Barack and Michelle Obama wave goodbye to their guests, smile at each other, put on their pajamas and yawn. The first lady heads toward bed. But first, the president of the United States pauses to pull out a recording from his collection. As the most powerful couple in the world fall asleep, they listen to the score of “Hamilton.” They may be co-leaders of the free world, but they’re also a cuddling pair of musical theater nerds. As the opening number of “Hamilton” plays, images of Lin-Manuel Miranda dance in their heads.
How does a whippersnapper student of rap
And a Latin trapped in the middle of a Manhattan flat
Win Broadway accolades while other writers kiss the corporate dollar
And grow up to be a hip-hop, op’ra scholar?
As any fan of Jon Stewart or John Oliver well knows, if you want the most honest analysis of the rise of a political or cultural leader — and, at the age of 36, Miranda is arguably the hottest cultural leader of our desolate, post-Brangelina American landscape — you always are well advised to consult the satirist.
No president and first lady ever have embraced a work of musical theater — perhaps any artwork, period — as enthusiastically as the Obamas have embraced “Hamilton,” so you could be forgiven for thinking this nocturnal White House scene is real. Away from prying eyes, it might well be. But this faux-presidential pastiche also makes up the opening of “Spamilton,” the latest edition of Gerard Alessandrini’s long-running “Forbidden Broadway” comedic franchise. “Spamilton” put out its parody-protected shingle here on the Upper West Side just prior to the beginning of Chicago performances of “Hamilton,” the real thing, coming in previews Tuesday at the aptly named PrivateBank Theatre, where it’s likely to break any and all box-office records. Every week for years.
With Chicago reaping the stunning and yet-to-be-quantified economic benefits of being first with the biggest — thanks mostly to the respect New Yorkers have for its theater scene and audience — and as well-connected insiders and influence-peddlers desperately inquire about the yet-to-be-released guest list for the gala Oct. 19 opening, the heartland rollout of “Hamilton” is almost here. This Chicago debut occurs just before the West Coast rollout and then the London rollout. Then, surely, follows the conquering of a world where every morning barista from Sydney to Saskatchewan already is dancing around their espresso machines as if they were one of the Schuyler sisters, pulling the levers while self-actualizing to “And I am not throwing away my shot.”
It is hard to overestimate the fuss in celebrity-starved Chicago over “Hamilton,” even at a moment when the Cubs have clinched their division. No show has ever arrived from New York with advance sales anything close to “Hamilton,” which already has sold out the first six months of shows, and is likely to sell out the next six months in a matter of days. When asked about his Chicago sales, producer Jeffrey Seller lets out a noise somewhere between a shocked exhale of breath and a Bronx cheer. And as critic Jeremy McCarter — co-author of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” the best-selling book about the genesis of the show at the Public Theater and beyond — dryly observes of “Hamilton” in Chicago and everywhere else: “Up until now, no one has been guilty of overestimating anything to do with this show.”
That is an understatement on the level of saying that many people in Chicago are interested in Miranda. And that they would like a ticket to his show without having to sell a kidney.
They certainly are interested in Miranda at “Spamilton,” where the rhythmic logic is always dodgy but the central how-on-god’s-green-earth-did-he-do-it question posed is succinct and apropos.
Although historically premature — the real impact of this show has yet to be seen — it’s already been asked in countless ways about Miranda and his hip hop-fueled musical based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton — founding father, original dad of this nation’s financial system, promoter and scribe of the Constitution of the United States, idealist, lover, family man — from the most prestigious publication to every two-bit website in America, including those that have never paid any attention whatsoever to the theater. And it already has been answered in multifarious, click-grabbing ways.
Here at “Spamilton” of course, these are not the real “Hamilton” lyrics on the fake president’s retro phonograph. They were not written by Miranda. And although the performers have the big hair of Daveed Diggs and the signature charm of Leslie Odom Jr., they’re not making anything like the kind of money enjoyed by the original Broadway cast, who now have small stakes in the royalty pool, just rewards, surely, for all that developmental work on the biggest musical, ever. But here in this tawdry, second-floor venue — the opposite pole of cultural status from the Richard Rodgers Theatre where “Hamilton” grosses more than $2 million per week on Broadway — the question is being answered in the silly lyrics as smartly as anywhere else.
More smartly, actually, than most journalists have managed.
This blue collar
Got a lot farther
By being a lot smarter
By stretching rhymes harder
By being a trend-starter.
Well, exactly. Look around at the knock-on effect.
