Past and Present: Hamilton, a musical of historic ambition, arrives in Chicago
By Robert Loerzel
Originally published in the August 2016 edition of Playbill.
The smash Broadway show Hamilton is a hot topic when students drop by the office of Northwestern University history professor, Caitlin Fitz. “They come in and say, ‘What do you think about this musical? I can’t stop listening to it,’” shares Fitz. Younger kids are also obsessed with the award-winning musical, which come to Chicago in late September. “Huuuuge fan. … I really love it,” gushes Cayleigh Kissinger, a 12-year-old who just finished sixth grade at Coonley Elementary School in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood. Recently, when someone just happened to mention a hurricane, Cayleigh instantly launched into ‘Hurricane,’ a song from the show about Alexander Hamilton surviving a tropical storm, as well as political and personal tempests.
Cayleigh’s father, WGN-TV news writer and producer Bill Kissinger, confirms that his daughter constantly raps lines from this hip- hop-flavored hit. “At times, it’s been a bit much, especially when you’re trying to drive or you’re trying to basic chores around the house,” he says with a laugh. “But it’s also very impressive to see her have such a passion for such a great show.”
Hamilton is a pop-culture phenomenon with a fervent fan base extending way beyond Broadway. Most of the Chicagoans who are excited about it haven’t even had a chance to see it yet. Until now, attending a stage performance has required a trip to New York City. And tickets have been notoriously expensive and difficult to obtain. But that hasn’t stopped fans in Chicago and other places around the country from listening to the popular original cast album over and over again — or avidly following every tweet posted by the show’s charismatic creator and original star, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“He tweets like us. It sounds like a real per- son and not a managed brand,” says Hamilton enthusiast Adrienne Ciskey, a 31-year-old artist and game designer who has immersed herself in the cast recording, marveling at the complexity of the story, the wit of the lyrics, and the power of the music. “The idea that it’s also onstage just blows my mind,” says Ciskey, who has a ticket for an October performance at PrivateBank Theatre in the Loop. She says her husband has warned her not to set her expectations too high. “He’s a little worried. He’s like, ‘What if you’re disappointed?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Javier Segovia, a 34-year-old administrative assistant who lives on the Northwest Side, says he was hooked on Hamilton from the second he heard the music. “The humor in the songs make them really compelling,” he relates. “It’s not just recounting the events. It’s telling it in a way that makes it seem like more than history.”
Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father, Miranda’s musical made its off-Broadway debut with a multiethnic cast at The Public Theater in February 2015 and moved to Broadway that August. As the show begins, Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr, raps the resonant opening verse: “How does a bas- tard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
Reviews were almost over-the-top in their enthusiastic praise. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their chil- dren to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” wrote critic Ben Brantley in The New York Times, “But Hamilton … might just about be worth it — at least to anyone who wants proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come.” Hamilton won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (a rare accomplishment for a musical) and a Grammy Award for best musical theater album. And to absolutely nobody’s surprise, it swept the Tony Awards in June, taking home 11 prizes, including best new musical.
The production opening in Chicago this fall is the first run of Hamilton outside New York. Presented by Broadway in Chicago, the show is expected to run here for at least two years, lead producer Jeffrey Seller told the Chicago Tribune. Anticipation has been building all year, with many followers fretting about how to get tickets. You could sense the Hamilton-mania mounting this summer, when Lincoln Park Zoo announced the name of a new baby camel: Alexander Camelton.
At Northwestern, Professor Fitz has been playing songs from Hamilton in her classes on early American history. “I use it sometimes to get students’ attention and to wake them up a little bit,” she says. The songs “bring history to life, and they show that these past people cared about their lives and their country as passionately as we care about ours.”
Fitz notes that some historians have quibbles about the play, including whether it downplays Hamilton’s elitist attitudes. But on the whole, academics are thrilled by the show’s artistry and its incredible popularity, she suggests. When Fitz listens to the album, she is amazed to hear the performers singing and speaking words drawn directly from historical documents she has studied. “It’s exciting to see events and people that we read about and write about cast in this electrifying light,” she says.
Ciskey feels Hamilton arrives at an opportune moment in the nation’s history, when so many Americans are dispirited by the state of politics. “Yeah, everything’s trash right now. Some people are so down on being an American,” she observes, alluding to the presidential election. But with Hamilton, she says, “You listen to these lyrics and you do kind of feel, I’m proud of this tradition, I’m proud to be part of a country that could have done this.”
Cayleigh, the grade-schooler, is too young to vote, but Hamilton has inspired her to learn more about American history and politics. “I know the election of 1800. I hear Hamilton’s opinions about what could make the country better, and I think about what could make the country better today. I think there are things this election could focus on, rather than building a wall.” The talkative tween adds, “I wouldn’t call myself shy, but I liked to keep my opinions to myself. Now that Hamilton has come along, I like to share my opinions and I like to be a part of discussions. That’s what Hamilton has done to me.”