Move over Alexander Hamilton, “Shamilton” is looking to take another prominent historic figure (anyone really) and see if he or she can sing their way to musical glory.
‘SHAMILTON’ When: Runs Fridays Jan. 27-Mar. 31 Where: Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln Tickets, $15-$20 Info: Apollochicago.com
The brainchild of musical improvisation darlings Baby Wants Candy, the show features a cast of 16 as well as a live band all of whom will create a 75-minute musical every Friday night at 10:30 p.m. based on an historic figure suggested by the audience.
Director Peter Gwinn, who wrote for “The Colbert Report” and created The Second City’s “Christmas Carol” parody “Twist Your Dickens,” says despite the show’s title, they aren’t just taking aim at “Hamilton.”
“Don’t get me wrong, ‘Hamilton’ is an important show, but at the end of the day it is still full of show tunes and it is a Broadway musical,” he says. “We’re not here to make fun of ‘Hamilton.’ We’re really focusing a spotlight on any self-important historical musical.”
Gwinn says he was attracted to the project for two reasons.
“Musical improvisation usually has just one guy at the piano, but we have a full band and they have been coming up with some great stuff that makes me very excited about the show,” he says. “Then there is the fact that a diverse cast is combining different musical styles like they do in ‘Hamilton’ and it’s finding a new spin on the improv musical genre.”
“I’m a huge fan of ‘Hamilton’ and we’re trying to be smart and fast just like that show,” says “Shamilton” cast member Erica Elam.
Elam says it is no small feat.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda spent years writhing his masterpiece, we have three seconds between getting a suggestion and lights up on the opening number.”
From there, the show has to contain all the elements of an improvisational musical: original characters, dialogue, lyrics, music and choreography.
“Hamilton may have been writing like he was running out of time and we’re improvising like we we’re running out of time,” Elam says.
Elam says the show is exciting for her because it puts the actors outside of their normal comfort zone. “There isn’t really any downtime in the show. The way we have all spent learning to [end] an improv scene while we’re in it is completely useless. There isn’t a sweep edit [from an offstage actor] to end a scene like in regular improv. This is ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ stuff and every one of us from actor to musician is being challenged,” she says. “It’s all so very exhilarating.”
While the cast doesn’t have much time to plan ahead, let alone research the evening’s protagonist, direct Peter Gwinn says they do try to gleam some information on their subject before the show starts.
“At the top of the show, we do talk about the person a bit as chances are the audience is not going to know any more about the person than we do, he says. “After that, one of the keys of the show is relieve ourselves of the burden of accuracy.”
Some history buffs may take issue, but Gwinn says no one is fact-checking “Hamilton,” either.
“Hamilton” is just another in a long line of historic musicals which includes “Assassins,” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Evita.” All of these shows have one thing in common: All are not 100-percent accurate simply because they are musicals. There isn’t any historic evidence to support Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson or Evita Peron would belt out a song at critical moments in their lives.
“We are creating a musical on the spot about an historic figure,” Gwinn says. “If someone sings a line that Thomas Edison created macaroni and cheese, for that duration of the evening, Thomas Edison is the creator of macaroni and cheese.”
“Because it is musical improvisation, I think the audience is a bit more forgiving,” Elam adds. “I’ve performed in a number of Baby Wants Candy productions and thankfully the audience recognizes how difficult it is to do what we are doing.”
Elam says the biggest challenge isn’t to get everything right, it’s to do justice to a person’s story.
“We have to decide very quickly which portions of a person’s life we are going to tell,” she says. “We have a little over an hour to tell the story and you have to make every minute count.”
Misha Davenport is a local freelance writer and editor of BroadwayWorld Chicago.