All the ‘Hamilton’ echoes
“Forbidden Broadway” was pretty much dead before “Hamilton,” a victim, its creator said, of too many self-referential shows like “Shrek,” “Spamalot” and “The Book of Mormon” — satirical musicals that cheerfully parodied themselves and (here’s the rub) were content to appeal to just the slice of the public that seeks escapist entertainment.
These were the modern populist mainstays of Broadway before 2015, before the $10,000 Saturday night “Hamilton” specials, the truly eye-popping weekly grosses, the Tony Awards, Miranda’s famously healing, post-Orlando “Love is love is love is love” line at the first truly diverse, and thus Oscar-shaming, Tony Awards, ever. And with all due respect to the revival of “The Color Purple,” all that Twitter-friendly diversity, FYI, LOL, OMG, was pretty much due to “Hamilton.”
The old Broadway ruled before the Miranda victory lap at the Obama White House, where “Hamilton” was in some ways born, with the most powerful man in the world acting as a card-holding, sycophantic sidekick, his Miranda fandom written on his presidential visage for all to see.
But now, in this long “Hamilton” moment, the Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street has welcomed the president to its house. The first lady has bought out a performance, and, not so very long ago, Hillary Clinton showed up after doubtless figuring out (or having it pointed out) that it probably is impossible to get elected president right now without being seen to be a fan of “Hamilton.” Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, did not even wait for “Hamilton” to make it to Chicago; he showed up in New York, along with countless other political leaders.
Clinton got her own “Hamilton” fundraiser. Were he to join the bandwagon, Donald Trump, given the show’s famous line about immigrants “getting the job done” (Alexander Hamilton being an immigrant and all) would have to rely on one of the notorious scalpers with their ticket-scraping ‘bots that “Hamilton” has fought tooth and nail. If Trump could get in at all. It is hard to imagine.
Yes, on the eve of its Chicago opening, “Hamilton” is that big. At “Spamilton,” a fake Mormon missionary from “The Book of Mormon” pops sadly out from the wings.
“Hello,” he sings. “My name is last year’s hit.” He puffs up for the final choral stanzas: “The Book of No More Mormons goodbye!”
From “The Book of Mormon” to “The Lion King” to “Wicked,’ those “old” Broadway hits actually are doing just fine. Fine. But they are not “Hamilton.” No show ever was. No movie ever was until, well, it’s not hard to think of one possible exception.
Consider. What other Broadway show ever influenced the images on the currency of the United States of America? There is no question “Hamilton” kept Hamilton on the $10 bill.
In terms of the historical legacy, at least, Alexander Hamilton needs Miranda far more than Miranda needs Alexander Hamilton. Although he surely has been useful.
Back at “Spamilton,” they arrive at their central thesis: “Hamilton” is “Hamilton” because it’s just better than any other show, ever. It’s well-argued.
RELATED: MOST READ ENTERTAINMENT NEWS THIS HOUR
Broadway’s been less crappy
Since the happy day you came
And the world’s gonna know your name
What’s your game, man?
Rehearsing for Chicago
On this day of satirical pleasure on the Upper West Side, the Chicago company of “Hamilton” — which, given the number of swings and alternates in the company actually looks more like two Chicago companies — is rehearsing at the New 42nd Street Studios, which happens to be where the first Broadway cast also rehearsed, following the triumphant first production on “Hamilton” at the New York Public Theater in February 2015, and before its opening on Broadway the following August, after the creative team pleaded for, and got, more time to finish its work.
On this day of New York readying something for Chicago, Miranda’s not there. His game is on vacation, man. Which is where he says he gets all his best ideas. But everybody knows his name on 42nd Street, all right.
The genial director Thomas Kail is looking around very calmly, given that he is the show’s not-so-secret weapon, Miranda’s close collaborator since “In the Heights,” and the man who now has the pressure of putting to rest one of the few doubts that people around Broadway still dare to utter about “Hamilton.”
What is that doubt? “Hamilton” still has to prove that (as the MBAs like to say) it can be scaled without any loss of quality or any risk of the diminution of its brand. Chicago is the first test of that. The bar for the new actors, the likes of Joshua Henry, Karen Olivo, Chris De’Sean Lee and Miguel Cervantes, was set by Diggs, Odom, Phillipa Soo and, of course, Miranda himself. In the words of Stephen Sondheim — one of Miranda’s quiet but most significant creative advisers — the show has to be careful what it does in Chicago for people will be listening.
“Oh yes,” Kail says, twitching in his chair a little at the reality, “people will be watching what happens in Chicago all right.”
