When “Hamilton: The Exhibition” opens on April 27 at Chicago’s Northerly Island, it will usher in a new era in musical theater, if not theater of any genre.
Never before has a theatrical production spawned the massive, immersive, interactive “experience” that the exhibition promises to deliver.
On another level, it will also be something quite familiar, as “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice will be the voice you’ll hear on the audio guide that transports you through the world of Alexander Hamilton.
“It became an opportunity to actually take another at-bat at the information we couldn’t get into the show,” Miranda said, “and do a deeper dive into that era and into the world of Hamilton and the facts we drew on to create the show.”
Joining Miranda on the audio guide are the voices of Phillipa Soo (Eliza Schuyler) and Christopher Jackson (George Washington) from the original Broadway cast of “Hamilton.” The Spanish-language translations are narrated by Olga Merediz, who originated the role of Abuela Claudia in the Broadway production of Miranda’s “In The Heights.”
Miranda recently chatted with the Sun-Times about the exhibition project.
Q. How did this exhibition come into being?
A. It happened very organically. One domino bumped into another and the next thing you know you’ve taken over Northerly Island. [Laughs] One of the things we realized very early on in the early days of “Hamilton” was, one: Every person who walked out would tell five people about the show, and that’s pretty much all you can ever hope for after you spend seven years writing a piece of musical theater. And two: The second thing out of everyone’s mouth was, “How can you get kids to see this?” It would be a shame if kids weren’t prioritized.
So to that end we created the [Hamilton Education Program] EduHam curriculum, through which we’ll have 250,000 students seeing productions of “Hamilton” by the end of 2020.
And then the conversation became, well there are people who are not students who have a greater hunger for this era as a result of these songs not being able to exit their heads. [Laughs] And so we began talking about an exhibition, and one of the things I pushed back on is, I’m not a historian, I’m a musical theater writer. I changed all kinds of stuff to create the two-and-one-half hours that I have of your time to give you a piece of musical theater.
So then what it sort of became was [set designer] David Korins’ “Hamilton.” I never figured out how to make a rap battle about Hamilton’s manufacturing plan, but David Korins has very beautifully pulled it into this immersive experience. The election of 1800 is one that’s introduced so late in our show that I simplified the mechanics of it. And David Korins was able to get the essence of that in an immersive room in a way I never could have on stage. So it went from being, “Let’s create this deeper dive into history” — and it is that — but it’s also another swing at the stuff we could not get in to the show.
Q. You are a narrator of the audio tour along with several other cast members and historians. Why was it important for you to become part of this exhibition in this way?
A. Well, you dance with the one who brung you [Laughs]. I think that people will understand that seven years of hard work went into the 2.5 hours that are “Hamilton” the musical, and we went into that very clear-eyed about what was on the cutting-room floor. In the same way that the Hamildrops [bonus songs] allowed me to explore some of the musical things that didn’t get into the show, this is way for me to talk about things firsthand that didn’t get into the show but are fascinating and make people look at Hamilton in a different way.
Q. Is there a significant music element to the exhibition?
A. Oh yeah. It was a question of “What have we left unexplored in the world of ‘Hamilton’ music where we not only did a mix tape but 12 months of Hamildrops and collaborations?” [“Hamilton” orchestrator] Alex Lacamoire looked up and said, “Well, we haven’t done a symphonic ‘Hamilton’ so this is our chance.” So it’s the only chance you’ll get to hear the “Hamilton” score in a full orchestral sound. Alex created these beautiful soundscapes. If you’re in the Schuyler mansion you are hearing this beautiful Schuyler theme in an orchestral way. Again so much of the power of the musical is the right reprise at the right time. And these rooms it’s those reprises but in that room where that history was made.
Q. In doing the narrative, did you find out one or two things about Hamilton that you didn’t know?
A. One section where I was completely blindsided is the wall of quotes by people throughout history about Hamilton. It’s Jefferson on Hamilton. It’s Henry Cabot Lodge on Hamilton. It’s Ben Franklin on Hamilton. And I was really moved by that. And by the way, opinions vary widely: “He’s our greatest monster.” “He’s our greatest genius.” That’s how it’s been for Hamilton’s legacy. It swings wildly from one end to the other.
Q. This is not a museum, not an exhibit of Hamilton relics and memorabilia. It seems to be a living history lesson. Is that a fair assessment?
A. Yeah, I’m still wrestling with the language to describe it. A lot of people when they see [the musical] they’re like, “It went so fast!” And I feel this is getting some time to slow down and walk around the world of the show. If there’s a lyric that flew by, you can walk through this part of the room and really go in on what that was about.
If you left the show and felt like, “I want to go see it again,” or you left the show and felt like, “I learned a little bit about things I want to know more about,” the exhibition will [fill that bill]. The music of the show is playing in every room, and then there’s deeper dive into the people who inspired the characters in the show. I mean, one of the themes of our show is that there’s no true history. [Laughing] History’s highly subjective. … We kept [coming back to], “Let’s do what only we can do!” [Laughs] Which is not put out a thing of artifacts, but create a world that you don’t want to leave.
Q. What was it about Chicago that made you and team decide this was the place to debut this exhibition?
A. Chicago was the second stop with our show and Chicago has so embraced the show. I think we’re on our third year there, which is truly incredible. And so we wanted to inaugurate the exhibit there because we feel Chicago has been so supportive of this whole “Hamilton” endeavor. We figured let’s give something to Chicago that only Chicago will have.