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‘Hamilton’ leaving behind an unparalleled legacy in Chicago’s theater scene

With a month left until the final curtain comes down on the three-year run of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical, we take a look at the musical phenomenon.

Come January 5, 2020, more than 2.6 million people will have been in the room where it happened.

That’s the closing date for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton,” which will end its three-year Chicago run at what’s now the CIBC Theatre on West Monroe Street. And that’s the number of theatergoers — more than the original Broadway production has drawn to date — who will have taken in any of the 1,341 performances of the show’s 171-week run.

Impressive numbers indeed, but by no means surprising. “Hamilton” was already a cultural phenomenon when it arrived downtown.

Long before the curtain went up on opening night back on Oct. 19, 2016, at what was then the Private Bank Theatre, the tornado of anticipation for the production that descended on Chicago was unprecedented in the history of theater here. Chicago had been awarded the crown jewel of regional productions — the first “Hamilton” outside of New York — via Broadway in Chicago, the show’s local producing arm.

Fans camped out for 24 hours to be among the first at the “Hamilton” box office windows in late June of 2016 when the initial block of tickets (priced $65-$180 at the time) went on sale. The line snaked west on Monroe, north on Dearborn, east on Madison and south on State, circling the downtown area for four city blocks. Re-sellers such as StubHub.com were soon listing prices as much as $8,000 for a single ticket to the hottest show in town. And there were takers.

“Hamilton” fans waited for hours in a line that stretched for four blocks from the then PrivateBank Theatre on West Monroe Street to be among the first to purchase tickets to the musical in 2016.
“Hamilton” fans waited for hours in a line that stretched for four blocks from the then PrivateBank Theatre on West Monroe Street to be among the first to purchase tickets to the musical in 2016.
Talia Beechick/Sun-Times

“Maybe it’s the heterogeneity of Chicago. The strength of the population base, or Chicago’s incredible power to pull people in from a distance. And the citizens of Chicago, the suburbs and throughout Illinois who have a powerful, wonderful, insatiable desire to experience theater,” said “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller, when asked about the show’s enormous success in Chicago, noting the local production recouped its costs “very quickly.”

The show’s box office gross will not be made available by Broadway in Chicago, which declined requests to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, the company’s president, Lou Raizin, said, in part: “The economic, social and cultural impact ‘Hamilton’ has on Chicago has been tremendous. Not only has our city embraced ‘Hamilton,’ but ‘Hamilton’ has brought year-round tourism for Chicago, filling restaurants, hotels, transportation as well as attendance to many other theaters and attractions. ‘Hamilton’ came to Chicago at an important time, it was pivotal in the city’s drive to increase tourism and as an integral part of the Year of Chicago Theatre.”

While Broadway’s production was propelled by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role, Chicago’s “Hamilton” would find its heart and soul in actor Miguel Cervantes.

“Lightning struck twice — once with Lin-Manuel, then Miguel,” Seller said. “The artists who can play Hamilton, and many of the roles in the show, start with a skill and talent for rap music. … But [when casting the role of Hamilton] we have to find an artist who has rhythm and melody, and like every role in the show, an artist who connects with their fellow artists on stage, creates the drama that happens between the lines. An artist who is able to take us on that arc, that journey from Alexander Hamilton at a trading post desk to his death in a field in Weehawken, New Jersey.”

“I remember it and I don’t remember it,” a smiling Cervantes said during a separate interview, about the show’s opening night. “It was such a crazy time. [He and his family] had just moved to Chicago, and the buzz around this show was already huge. I remember the sound of the show and being on stage. It was a dream come true for me. A dream I never really knew I had. It’s hard to believe it’s been so long.”

As in New York, and per Miranda’s grand vision for the show, “Hamilton” had to be accessible to as many theatergoers as possible. Super-reduced-price, day-of-show ticket lotteries meant some lucky diehards could purchase premium seats for $10. More than 32,000 Chicago Public Schools students were able to attend the musical through the Hamilton Education Program, affectionately known as EduHam, wherein a special curriculum on Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers era was integrated into classrooms across the city.

