‘Hamilton’ runs through March 10 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts
There were blockbuster, game-changing Broadway hits before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton: An American Musical.” But there has been nothing quite like the phenomenon Miranda created with his multicultural, hip-hop-influenced musical about one of the most important founding fathers of the United States.
Before Miranda, most people knew Alexander Hamilton as the face on the $10 bill, or as the first Secretary of the Treasury, shot to death in a duel with a rival, Aaron Burr.
Because of “Hamilton,” they now know of his prodigious writings, his marriage to Eliza Schuyler, and his flirtation with her sister, Angelica. They know the name (Peggy) of the other sister, too; of his son, Philip, and of the way he maneuvered his way from an immigrant orphan who escaped the hurricane-ravaged West Indies to become George Washington’s assistant during the Revolutionary War.
One of two touring productions begins a monthlong run at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts Center in Tampa on Tuesday. Chances are good that many of the thousands who will see the show are already familiar with the score from the CD that was the highest-selling Broadway cast album of 2015 and became the first cast album to hit No. 1 on the rap albums chart.
All of the acclaim and attention came because Miranda, who had won Tonys for his first musical, “In the Heights,” picked up Ron Chernow’s dense biography of Hamilton during a vacation. Where others saw history, Miranda found inspiration for a different kind of musical, one that would incorporate a variety of musical styles, with odes to Broadway’s past and contemporary sounds through rap, hip-hop and pop.
Originally conceived as a concept album, Miranda offered a sample of what he was working on in 2009 during a “White House Poetry Jam.” He received enthusiastic support from president Barack Obama and the audience after a performance of the opening night/title song.
The album idea was set aside in favor of a musical that opened at New York’s Public Theatre in January 2015, where it quickly sold out and was extended through May. It was developed over several years with Miranda’s frequent collaborators — director Thomas Kail, orchestrator and co-arranger Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. The frenzy was such that commercial producers and the Public Theater brought it to Broadway by July, where it has been a sold-out hit ever since, going far beyond any show in memory in reaching audiences who had never before seen a Broadway show.
The show carries the highest top ticket price of any show on Broadway — $849 — and producers carefully schedule sales of new blocks of tickets to keep demand and prices high. They also offer $10 tickets in digital lotteries for each performance in every city.
“I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote when “Hamilton” opened on Broadway. “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 thrive and transmogrify in years to come.”
The musical made Miranda a household name and brought greater familiarity to three of the production’s Tony-winning actors — Leslie Odom Jr., the original Burr; Renee Elise Goldsberry, who first played the role of Angelica, and Daveed Diggs, the original Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
But unlike some other major musicals, “Hamilton” has become the attraction, not the actors starring in it. Audiences may not instantly recognize the names of the Philip Company cast that will be performing in Tampa. It stars Joseph Morales as Hamilton, Shoba Narayan as his wife, Eliza; Ta’Rea Campbell as Angelica; Marcus Choi as George Washington; Elijah Malcomb as both John Laurens and Hamilton’s son, Philip; and Kyle Scatliffe as Lafayette and Jefferson. (Pierre Jean Gonzalez, who starred in Asolo Rep’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” is the standby for Hamilton.) John Patrick Walker is featured as King George.
Audiences are responding to a cultural juggernaut, one that follows a series of ground-breaking and transformative musicals that have changed our appreciation of musical theater and our expectations.
That began in 1927 with “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II musical that was the first to mix the usual frivolity of Broadway stage shows with more serious subject matter, like racism and misogyny. Another barrier was broken in 1943 when Hammerstein first paired with composer Richard Rodgers on “Oklahoma!” a game-changing musical that was the first to more seamlessly combine story, music and dance in a way that audiences hadn’t experienced before.
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim put racism and gang warfare at the heart of their “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired musical “West Side Story” in 1957, which became more of a sensation when it was turned into a hit movie in 1961.
A decade later came “Hair,” the Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rado tribal love musical that brought rock music, and counter-culture and a touch of controversial nudity to Broadway.
In 1975 came “A Chorus Line,” which altered the way Broadway musicals are created. The show, about a group of dancers auditioning for ensemble roles in a forthcoming musical, was built from interviews with real dancers talking about their experiences with director and choreographer Michael Bennett. Some of them played themselves or friends when the show opened at The Public Theatre and then became a long-running hit on Broadway.
In 1996, Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” inspired by the Puccini opera “La boheme,” brought an honest portrayal of young artists struggling to survive in financial realities and the AIDS epidemic to the New York Theater Workshop. It gained added attention because Larson died on the night of the final off-Broadway preview, never to see what a sensation he created. It was broadcast on television last week and a 20th anniversary tour continues traveling around the country.
You could include others, such as Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” which did away with glitz in dealing with serious subject matter in 1966; Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 musical “Company,” considered Broadway’s first concept musical about the subject of romance and marriage; and “Cats,” the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that ushered in two decades of British-born musicals, including the still-running “The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
And then came ‘Hamilton,” which earned a record-setting 16 nominations for the 2016 Tony Awards, winning 11 (one shy of the record set by “The Producers”), including awards for Miranda’s book and score, Kail’s direction, Blankenbuehler’s choreography and Lacamoire’s orchestrations. The four also received a special Kennedy Center Honors recognition in December, the first time a show (rather than an individual) was so acknowledged.
Last month, Miranda returned to the title role for a three-week run of a special engagement in Puerto Rico, where his family is from, to bring attention to the island and raise funds in the wake of devastation from Hurricane Maria.
Now, Tampa audiences get to experience what all the hype is about.