A 'Hamilton' Primer as the Much-Hyped Musical Makes its Cincinnati Debut at the Aronoff Center

Ten questions — and answers — about Hamilton, the man and the musical

click to enlarge The first national touring company of "Hamilton," which stops in Cincinnati Feb. 19-March 10. - Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus
The first national touring company of "Hamilton," which stops in Cincinnati Feb. 19-March 10.
Many of you reading this reside in Hamilton County, the most populous county in the Greater Cincinnati region. It’s named for Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers. Have a $10 bill in your wallet? You have a picture of him in easy reach. Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, local theater fans will soon be learning more about the historical figure via Hamilton: An American Musical, an unlikely megahit based on the Founding Father’s life.

Here are 10 questions (and answers) to consider as this phenomenally popular show is presented at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center over the next three weeks.

1. Who was Alexander Hamilton?

He was indeed one of the men who created our American nation. He wrote 51 of the 85 installments of The Federalist Papers, which are still valued essays that explained and defended the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton had a remarkable financial mind, making him the best choice for America’s first Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795). He was also involved in establishing the U.S. Mint and, to many, he’s the patron saint of Wall Street, the financial center that is the beating heart of our national economy.

But that’s not his whole story. He was an orphan and an immigrant, born out of wedlock on the Caribbean island of Nevis in the mid-1750s. Taken in by a prosperous merchant, he was sent from St. Croix to New York City as a promising teenager in need of formal education not available on a backward island. He enrolled at what is now Columbia University, but his studies were interrupted when, around the age of 20, he joined the militia to support the fight for American independence from Great Britain. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a senior aide to General George Washington and assisting in the management of the Continental Army. When the war ended, he self-studied the law and passed the New York bar exam in 1782.

In 1780, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, one of three brilliant daughters of an esteemed general. Hamilton was the first American politician to be involved in a sex scandal, following an illicit affair with a young married woman in 1791-1792; her husband blackmailed Hamilton. In 1797 his indiscretion became public knowledge.

Political enmity between the brash patriot and Vice President Aaron Burr resulted in a July 1804 duel in which Hamilton was fatally wounded. He had not reached his 50th birthday. He was buried near Wall Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Though he was never forgotten, after two centuries he was no longer a familiar historical figure. That is, until Lin-Manuel Miranda read his biography.

click to enlarge Infused with the sounds of Hip Hop, "Hamilton" is based on the life and work of Alexander Hamilton, one of America's forefathers. - Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus
Infused with the sounds of Hip Hop, "Hamilton" is based on the life and work of Alexander Hamilton, one of America's forefathers.

2. Who is Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Born in 1980, Miranda grew up in New York City. His parents were from Puerto Rico, and he spent at least one month a year with his grandparents there. His father was a Democratic Party organizer; his mother a clinical psychologist. Young Miranda was a precocious teenage musician who penned jingles for political campaigns his father managed. In high school he played the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance and Judas in Godspell. Later, he attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut where he co-founded a Hip Hop comedy troupe — and played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1999, he drafted his first Broadway musical while still in college — In the Heights. He continued to work on the show post-graduation in 2002 with director Thomas Kail and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes. In 2008, it hit Broadway stages with Miranda in the leading role. It earned 13 Tony Award nominations and won four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The cast recording won a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. (Cincinnatians recently flocked to see the just-closed production of In the Heights at the Playhouse in the Park.)

The energetic, multifaceted composer and lyricist was quickly at work on numerous musical projects. He translated some West Side Story lyrics by Stephen Sondheim into Spanish for the show’s 2009 Broadway revival, and composed two new songs for a Florida production of Stephen Schwartz’s 1978 musical Working. He worked in TV, too, making guest appearances on The Sopranos and House, as well as Sesame Street and the 2009 revival of The Electric Company. He co-wrote another musical, Bring It On, based on the 2000 movie about competitive cheerleading, that had a limited Broadway run in 2012.

Not yet 40, Miranda seems to be everywhere in today’s entertainment world: He recently wrote music for the Disney animated film Moana and played the leading role of Jack the lamplighter in another Disney film, Mary Poppins Returns. But Hamilton is the phenomenon that made his name. Following its Broadway arrival in July 2015, Miranda was named the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and Time Magazine named him one of its 100 “influential people” in America.

