Musical Hamilton as art show

A life-size depiction of the duel between the US’ first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and his political rival Aaron Burr at the new Hamilton exhibition in Chicago.
A life-size depiction of the duel between the US’ first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and his political rival Aaron Burr at the new Hamilton exhibition in Chicago. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The successful Broadway show is betting on interest being so high that it can sustain the exhibition in Chicago and then move it elsewhere

CHICAGO • Audrey Burcham and Grace Troelstrup got up at 5am last Saturday to be sure they would make it on time.

By 7am, three hours before a large Hamilton exhibition opened here, they were standing at the front of the line with their mothers.

Audrey, 12, was clutching an Alexander Hamilton doll as well as a hard-bound collection of inspirational tweets from playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and a Playbill magazine; Grace, 13, was wearing a gold star Hamilton knit cap and toting Hamilton: The Revolution, the explanatory book known to fans as the Hamiltome.

"We're obsessed," Audrey said.

Grace nodded in agreement. "Hamilton is our life now."

Hamilfans (yes, that is what they call themselves) have a lot of ways to engage with the juggernaut musical. There is the show itself, of course, now playing in six productions in North America and Britain, with a seventh expected at some point in Germany, and the books and the app and the cast recording and the mixtape.

But now Hamilton, created by Miranda, has taken a step that appears to be without precedent in the theatre world.

On an island in Lake Michigan, the show has erected a huge shed in which it has created a high-tech exhibition that combines entertainment (a 3D theatre offers a rare you-are-on-the-stage view of Miranda leading the Washington cast in performing the show's opening number), education (more than you probably want to know about the Articles of Confederation) and commerce (US$25, or S$34, for a pair of King George socks).

The exhibition is a commercial venture, overseen by Jeffrey Seller, who is the musical's lead producer, and designed by David Korins, who is the musical's set designer.

It has been capitalised for US$13.5 million, according to a filing with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission - more than the cost of the original Broadway musical, which was US$12.5 million. Tickets are US$39.50 for adults, US$25 for children and free for Chicago public school groups.

The show is betting that interest in Hamilton remains so high, both among those who have seen the show and those who have not, that it can sustain the exhibition here for months and then move it to another location - San Francisco or Los Angeles are "logical options," Seller said.

It is built to tour, although it will require space - the exhibition occupies 3,250 sq m in a hangar-like structure that is 90m long and 30m wide - and expense. Moving it will take 80 trucks, compared with just seven to move a touring production of the show.

The immersive exhibition tracks the life of Alexander Hamilton, who was the US' first Treasury Secretary, from his childhood in the Caribbean to his fatal shooting on a duelling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, and it also uses his life as a tool for exploring early American history.

It follows the arc of the musical, but also delves into issues that are only lightly mentioned on stage - like the role of slavery in the economy of the Americas. There are carnival-game-style exhibits that try to help visitors understand Hamilton's concern with debt, banking and manufacturing policy, and, inside a facsimile of first president George Washington's wartime tent, there is a tabletop plan for the Battle of Yorktown featuring toy ships and soldiers that move by magnetisation.

"I have so many people come up to me and say, 'I hardly knew anything about Hamilton and I want to know more,'" Miranda said. "This is for them."

There are many nods to the musical, including an audio guide narrated by Miranda and two other members of the original cast - Phillipa Soo and Christopher Jackson. The exhibition also has a soundtrack that will be familiar to fans - it is a re-orchestrated instrumental version of the show's score, recorded in a Los Angeles studio by a 27-piece band.

Early attendees seemed impressed. Among those lined up for the opening were Ms Alex Lipp, 19, of Chicago, and Ms Cyandra Bennett, 19, of Sheldon, Illinois.

Last Friday, they had seen the musical in Chicago - Ms Lipp cosplaying as King George and Ms Bennett as Hamilton. And last Saturday, she showed off a forearm tattoo with words from the show's libretto, "History has its eyes on you", while Ms Bennett had the show's signature star drawn in black make-up under her left eye.

Because they were in the first group to move through the museum, they got an unexpected bonus - they spotted Miranda in the last room, and got a selfie with him.

"It was surreal - I was shaking really hard," Ms Lipp said.

As for the exhibition, she said, "There was literally nothing I didn't like."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2019, with the headline 'Musical Hamilton as art show'. Print Edition | Subscribe