It’s been three years since West Coast Entertainment announced plans to bring “Hamilton,” the award-winning mega-hit Broadway musical, to Spokane as part of its 2020-21 Best of Broadway season.
With live theater shut down for 18 months and touring shows put on hold during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Spokane run of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s inspired and inspiring retelling of the American founding story was pushed back a year.
Now, we are days away from being in the room where it happens.
“Hamilton,” which debuted on Broadway in 2015, tells the story of America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore” who immigrated to New York from Nevis, a tiny island in the British West Indies. Blending hip-hop, rap, R&B and more standard Broadway musical styles, “Hamilton” is about the founding of America and its fight for independence told through a multicutural lens.
“Hamilton” dives into the politics of the day as the characters argue about how to make a government by the people and for the people. It’s a celebration of America’s immigrant tradition and a big wet kiss to New York City. It’s also a love story between a flawed man and his patient wife, as well as a look at the ultimate “frenemies,” Hamilton and the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr.
We all know how that ended.
The characters include Hamilton, his wife, Eliza, and sister-in-law Angelica. He drinks and plots revolution with his comrades in arms – the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, Hercules Mulligan – and battles it out with his political rivals James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. His commander in chief and president, George Washington, offers sage advice. Burr steeps in his jealousy, while King George III of England watches these developments from afar with dread and amusement.
For the tour coming through Spokane starting Tuesday, the king is played by Rick Negron, a veteran Broadway dancer and actor. Playing King George III may look easy – he saunters onstage, sings a song, then saunters off – but it’s not. First, there’s the restrictive costume, what Negron calls a “ridiculous amount of clothes”: his crown weighs 4 pounds, the cape 20. The first song, “You’ll Be Back,” is tricky, he said, “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not easy.”
It covers a lot of range, and despite its jaunty feel, it is menacing, containing one of the show’s most memorable lines, “Cause when push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family / To remind you of my love.” It takes just the right tone to balance the threat of those lines with the ironic humor they were written to convey.
“I end up walking a very fine line between a terrifying tyrant and a man on the verge of madness. … That’s my sweet spot, walking that knife’s edge between a completely brilliant tyrant who knows exactly what he’s doing to get what he wants and someone who is losing it and maniacal. “
Negron is reminded of something the show’s director, Thomas Kail, told him about the king: “He’s a guy who can move a finger and kill an entire population. He doesn’t need to do much. Less is more with him. He’s not broad. He was raised to be a royal, he was raised to be a king. He doesn’t need throw big tantrums and doesn’t need to do much to get things done.
“That’s a wonderful guiding light for me. The tendency is to fall into buffoon, cartoonish and make him broad. That’s the trap, and I fight it all the time. … But it’s fun, oh God, it’s fun.”
Negron’s journey with “Hamilton” began in 2019 where his own life journey began: in Puerto Rico. He portrayed King George III, alongside Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton, in the show’s run in San Juan in the same theater where in 2010 Negron performed in Miranda’s “In the Heights.” That same theater, incidentally, is four blocks from where he was born – and eight blocks from where he was raised, in an apartment built by his grandfather.
“It was an amazing, amazing experience to go back home with this show,” said Negron from Portland, where “Hamilton” is finishing up a run before heading to Spokane.
Negron’s life took him from Puerto Rico to New York, where he was dancing and singing in Broadway shows in the 1980s and 1990s. He admits that because he’s Puerto Rican, he often found himself cast in productions of “West Side Story” and “Man of La Mancha,” which, by the way, first brought him to Spokane, in the 1990s, on a tour featuring Robert Goulet.
It was when he was cast to play a member of the Jets – the white street gang – as opposed to the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, in a tour of “West Side Story” that he realized things might be changing. The intentional multicultural casting of “Hamilton” feels like the culmination of a long evolution in theater. He is the first Latino to play King George.
“I’m so proud. I’m so honored. I’m so happy that I know someone like Lin-Manuel and Tommy Kail, who have created a piece of theater that is not only groundbreaking and will change the shape of musical theater for decades to come, but it also breaks that mold of ‘anybody can play these roles – anybody.’ Someday, somebody will do a gender switch and have females play the founding fathers. Why not?” Negron said. “I love the fact that there is no set rule. Anybody can play these roles.”
“Hamilton” has been a sensation since before it even opened on Broadway. Miranda previewed the song that would be its title track at the White House for President Barack Obama. The off-Broadway run at the Public Theater sold out. It’s been the subject of articles and documentaries, and a filmed version with the original cast can be seen on Disney+.
The Broadway cast recording is the bestselling show album of all time and has been on the Billboard album chart for 343 weeks. So, what makes people who have seen it, heard it, watched it, want to keep coming back to the theater? As Negron sees it, “Hamilton” has something to offer on repeat viewings.
“The show is so brilliantly crafted, not only from a musical point-of-view, but the way the story is told, the choreography, the staging, the lighting. There are so many things going on onstage. Every time you see the show, you catch something new. The words are coming at you so fast and furious, the first time you see the show, you maybe catch three-quarters of them,” he said.
“And every time you see the show, you catch something new that you didn’t hear before, a melody, some clever lyric makes more sense to you now after the third time. The show is a three-ring circus. It’s so chock full of information and beautiful movement that you can see the show a dozen times and still catch new things.”
For those who haven’t seen or heard it, Negron has some advice: Acquaint yourself with “Hamilton” beforehand – listen to the cast recording, or check out the filmed version on Disney+. This is not the show to go into blind.
“I always tell people, especially those who don’t know the show, never seen the show or are on the fence about seeing the show, I always tell people, first things first, this thing is incredibly entertaining. You don’t need to love hip-hop, you don’t need to love history, you don’t need to love musical theater to enjoy this incredible piece of theater,” he said.
“If you do decide to come see the show, listen to the music, get acquainted. Some people say, ‘Oh, I want to be surprised.’ That would be great for any other show. … I say be acquainted with the music or be acquainted with the story, so you don’t lose the story line because you might have missed some words that come at you so quickly.”
And once you’re there, chances are good you’re in for an entertaining night that also is thought-provoking. There’s something aspirational about “Hamilton.” Created during the tenure of America’s first Black president, it seemed to reflect a hopeful outlook, that America, despite its history of racism and division, can somehow embrace and celebrate the multitudes it contains.
During the ensuing Trump years, which started with a ban on immigration from mostly African countries and ended with a summer of protest over racial injustice and police brutality, followed by an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, “Hamilton” served as a haven for people. And the show’s universal themes still resonate.
“What’s wonderful about this show is that is deals with such universal themes, like legacy, like revolution, like standing up to tyranny” Negron said. “Right now, during this Ukrainian (war) against a tyrant Russia, ‘Hamilton’ speaks to us. During the pandemic, during the (summer of) racial justice, ‘Hamilton’ was speaking to people on a different level. During the Trump years, ‘Hamilton’ was speaking to people. I think it just touches on so many incredible topics, and I think it will never go out of style. It will never be irrelevant because it is so relevant to so many things that keep happening in our society.”
He remembers during the show’s Puerto Rico run having the opportunity to speak with former President Bill Clinton. “We were talking and he said, ‘One of the beauties of the show is that it’s teaching a whole younger generation the very important lesson of civics. Imagine, 10-year-olds know what the Federalist Papers are now. More people will read the Federalist Papers now than ever before,’ ” Negron said. “There’s a new generation that’s going to be really involved, and I think this show played a part in that.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.