3. How did Miranda discover Hamilton and why did he use Rap to tell his story?

In preparation for a beach vacation in Mexico in 2008, Miranda snagged a copy of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of the Founding Father. He was immediately struck by Hamilton’s life and its resemblance to rising Rap stars in the 21st century: an ambitious, verbally audacious motormouth with a combative ego. To Miranda, Hamilton was a Rapper two centuries before such artists took on the music and entertainment world.

Miranda made the genius  — and not yet obvious — connection between Hip Hop and 18th-century politics. “The idea of Hip Hop being the music of the Revolution appealed to me immensely,” he told New York Times Magazine in 2015. “It felt right.”

His lyrics call Hamilton “young, scrappy and hungry,” precisely the quality of late 20th-century artists like Jay Z, Eminem and the Notorious B.I.G. Hamilton’s career was built on words; Miranda, noted that Hamilton produced over 27 volumes of written work.

“I think it’s appropriate that we would need a musical style that transmits more words per minute than any other genre,” he said in the same New York Times Magazine piece.

Calling Hamilton a “Rap musical” is too narrow. Like opera, it’s sung-through with very little dialogue. Rap certainly constitutes a prominent element, but it’s not the only music to be heard. Listen to the cast recording or see a performance, and you’ll discover Rhythm & Blues, choral ballads, bits of Gospel, Broadway-styled songs and even a number that sounds straight out of the British invasion of the ’60s — King George III’s haughty “You’ll Be Back,” a smarmy, sing-song prediction scolding American Revolutionaries for their ingratitude.

click to enlarge Austin Scott as Alexander Hamilton - Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus
Austin Scott as Alexander Hamilton

4. Did Miranda really perform at the Obama White House?

In May 2009, as Miranda began working on what he first called The Hamilton Mixtape, he was invited to the White House Poetry Jam by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. “We wanted to open the doors really wide to a bunch of different folks who usually don’t get access to this place,” she explained in a release.

The intention had been for Miranda to perform a number from his Tony Award winner, In the Heights. Instead, he offered a number “about the life of someone who embodies Hip Hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.” Those words evoked amusement when he said them that evening, but in an archived recording you can hear his quick response: “You laugh, but it’s true. He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix of illegitimate birth, became George Washington’s right-hand man, became Treasury Secretary, caught beef with every other Founding Father — and all on the strength of his writing. He embodies the words’ ability to make a difference.”

The Obamas became champions of the show, taking daughters Malia and Sasha to see a July 2015 performance. At a White House event in March 2016, the First Lady said, “It was simply, as I tell everyone, the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” 

5. What other characters are in Hamilton?

Many of the Founding Fathers are present: Stern, pragmatic George Washington was Hamilton’s mentor, a steady hand trying to calm the young hot-headed military leader. Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s political opposite, is a constant thorn in his side. There’s another eventual president, James Madison. The continentally sophisticated Marquis de Lafayette has a part to play. Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s ultimate archenemy — the opponent who kills him in a duel — is a fascinating study in jealousy and seething frustration. (On Broadway, Leslie Odom, Jr. — playing the part of Burr — won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actor in Musical.) The Schuyler Sisters bring plenty of sass and feminist attitudes to the show: Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife; the fiery Angelica, his muse; and Peggy.

Actors of color play all of Hamilton’s characters. Why? Here’s what biographer Chernow said in a 2015 interview with The New York Time Magazine: “The whole concept of Hamilton, I realized, was inseparable from casting. The miracle of the play is that it shows us who we were as a nation but also who we are now. The young, multiracial cast has a special feeling for the passion, urgency and idealism of the American Revolution.”

In the show, while speaking to Marquis de Lafayette — a Frenchman who helped America fight for independence — Hamilton says, “We’re immigrants. We get the job done,” a line that repeatedly resonates with audiences.

click to enlarge Julia K. Harriman, Sabrina Sloan, Isa Briones and company in the "Hamilton" national tour. - Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus
Julia K. Harriman, Sabrina Sloan, Isa Briones and company in the "Hamilton" national tour.