He really doesn’t look that worried. For a director, a restaging of a hit with a different company is easier, and thus far more pleasurable, than the agony of creating something of unknown appeal from scratch. Plus it allows Kail to dodge the inevitable questions about how he is becoming one of the richest and most successful directors in America — what do you say in answer to that?
“I am just going about my work,” he can say, and he is speaking the truth.
Writers and directors may wax rhapsodic about the creative births of their masterworks, but that’s because their love helps them forget, like proud mothers, the pain of giving birth. This new process for a second city is a whole lot more fun for everybody.
Except for the actors. For them, the main difference is feeling more pressure than the first cast — you know, the ones with all the Tony Awards.
“People are spending a lot of money,” says Cervantes, the actor with the most pressure of all, since he’s playing the title role, as originated by You Know Who. “We all are working hard to make sure the people of Chicago get the show they deserve. And I had better not mess up any of the words.”
As it happens, the self-effacing Cervantes was about to quit the business when “Hamilton” came calling. He’d gotten married, moved to New Jersey and set up a business teaching kids Little League baseball. He’d decided the theater life was too hard, despite some Broadway success. Then this happened. His is just another amazing “Hamilton” story. Not unlike that of Olivo, who won a Tony for her work in “West Side Story,” decided she wanted to move to Madison, Wis., partly as a way (she says) of “gaining more agency” over her own career, and then she finds this Chicago “Hamilton” happening pretty much in her backyard.
“I will be able to go home on my day off,” she says, smiling. Like a lot of people involved in the Chicago “Hamilton,” Olivo has known Miranda for a long time. It seems highly unlikely that the star will miss this opportunity to play opposite his friend. But that, no doubt, will be unannounced.
“When you drop the ‘H’ bomb,” Cervantes says of his new, post-“Hamilton” life, “the pitch of people’s voice changes. I guess it is a tool you can use if you want to. But really, the fanfare already has happened. The hoopla is done. For me this is a show. Laughing. Crying. Loving. A show that breaks my heart.”
In the rehearsal room where it happens, meanwhile, Kail is keeping his cool. Which is more than can be said of the turntable, crucial to the staging. In the rehearsal studio its movements are running hot and fast.
“If there is a one-through-10 where ‘one’ is asleep and ’10’ is a wreck, then I always try to stay at four, five, six,” Kail says. “Remember we were in this very room when the show was not finished. When Lin was talking about ‘One Last Ride’ and ‘One Last Time.’ Now I just have to keep going. I have a run-though tomorrow.”
One of the bywords of everyone involved in “Hamilton” is transparency — McCarter uses the phrase to describe the philosophy behind the book, as a reflector of the anachronistic spirit of the show. And the 46-year-old choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, whose life perhaps was changed more by “Hamilton” than anyone else involved, talks about it too.
“I am not a history person,” Blankenbuehler says in a side room when asked what he thought when he first heard about this “Hamilton” show. “I thought we would win our independence and the curtain would go down. I never thought that the battle over how the country then would be run would be as dynamic as the battle for our lives.”
As he talks, Blankenbuehler’s eyes are moist — not just because he’d told the story about how, merely weeks before “Hamilton” came his way he still was sending out envelopes with DVDs of his work, hoping that someone, somewhere would watch one of them. (One fell behind the desk of Seller; the producer only found it when he moved offices.) Blankenbuehler is emotional because he is relating the battles over the Constitution of the United States to his desperate desire to care for his own daughter, who was going through chemotherapy while her dad was working on the show.
This is what “Hamilton” has done for those doing it and watching it; it has made history personal.
No one predicted this
“A lot of people always have pushed theater to the side because they don’t believe it,” Blankenbuehler says. “We all love musicals, but we also now demand honesty. The show glamorizes struggle to such heights that when I see Alexander Hamilton fighting, I say to myself, that’s how much I love my kid. We all see ourselves in him a hundred times a day. None of us saw that coming.”
Not the producer, Seller. Sure, he’d done “Rent” (with Kevin McCollum), a show usually spoken of, along with “A Chorus Line,” when anyone tries to talk about other musicals that passed into the zeitgeist or that spawned such fans.
“For the first three years I worked on it, I just kept saying I think it is just a good show,” Seller said. “But I now have come to see its power as a beautiful reflection on the values of our country. It is saying something positive and potent about our history. About what is possible in America. And I think that message is resonant right now. In 2016. In this political environment where issues of immigration, capitalism, bipartisanship and political infighting are so, so hot.
