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‘Hamilton’: The revolutionary, boundary-breaking, hip-hop hit musical opens in Playhouse Square

July 15, 2018

‘Hamilton’: The revolutionary, boundary-breaking, hip-hop hit musical opens in Playhouse Square

CLEVELAND, Ohio – For those who bemoan the death of civility in American politics, consider Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Presidential election of 1800.

Burr, then a member of the New York legislature, was vying for the young country’s highest office against Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton, who had been George Washington’s secretary of treasury, was not a fan.

Burr, Hamilton argued, was “without scruple,” an “unprincipled...voluptuary” who would fleece the country. Dang.

Hamilton didn’t much like Jefferson either, but sided with the man he considered the less toxic candidate.

Burr is “more cunning than wise . . . inferior in real ability to Jefferson,” Hamilton wrote.

Jefferson won the Presidency and, in a quirk of the presidential election process at the time, Burr became Vice President. But he never forgave Hamilton, the fellow revolutionaries about as compatible as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer.

The bitter adversaries worked out their grievances not with words but with dueling pistols on July 11, 1804 – 214 years and six days from this coming Tuesday, when “Hamilton” opens in Playhouse Square.

The eponymous, hip-hop history about the triumphs and trials of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton culminates in his fatal confrontation with Burr in a field in Weehawken.

Their rivalry is at the center of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, the biggest thing to happen in American theater since Booth shot Lincoln.

“For Ham and Burr, this show is just a monster,” says Nik Walker, who plays Burr in the U.S. tour headed to Cleveland.

“We never leave the stage.”

Finding actors to fill the tall black boots of the historic headliners takes some doing.

The creatives who built “Hamilton” got it right out of the gate. Miranda was the original Hamilton on Broadway; Leslie Odom Jr. won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the grudge-holding Burr.

Producer Jeffrey Seller (“Rent,” “In the Heights,” “Avenue Q”) has set a high bar for subsequent productions.

“With care, with diligence, with hard work, we can ensure that every company has the quality that New York had,” Seller says.

“Turning over every rock” when casting helps, he adds. So does “having a director who stays with the show and who cares. And doesn’t just delegate.”

That’s Thomas Kail, who also directed Miranda’s breakout 2008 hit “In the Heights” set in present day Washington Heights, New York. Like “Hamilton,” that five-time Tony winner is a showcase for black and Latino actors.

No matter where you see “Hamilton” promises Seller – in Chicago, in London or on the road, “it will thrill you.” (Currently, there are five productions of “Hamilton,” including two U.S. tours.)

“Tommy is a master at putting people together who make a beautiful, rich tapestry,” Seller continues. “That is one of his many gifts.”

That rich tapestry is part of the genius of “Hamilton.” These Founding Fathers don’t look like the ones in the portraits hanging in museums.

As Kail has said: “This is a story about America then, told by America now.”

Seller amplifies the well-known quote: ” ‘Hamilton’ is telling the story of America with what America looks like.”

That’s good news for Joseph Morales, who will play “A. Ham” in Cleveland, the shorthand you’re likely to see on merchandise sold in the lobby at intermission.

Morales has worked with Kail and company before, in the national tour of “In the Heights” as Usnavi, the owner of a corner bodega and sometime narrator of the show, a role Miranda originated on Broadway.

Landing that gig was big. “Hamilton” is bigger. Life changing, really.

For one thing, there are the bragging rights that come from being Hamilton in “Hamilton.”

For another, the unstoppable franchise offers other rewards: Walker was cast just in time to help pay for his wedding.

Finally, the piece is an astonishing work of art. (If you are inclined to disagree, please take it up with the committees that awarded “Hamilton” the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016 and 11 Tonys that same year, including Best Musical. I’ll be busy seeing “Hamilton” for a second time.)

“The show has been a master class for all of us,” says Morales. It asks everything of you and more. Only “the best of the best” can pull it off.

“Being around all these people has absolutely changed me,” he says, inside and out. “I’m constantly inspired every day.”

By curtain call, says Walker, “we’re all tired, we’re all hurting.” Epsom salt baths, rather than cocktails, are a common after-show indulgence.

