I get to play, and who is a genius in his own right,” said Joshua Henry, who stars as Aaron Burr, the man who killed Hamilton in a pistol duel. “Plus, not only have I been a big hip-hop fan from childhood, but I love the way this show talks about leaving a legacy, leaving the world better than you found it. And I am so intrigued by the relationship between Hamilton and Burr — with Hamilton a man who played to win, and Burr the man who played not to lose. It’s about someone who plays by the rules [my character] versus someone who doesn’t.”
“Really, it’s pretty remarkable when you realize this country, and a number of others, are still living with the financial system Hamilton created,” said Miranda. “And he was no stranger to dirty pool, so I think he’d be right at home with our politics today. He’d also be writing the most voluminous blog posts of anyone around.”
Kail is two years older than Miranda, and although they both went to Wesleyan University, they never met there. But as he tells the story: “I knew about this kid who had written a musical, and in 2000 he sent me the CD and script, and along with three other alums we began working on it while he was still in school.”
About staging “Hamilton,” Kail (like Thomas Jefferson, a native Virginian) said: “I wanted the show to move in a way that represented Hamilton’s propulsive personality. Like the Revolutionary period itself, I wanted to create a sense that nothing could slow down the action. There would be no blackouts — just cross-fades for transitions. And there would be no big scenery pieces to move, only lighting telling you where you are. The idea was that this was a country being built by the people, and each scene of the musical was created by the movement of those people. As for the score, the great thing is how Lin is able to synthesize so many styles and yet make them come out as his. And as for what I told my all-new Chicago cast: ‘We hired you because of who you are, and we owe it to each other to start fresh. At the same time, we’ll respect the show at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York, making only imperceptible tweaks to adjust to a slightly different space’.”
Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler recalls how the whole idea of creating circling movement for the show developed initially when he worked on “In the Heights,” because “just as in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ one of Lin’s favorite musicals, that signified a community coming together. In ‘Hamilton’ it is used more to capture the passage of time as the world is churning along, and the inevitability of history is playing out. The turntable stage moves counter-clockwise, and the actors move clockwise, adding to a sense of tension.”
“The show requires performers with really good dance technique,” said Blankenbuehler, “but they also must be able to make the dancing disappear. They must look like real people telling the story of real people. The chairs in this show also dance — floating in a way that suggests how in war the things we hold dear tend to become inconsequential and end up all over the place. On the other hand, after the victory at the Battle of Yorktown everyone stands on the furniture as if to say ‘We’ve survived, and here’s what we have’.”
Alex Lacamoire, “Hamilton’s” Cuban-American music supervisor and orchestrator (who has hired all-Chicago musicians for the production here), explained how he conceived the show’s 10-piece ensemble.
“There’s a pop rhythm section for the rap aspect of the score, and a string quartet to capture the historical era, with a pianist and banjo and guitar player part of the mix,” he said. “And because the score is so verbally dense, great attention must be paid to audibility, so if there are fewer instruments there is space for the voice. The strings are the high end, the bass is the low, and the voice is in between. The storytelling is of primary importance.”
Ultimately, of course, it is the actors who must make you believe. Two of the leads — Miguel Cervantes (Hamilton), and Karen Olivo (as Angelique, the Schuyler sister who did not marry Hamilton, though certainly had a powerful connection to her sister Eliza’s husband) — are determined (to borrow a lyric from the show) to have their best “shot” here.
“I auditioned for workshops, and for the original Public Theatre production of ‘Hamilton,’ when there was already a buzz around the show, and then got called in for standby before it moved to Broadway,” said Cervantes, who steps into the titular role. “I gave it my best shot, but nothing happened and I just figured, ‘Okay, it’s not for me,’ and like everyone else I became a huge fan. … Then last May my agent called and said I should go to the new ‘Hamilton’ auditions, and about four weeks and many call-backs later I phoned my wife and said: ‘Quit your job; we’re moving to Chicago.’”
“I first met Lin when I auditioned for a workshop of ‘In the Heights,'” said Olivo. “I didn’t know he was the writer when I was put in an audition room and told to improvise a dance with him, but afterwards I told [the director] Tom [Kail] that he seemed a little shy and unprepared. [Laughs] … My character, Angelica, believes she must marry well [and Hamilton is an orphan with no legacy], so she sort of hands him off to her sister, Eliza. But clearly the two had a connection, and exchanged letters. As for the music, the cadence of rap is so quick you can fall behind the beat, so the trick is to fully understand the emotion before you start and then just trust the words.
Miranda’s next project is a film — a sequel to the “Mary Poppins” story, directed by Rob Marshall, in which he will play a new character – a street lamp-lighter named Jack. As he explained: “I think about making movie musicals all the time, and I want to learn from Rob — who made one of the great screen adaptations of a musical with ‘Chicago’.”