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News & Reviews
Every so often, a groundbreaking play or musical comes along, expanding the possibilities of theater and moving an ancient art form move to the forefront of the cultural conversation.
In 2015, that groundbreaker was “Hamilton,” still the musical everyone wants to see.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stunning take on the life and death of founding father Alexander Hamilton broke “rules” and made up new ones. It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It looked afresh at 18th century American history through a 21st century lens, its storytelling performed by artists of color, its language ranging from hip-hop to aching ballads to the comic relief of a king unable to quash a rebellion.
“Hamilton,” the show that quickly transformed fans into fanatics, arrives at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 18, where it will run through Jan. 20. The run is largely sold out – no surprise there – but the ticketless do have several options.
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They can enter a daily “Hamilton” digital lottery, in which 40 tickets per performance will be made available for $10 each (winners can purchase a pair). Or they can try the Broward Center or Ticketmaster sites, where verified resale tickets – not many per show – can be purchased from just over $100 per ticket up to more than $1,000 each. Or there’s always next season, when “Hamilton” will play Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, exact dates still to be announced.
Attempting to explain the cultural phenomenon that is “Hamilton” seems as daunting as trying to tell the richly dramatic story of the “ten-dollar Founding Father” in under three hours, which is precisely what composer-lyricist-book writer Miranda does. But here goes.
Miranda, who won a MacArthur “genius” grant the month after “Hamilton” transferred from its sold-out Public Theater run to Broadway, was on vacation from his first Broadway smash “In the Heights” in 2008 when he read Ron Chernow’s 818-page biography “Alexander Hamilton.” The story of an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean who emigrated to New York, served as George Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War and became a Founding Father of the United States before being killed in a duel with Vice-President Aaron Burr spoke to Miranda, but in an entirely fresh way.
At a White House event in 2009, Miranda was scheduled to perform a number from “In the Heights.” Instead, he delivered an early version of “Alexander Hamilton,” the first song on what he thought would be a hip-hop concept album titled “The Hamilton Mixtape.” [That album was recorded later, with famous singers covering numbers included in and cut from what became “Hamilton;” it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in 2016.]
Working with the key team that made his Tony Award-winning “In the Heights” such a success – director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and orchestrator/musical director Alex Lacamoire, a Miamian and graduate of the New World School of the Arts – Miranda crafted an innovative, historically grounded musical in which actors of color would play the white Founding Fathers.
Hip-hop, with its intricate rhymes, is one of the show’s languages, but not the only one. Ballads, show tunes, recurring comic solos by King George III are part of the musical fabric. There are references to hip-hop legends and Broadway ones, including a fleeting early nod to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific.” You can read all about the show’s evolution and peruse its annotated lyrics in 2016’s “Hamilton the Revolution” by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.
In so many ways, “Hamilton” is a record breaker. Its 2015 cast CD debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 chart, the highest cast album debut since 1963, and it also rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap chart, the first cast CD to hit that mark. The Broadway version of the show grosses $3 million, plus or minus, every week. As of the beginning of December, it had earned nearly $150 million on Broadway alone for 2018.
And there are productions of “Hamilton” playing now in San Francisco, Chicago and London, as well as two touring companies (the “Philip” company, named for Hamilton’s oldest son who died at 19 in a duel, is the one coming to Fort Lauderdale). From Jan. 8-27, Miranda will return to playing the title role in a new production at the University of Puerto Rico’s Teatro UPR, raising money for hurricane relief and the arts community on the island where Miranda’s parents were born; after that run ends, the production will become a third touring company, with another actor replacing Miranda as Hamilton.
So, you may still wonder, what makes “Hamilton” must-see theater?
“Lin turned Hamilton and this history from black-and-white into color,” says actor Joseph Morales, who will play the title role at the Broward Center. “It’s musical theater told in a contemporary way; you see these people as human beings with huge flaws. It has made theater cool again. It’s amazing to see kids who know every word of the show. It’s not just a show. It’s pop culture.”
Morales, whose middle name happens to be Alexander, is of Mexican, German, Irish and Japanese heritage. He’s well aware that he’s playing the title role in a blockbuster, but he and his cast mates try not to view “Hamilton” that way.
“We’re trying to tell a story. Within our cast and within the show, it feels so small,” he says. “But the show is a monster to perform, and traveling is another beast.”
Nik Walker plays Burr to Morales’ Hamilton. He says the glowingly reviewed actors have become as close as brothers on tour – Morales’ nickname for Walker is “Pumpkin” because “he tries so hard to pretend he’s this hard guy, but he’s soft inside,” Morales says with a laugh – though the two bring an intensity to their work onstage.
Walker, a New York University grad who got classical Shakespearean training in school, plays Burr in a somewhat different way from Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role in New York. The creative team encouraged every actor in the different “Hamilton” productions to make the roles their own, and Walker, a keenly analytical actor, has done just that.
“Fans have said that the way I approach Burr can come off as much more sinister,” Walker says. “Burr is trying to prove that if you walked in his shoes, you would have done the exact same thing…I play to the audience: ‘Let me lay down the evidence of why this guy had to die.’ The audience gets more of a sense of foreboding the more Hamilton and Burr try to see eye-to-eye. They were both incredibly self-righteous.”
Hip-hop was, at first, a stumbling block for Walker, who grew up in Boston listening to bands like the Rolling Stones. He auditioned multiple times for “Hamilton,” then a friend gave him a way in by saying, “You know it’s just heightened verse, right?” Though musical director Lacamoire sometimes gave him the note to “rap a bit more,” he’s comfortable with the whole range of the show’s music.
Walker calls the “Hamilton” creators geniuses who fused history with their own stories and personalities – Miranda, for example, is like Hamilton in pushing himself hard to produce and be creative, to get his work out before mortality comes calling. The week “Hamilton” opens in Fort Lauderdale, Miranda’s turn as a lamplighter named Jack in Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” will hit movie theaters nationwide.
“They made something so personal that it became universal,” Walker says. “It’s so intricate and detailed. But they give everyone an ‘in’ to this piece. The fans of this show claim it. This is the story of the country we live in.”
Musical director Lacamoire isn’t the only Miamian – nor the only New World grad – involved in “Hamilton.” Actor Fergie L. Philippe, who graduated from New World’s high school program in 2013, is coming home in the dual roles of Irish-American tailor and revolutionary spy Hercules Mulligan, and future president James Madison.
Of Haitian descent, Philippe is the son of pediatrician Dr. Sargine Dupuy and the late Fernand Philippe-Auguste, who was also a doctor. He took classes at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City (a place shown in the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight”), then opted for New World, where he says teachers including Elena Maria Garcia, Patrice Bailey, Gail Garrisan, LaVonne Canfield and James Randolph took his raw energy and gave him a skill set. The actor went on to graduate from North Carolina’s Elon University in 2017.
Like Walker, Philippe came to hip-hop late, having grown up listening to punk rock. When he saw “Hamilton” and became determined to be cast in the show, he got serious about his preparation.
“It’s weird to be a black man trying to portray the culture of hip-hop authentically,” he says.
Of his cast, he adds, “We’re one of the first companies who were fans of the show. There’s a lot of appreciation and gratitude for being in it.”
Philippe, like Morales, Walker and their fellow cast members, is disciplined about taking care of himself on tour. He sees a doctor when necessary, is careful about going out, works out, eats well, keeps his space clean and makes sure schedule for interviews and master classes is current.
One of his happiest experiences is seeing young fans who wait at the stage door to greet the actors after a performance.
“It’s incredible when you go to the stage door. These kids are often people of color. It’s profound to see someone understanding the limitless possibilities of where our country can go,” he says.
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