What makes “Hamilton” such a challenge?

Famously, there are the density of the lyrics and the speed at which they are delivered. In 2015, the year “Hamilton” opened on Broadway, enterprising scribe Leah Libresco counted 20,520 words in the 2 hour and 23 minute cast album, which works out to about 144 words a minute.

“If ‘Hamilton’ were sung at the pace of the other Broadway shows I looked at, it would take four to six hours,” Libresco wrote for the politics website FiveThirtyEight. (She examined modern works such as “Spring Awakening” as well as chestnuts, including “Phantom of the Opera and “Pirates of Penzance.”)

The velocity of “Hamilton” requires the cast to have nimble tongues – and tendons – particularly Morales and Walker.

“Me and Jo Mo talk about it often,” says Walker, a Shakespeare major who considers Miranda’s libretto “heightened verse.”

“I think the cost of having a show that is so beautifully detailed is that it takes a lot to do it 8 shows a week. People get tired, people get sick, people get injured. That’s just what happens.

“With this show, your understudies are always on – always, always, always,” says Walker.

As the understudy for Burr on Broadway, he should know. Walker also went on as Washington, James Madison and the fabulously named Hercules Mulligan, a friend of Hamilton’s and a spy working to aid the American Revolution.

“When I was trailing Chris Jackson [Broadway’s original George Washington] one of the things that he said to me that I’ll never forget was, ‘if you don’t got it, don’t come into work,’ ” recalls Walker. “If you’re not prepared to give everything you got, stay home. The show actually needs you to give everything you have. Every time.

“You really have to rise to the occasion of what this is – it is a nonstop, three-hour endurance trial.”

“Jo Mo” is Walker’s oft used pet name for Morales. And Morales has been known to greet Walker as “pumpkin.” Antagonists onstage, the men could star in their own bromantic comedy.

Like any relationship worth talking about, the one between Hamilton and Burr is complicated.

“I think this show depends on their friendship at the beginning – that’s the emotional pay off at the end when they take separate paths,” says Morales. “But in the beginning, yeah, I think they’re totally friends.”

Hamilton is a man of heart-on-his-sleeve passions. Burr, more cool and calculating, prefers to work the shadows, to keep people guessing at his plans.

“Talk less. Smile more,” Burr advises Hamilton in the song “Aaron Burr, Sir.”

Their love-hate association echoes other, classic clashes of temperamental opposites – Jesus and Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Mozart and Salieri in “Amadeus.” Miranda likens their first fictionalized meeting in a tavern to the moment Harry Potter encounters Draco Malfoy. (For Shakespeare buffs, there’s also a touch of Iago in Mr. Burr.)

Like his jealous theatrical brothers, Burr shares his conflicted feelings for Hamilton with the audience. A son of privilege, he both admires and envies Hamilton, an immigrant without station or status, who rose to become George Washington’s right hand man during the American War of Independence.

The opening lines of “Hamilton” are Burr’s:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whoreand aScotsman, dropped in the middle of aforgottenspot in the Caribbean by providence,impoverished, in squalor,grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

“Hamilton” answers that question and then some, using the language of revolution.

“For all its variety of style and subject, rap is, at bottom, the music of ambition, the soundtrack of defiance, whether the force that must be defied is poverty, cops, racism, rival rappers or all of the above,” wrote Miranda and Jeremy McCarter in the indispensable “Hamilton: The Revolution.”

“I think ‘Hamilton’ is what we need right now,” says producer Seller. “Art that is the best reflection of our values, of our aspirations – of who we are and who we can be as a nation.

“We can disagree and we can debate. And we can have elections with winners and losers, but first and foremost, we have respect for our democracy. We have respect for our citizenry and we celebrate our diversity.”

Now that’s the most civil thing I’ve heard in a long time.

PREVIEW

Hamilton

What: The KeyBank Broadway Series presents the 11-time Tony winning musical. Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Directed by Thomas Kail.

When: Tuesday, July 17 – Sunday, August 26.

Where: KeyBank State Theatre, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $160 - $475. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.

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