Seller pauses for a minute.
“I am 51 years old,” he says. “We all felt tremendous patriotism after 9/11, but that was in sorrow. This might sound pretentious, but I really think this show revives the appreciation that we all have for our living in this great country that provides us with so many unique opportunities to flourish as human beings. And I think the show is a most beautiful reflection of that ever to be written for the musical theater. There has never before been a Broadway show that captured the spirit of a country.”
” ‘1776’ was just a really good Broadway show that some people went to see. Its impact on American culture was negligible. Most shows have a negligible impact on American culture. ‘Rent’ did have an impact on American culture. It affected the every day lives of people. ‘Rent’ saved young people from suicide. It helped young people come out of the closet. But the appeal of ‘Rent’ was for young people. People over 40 just didn’t understand why they didn’t just pay the rent. As people got older they enjoyed it less. But “Hamilton” has an appeal as powerful for the 70-year-old as for the 13-year-old and we have never seen that before. It is as powerful for the male as for the female, and lord knows, we have not seen that for a very long time in the theater.”
But that was all before Lin-Manuel as Hamilton, as they say in “Spamilton.” Over and over again.
A few days earlier in New York, the man himself sat down to talk about his new company — just before he disappeared for vacation.
“The Chicago cast is a similar mix of newbies and vets as our Broadway company,” he said. “But they’re not carbon copies. They will bring out new things in the material that we did not learn the first time around. You have a lot of theater in Chicago. You all should take the attitude of ‘yeah, “Hamilton,” show us what you’ve got.’ “
He talks of the fun of bringing the New York and Chicago casts together (“for me it was like your high school friends meeting your college friends”). He talks of sending his demos to Sondheim, who kept coming back with the same note: “Variety, variety, variety. If you are always writing to this very specific beat, our heads are going to nod. And you should not let us settle for a moment.” He talks about how his fellow librettist and friend John Weidman warned him about the tyranny of trying to squeeze in every moment of Hamilton’s line (“don’t even try”). Miranda had many Broadway mentors. He well knows “Hamilton” would have been impossible without them.
But he also had hip-hop and American history.
“When I got to the end of the second chapter of the (Chernow) book, I felt like hip-hop is the only genre that can tell this guy’s story because he just talks more than anyone else. He left behind over 26 written volumes of work. You need more words per measure than opera provides. ‘Hamilton’ doesn’t have time to hold on to a long note, we’ve got to move on to the next thing. And hip-hop is the language of rebellion. I’ve watched it transcend its roots in the South Bronx to become global pop culture. I’ve been to radio stations in Melbourne that are playing the newest Somalian hip-hop. It has taken over the world because of its energy.”
Where is he at when it comes to being Lin-Manuel of “Hamilton”? Maybe now and forever?
“I’m very Zen.”
Everyone involved originally in “Hamilton” is, to a greater or lesser extent, beginning a process of letting go and allowing other artists to carry on their work. Kail says that “the show will one day need us to get out of the way.” Miranda says his enthusiasm has not diminished a jot for “Hamilton,” but he also is excited about starring in the movie version of “Mary Poppins,” perhaps followed by some movie musicals currently dancing in his head.
Some days later, back in Chicago, McCarter answers the question that Miranda himself is about the worst person in the world to answer — not how did it happen, for that we know was due largely to one man’s vision and creative genius — but what lies ahead for this astonishingly successful American artwork.
“Imagine a few years from now when the show gets licensed for high school productions and hundreds and hundreds of young artists are made to feel like they are part of the American story in a way they haven’t been made to feel before,” he said. “What effect will it have on the way that their generation thinks about America and their place in it?”
The Chicago production of “Hamilton” begins preview performances on Sept. 27 and opens officially on Oct. 19 (which is the performance the Chicago Tribune will review). At this juncture, the production is not a tour but a dedicated Chicago company expected to remain in the city for two years or more; the precise duration remains in question. Tickets to the first six months of the show’s run are sold out (with the exception of a small number of scattered tickets), but tickets for performances from March 21 to Sept. 17, 2017, go on sale to the public on Tuesday. Contact 800-775-2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com, or go in person to the box office at the PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Six more months of ‘Hamilton’ tickets go on sale
Chicago’s ‘Hamilton’ and other cast members announced
‘Hamilton’ ticket rush creates long waits; secondary market prices reach $10,000
‘Hamilton’: Hip-hop and Founding Fathers in dazzling Broadway musical
Jeremy McCarter’s best-seller more than stands beside ‘Hamilton’