Kaitlin Fine, the associate company manager of the Chicago production of “Hamilton,” announces the winners of a day-of-show live lottery for 30 reduced-price matinee tickets, outside The Private-Bank Theatre in 2016.
Kaitlin Fine, the associate company manager of the Chicago production of “Hamilton,” announces the winners of a day-of-show live lottery for 30 reduced-price matinee tickets, outside The Private-Bank Theatre in 2016.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Community outreach also was a big way the show could say “thank you” to the city that had embraced it so powerfully. The cast continually engaged in special appearances/events across the city, some of which included the singing of “Go Cubs Go” during a November 2016 curtain call in honor of the Cubs’ World Series victory; a voter registration drive outside the theater every year since 2017; a Gettysburg Address “rap” by Cervantes in honor of the Illinois Bicentennial in 2018.

“I don’t think I could have ever imagined or anticipated what this was going to be,” Cervantes said. “I consider myself part of a machine, part of an event. I happen to be the guy who says most of the words but I’m still only part of the greater piece of art that is happening [on that stage].”

“Hamilton” stars Akron Watson (left) and Miguel Cervantes walk out of the CIBC Theater stage door as the acclaimed musical prepares to wrap up presentations in Chicago. | Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times
“Hamilton” stars Akron Watson (left) and Miguel Cervantes high-five each other outside the stage door at the CIBC Theatre where the acclaimed musical prepares to wrap up its successful three-year run at the downtown theater.
Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

“People [will stop me on the street] and tell me ‘what you do is so amazing,’ ‘the show is so amazing,’ ‘my son, my daughter, my mom, they saw it and they were moved.’ That’s what they’re connecting to [with “Hamilton”] and it’s really gratifying to see how people have been moved by it and touched by it.”

For the uninitiated, “Hamilton” is a sung- and rapped-through musical with music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail and based on Ron Chernow’s best-selling 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton.” The musical chronicles Hamilton’s life from his birth on the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1755 to his eventual political and social ascent in America — ultimately becoming the first Secretary of the Treasury — during America’s hard-fought war of independence from British rule and the equally hard-fought drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The show is filled with his prominent contemporaries such as George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Aaron Burr, the one-time friend and colleague who would end Hamilton’s life in an infamous duel on a hilltop in New Jersey in 1804. It is also a love story between Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler, one of three daughters from a wealthy and prominent New York family, who would eventually marry Hamilton and give birth to eight children.

“Hamilton,” with its combination of hip-hop, traditional show tunes, soul and R&B, ultimately reinvented the Broadway musical. Perhaps even more profound, the show opened doors to leading roles that were often closed to actors of color.

“Hamilton” boasts what many consider the most diverse casting in the history of Broadway shows.
“Hamilton” boasts what many consider the most diverse casting in the history of Broadway shows.
©2016 Joan Marcus

“We’re not heroes,” Seller said of the intentional non-traditional casting. “We cast the show in a way that serves the material first and foremost. We were not trying to make a political statement, but it is also true that in honoring the organic seeds of the show, we were creating what is perhaps one of the most diverse casts we’ve seen on a stage. The show is reflecting the music of today and therefore the cast reflects who we are as a country today. … If it sounds like today, it must look like today. And that’s how we look. And what we did do beautifully is embrace how we look.”

There are six productions of “Hamilton” currently playing (Chicago, New York, San Francisco and London, with national touring productions based in Philadelphia and Omaha) and Seller, who tips his hat to “his colleagues and the show’s creators for their inspired casting,” pointed out “we have had Hamiltons who are African American and Latino, and Burrs and Washingtons who are Asian Americans. Our [driving principle] is that all of these characters must look like America.”

“It means that despite what our country is going through, a guy who looks like me can hold an audience’s attention for three hours and tell them a story about OUR SHARED history,” said Akron Watson, currently starring in the role of Aaron Burr in Chicago. “That feels so important to me right now. It represents a commitment to honesty and inclusion that I believe we must hold on to as Americans and as just human beings. I think that my role [as Burr] in particular exemplifies the hunger for survival, insertion and success that drives so many people to do things they never dreamed.”

Ari Afsar as Eliza Schuyler in the Chicago production of “Hamilton.”
Ari Afsar as Eliza Schuyler in the Chicago production of “Hamilton.”
©2016 Joan Marcus

A 2016 Sun-Times editorial also took note of the musical’s enormous impact on American pop culture, noting: “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?”

