Troy Nickerson, one of Spokane’s most accomplished theater directors, has something to confess.
He’s a musical theater guy who has never seen “Hamilton.” He’s not even heard more than a couple of songs from the Broadway musical’s megaselling original cast recording.
That will change this weekend, when Nickerson joins theater fans across the country in firing up their Disney+ accounts and watching a filmed production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical.
“I’m super thrilled that I get to see it, especially right now,” said Nickerson, who has directed dozens of shows in the Spokane region. “We’re going to have a social-distancing Fourth of July at my house, and we’re going to put up a little screen and project it in my backyard for a few friends. That’s the goal, anyway. If everything works out, that will be my first ‘Hamilton’ experience.”
Filmed live in 2016 with the original cast over two days at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York, “Hamilton” is Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War veteran, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury and George Washington’s right-hand man. The film originally was going to be released theatrically in October 2021, but Miranda and Disney decided now was the time.
“A show like ours has struggled to make itself accessible, because of the price of the tickets,” Miranda said in a June 26 story in the Washington Post. Now, he added, “I had the opportunity to put everybody in the same seat.”
Since its debut in 2015 at the Public Theater in New York, “Hamilton” has been hailed as thrilling and audacious. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda created a hip-hop musical that tells the story of the nation’s birth, featuring a multiethnic cast playing the United States’ white founders. It won everything – a Pulitzer Prize, eight Drama Desk Awards, 11 Tony Awards and seven Olivier Awards. The album won a Grammy and is already the best-selling cast recording in history, beating out “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
This filmed production will allow fans an opportunity to see the original Broadway cast, which included Miranda in the title role, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs in the dual role of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton and Renee Elise Goldberry as Angelica Schuyler. It also will be an economical way to check out the show. The average price for a ticket to “Hamilton” is about $300. To see it on TV will cost $6.99 for a month of Disney+.
“I love that they have released it early, they released it at this time, and that it’s so accessible to people,” theater marketing professional Leria Schuh said, “in a way that the Broadway show is not.”
Tracey Vaughan, until recently the executive director of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, said she often goes to shows with her husband and son, who aren’t theater people. Getting a chance to see “Hamilton” via streaming will allow her family to test the waters. “It’s not a replacement of the live production at all, but I want to gauge their reaction to see if they want to see the show live.”
With the novel coronavirus spreading rapidly, theaters across the country are dark. This week, the Broadway League announced that New York City’s theaters would remain closed through the end of the year. While “Hamilton” is scheduled to come to Spokane in April for a multiweek run, for now, seeing any theater on TV is about the only way to see it. And it is a different experience.
“There’s no way for us to have an expectation of a recorded live show to translate to the format of a screen, because so much of what happens is this live electricity between actors and the audience,” Vaughan said. “But I would be looking to see, did the production that was recorded capture the energy of that dynamic? Did it try to capture the energy of the performers, the energy of the existence between the performers and the audience?”
Schuh urges people to listen to the cast recording first, because “it moves so quickly, there’s so much going on, that it really helps to have some of that knowledge,” she said. “I also suggest they be prepared to not have distractions, that they sit down and commit to it in the same way they would commit to seeing it in the theater. Put the phone away, close the blinds, because it does move so fast, and there’s not any lulls. To follow what’s happening, you’re going to have to focus.”
She saw “Hamilton” in Seattle and was blown away by it. “It’s an incredible thing to watch. And the history lesson that’s taught through, that can’t go unnoticed, either.”
That history is of particular interest to Bill Youngs, a professor of early American history at Eastern Washington University. He first heard about “Hamilton” from his 8-year-old granddaughter, “who memorized virtually all of the lyrics,” he said, and saw the show in Chicago a year ago. He is impressed with how well it tells Hamilton’s story.
“I think it’s amazingly true to life,” Youngs said. “I like, both in my writing and in my teaching, to be able to tell stories in a way that is approachable and accessible … so I was delighted to see this story. It’s just amazing.”
He teaches “Hamilton” as part of a class called Film in History, where he and his students study film by their historical content and decide where it’s OK to take liberties and where it’s not. Miranda does a good job, Youngs said, of incorporating Hamilton’s background, including that he was born in the Caribbean, his father left his family and his mother dies.
Youngs points to what is known as the “Hurricane Letter,” which a young Hamilton wrote in 1772 describing devastation that fell on St. Croix. Its publication in the Royal Danish American Gazette helped inspire the islanders to pool their resources and send him to America for an education. That story is referenced in the first song in the show, “Alexander Hamilton”: “Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned / Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain / Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain / And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.”
“To include a detail like that is remarkable,” Youngs said, who admitted he learned something from watching “Hamilton” – the fate of his eldest child, Philip.
“Not only do I like it for things that I know, but for new things (Miranda) introduced,” Youngs said.
Fellow EWU history professor Michael Conlin hasn’t seen “Hamilton” yet.
“We were hoping to take our family to watch it properly on Broadway, but we haven’t quite made it there yet,” he said.
As a historian, he said, he personally finds Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin more interesting, but acknowledges that Hamilton has a significant place in American history.
“He’s the most important founder that didn’t become a president,” Conlin said. “He played a really important role in the creation of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, he is generally regarded as the second-most influential person in the Constitutional Convention, behind James Madison, who is the so-called father of the Constitution.”
Not to mention Hamilton’s role in creating a central bank and advancing monetary policy, which hardly seem like riveting subject matter for a musical.
“I think it helps in this day and age that Hamilton was anti-slavery. … It wasn’t the issue he was most concerned about, but he certainly was, from our perspective today, on the right side of that issue,” Conlin said.
He finds it remarkable that the man whose largest contribution was putting America on strong financial footing and creating the predecessor to the Federal Reserve Bank “would be the founder about whom a rap musical would be made.”
History aside, for theater fans like Nickerson and his friends, seeing “Hamilton” on the screen is something to embrace.
“Right now, and with my friends, too, we’re so desperately missing theater, but so scared about what the future is,” he said.
“It’ll be a really lovely time to be involved in theater again together and share that thing we all like. Because right now it’s pretty bleak.”
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