6. Is there a Cincinnati connection?

Aside from the geographical name-checks we have locally, there’s a personal link. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, a 1988 grad of Cincinnati’s Saint Xavier High School, is a member of Miranda’s creative team. They first worked together on In the Heights in 2007-2008, with Blankenbuehler winning the 2008 Tony Award for the season’s best choreography. He picked up another nomination for the 2009 Broadway production of 9 to 5. In 2013 he worked with Miranda again, choreographing and directing Bring It On: The Musical.

Hamilton came next. Blankenbuehler picked up a 2015 Drama Desk Special Award. It recognized “his inspired and heart-stopping choreography in Hamilton, which is indispensable to the musical’s storytelling. His body of work is versatile, yet a dynamic and fluid style is consistently evident. When it’s time to ‘take his shot,’ Blankenbuehler hits the bull’s-eye.” That honor was followed by the 2016 Tony for Best Choreography. (Subsequently, Blankenbuehler — currently Broadway’s go-to choreographer — earned another Tony for the musical Bandstand, by another Cincinnati star, composer Richard Oberacker.)

7. How much money is Hamilton making?

According to The New York Times, Hamilton cost $12.5 million to produce originally, which was recouped quickly. It has continually broken weekly gross records for Broadway ticket sales. In late December 2018 it grossed $4.04 million in one week, the first time a Broadway production has ever generated that much revenue. Likely, it’s headed toward being a billion-dollar Broadway show. Ticket sales have remained strong even as the original cast members have moved on to other productions. The average ticket price in New York City is presently $375 and for the best seats, $849. 

8. How many productions are there?

The Broadway production, now approaching four years onstage, continues to have sold-out houses at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, week in and week out. An open-ended production started in Chicago in Oct. 2017 and continues to run. The production’s first national tour began with performances in March and April 2017 in San Francisco; it will eventually visit 20 cities. (That production is the one in Cincinnati from Feb. 19 to March 10.) A second national tour began in Seattle last year, making the rounds to more cities and venues, and a third national tour kicked off in Puerto Rico in January 2019. The three-week run there was presented in part to raise funds for hurricane relief, featuring Miranda returning to the title role. That company, without Miranda, will continue to travel the U.S. Hamilton has also been a hit in London’s West End since December 2017 at the Victoria Palace Theatre; productions will soon be mounted in Europe and Australia. 

click to enlarge The Aronoff Center - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
The Aronoff Center

9. Why is Hamilton so important?

It’s clearly a work that resonates beyond its specific narrative. “We could all be dead tomorrow,” Miranda told The New York Times. “Who tells our story? Will it be told? We have no way of knowing. In essence, that’s what the show is about. We are telling the story of someone who I don’t think would expect it to be told in this way if he were alive. But he very much wanted his story told.”

All the characters in Hamilton ask, “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” The message of the show is eminently relatable. Miranda had stated his belief that these are questions everyone in the audience asks of themselves. “It leaves you reckoning with: Wait, who does tell my story? What am I doing with my life?” 

10. Are there still tickets for performances here in Cincinnati?

Tickets were sold for $65 to $195 with a select number of $279 to $449 premium seats available at every performance. (Alas, most of them have been snapped up.) But you aren’t totally out of luck. A few seats are still available through the show's run and — as they’ve done with other stops — 40 tickets per performance will be offered via a daily digital lottery, priced at $10 (thanks to Hamilton’s appearance on the U.S. $10 bill). Each lottery will open two days prior to the performance at 11 a.m. You can apply for tickets for each date, but you must enter each lottery separately and only once per performance. You can register via the official Hamilton phone app or via hamiltonmusical.com/lottery. Don’t throw away your shot!

*Editor's note: In a previous version of this piece, we reported that there were no available seats for "Hamilton," aside from the digital lottery. A few seats have opened up and will continue to open throughout the show's run. Check cincinnatiarts.org/hamilton for available tickets

Hamilton, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, opens Feb. 19 and continues through March 10. More info: cincinnatiarts.org.

Scroll to read more Theater articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.