Hamilton: The Exhibition on Northerly Island, Friday afternoon, April 26, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
“Hamilton: The Exhibition” debuts on Northerly Island in April 26, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The musical took a further deep dive into Chicago’s cultural scene through the debut of “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” a 35,000-square-foot (temporary) “living museum” at Northerly Island that explored Hamilton’s life and times. The brainchild of the creative team behind the musical, the exhibition, housed in a cavernous black and gold hangar-like steel structure, featured 18 galleries filled with state-of-the-art lighting/sound design, multimedia projections, interactive contraptions, artifacts, drawings, paintings, and an audio tour that featured Miranda himself.

“We had our challenges [with the exhibition].” Seller said, “but we overcame them and delivered something that I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever made.”

As for the musical’s Chicago legacy, Cervantes hopes it is one of inspiration, for generations present and future.

“I hope what would be awesome is that people will see how amazing the Chicago audiences have been. … The message of ‘Hamilton’ not only in Chicago, but in the world at large should be, hey, there was some social change that came out of this, that young kids who saw the show through our EduHams and began to write their own stuff can say, ‘I saw that “Hamilton” show in Chicago and I created something cool’. As an artist, all you really want is to have someone say ‘what you did was inspiring to me.’ And we’ve been given the opportunity to do that for so many people.”

Will “Hamilton” return to Chicago?

“First I have to stir up enough desire and demand for it,” Seller said with a chuckle. “But yes, we will at some point, come back to Chicago.”

For ticket information to remaining performances, visit broadwayinchicago.com.

Actor Miguel Cervantes, photographed at CIBC Theatre stage door, will wrap up his three-year run in the titular role in “Hamilton” with the show’s final performance on January 5.
Actor Miguel Cervantes, photographed at CIBC Theatre stage door, will wrap up his three-year run in the titular role in “Hamilton” with the show’s final performance on January 5.
Santiago Covarrubias/For the Sun-Times

Actor’s ‘Hamilton’ journey one of great joy — and devastating sadness

The role of a lifetime took a parallel journey alongside the worst time in the lives of “Hamilton” Chicago star Miguel Cervantes and his family.

His youngest child, Adelaide, was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy when she was just 9 months old, at about the same time Miguel started rehearsals in New York for the show.

The family moved to Chicago in 2016 where he and his wife Kelly bravely and lovingly shared their personal heartache via social media — most notably via Kelly’s Inchstones blog and on Instagram — becoming devoted advocates for epilepsy research and the pursuit of a cure. Adelaide lost her battle with epilepsy just five days before what would have been her fourth birthday in October. “She went peacefully in my arms, surrounded by love,” Kelly Cervantes tweeted on Oct. 13.

Adelaide and Miguel Cervantes, from the YouTube video for “‘Til the Calm Comes.”
Adelaide and Miguel Cervantes, from the YouTube video for “‘Til the Calm Comes.”
YouTube

“No child or family should have to go through this, but they do, and we are,” Kelly Cervantes wrote on her blog October 4. “That said, we feel so fortunate to be surrounded by such a compassionate community that has gone out of their way to let us know they are thinking of us as we journey down this hospice path.”

The couple, who are also parents to 7-year-old Jackson, have become outspoken and devoted advocates for epilepsy research, most notably through the Chicago-based CURE (Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy). The Cervantes plan to remain an integral part of the organization’s fight to find a cure for the disease.

“My ‘Hamilton’ experience has been completely intertwined with my daughter’s illness, and the time we took to grieve after she passed was a difficult one,” Cervantes said during our recent interview. “The decision to come back and start doing the show (he missed 10 performances) was not taken very lightly.”

“I thought about it for a long time, whether or not it was the right time, and how should I do this,” he continued. “And, what I didn’t expect [pauses] — there are a lot of parts in the show that are emotionally charged. [On that first night back] what I didn’t expect was at the beginning when I come out, and I said ‘Alexander Hamilton!’ — it was one of the biggest applauses I ever had.”

With his voice cracking slightly, Cervantes paused again, but continued his answer, with a smile. “That to me speaks to me about this community, and the people who have cared and supported us and shown their love and that was one of the coolest things ever. We have felt nothing but love and support from this community in Chicago. And so if anyone’s listening, thank you for that.”

A celebration of Adelaide’s life was held in Chicago on Oct. 20 at the Harold Washington Library.

In 2017, Miguel, along with music composer Ira Antelis, released “’Til The Calm Comes,” a song for his little girl and his family, as way to help raise money for epilepsy research. Proceeds from sales of the song, which also features members of the “Hamilton” Chicago cast, go to CURE. You can download the song via iTunes.