SALT LAKE CITY — "Hamilton: An American Musical" fans know its earworm music, the name of its certified genius (MacArthur grant and all) creator and even how the story ends, but the journey of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is a tale that even die-hard fans may not fully know. To get ready for the Tony Award-winning musical’s Salt Lake City stop at the Eccles Theater April 11-May 6, we’ve put together “Hamilton’s” timeline, from a Mexican vacation to its smash hit Broadway run and beyond. It's the story of how Miranda fanned "this spark into a flame.”
From a white hammock to the White House
“Hamilton’s” journey to the Great White Way began in a white hammock, thousands of miles away from the blinding lights of New York City, under the bright Mexico sun.
According to a Smithsonian Magazine article, Miranda was on vacation in 2008, taking some time away from his first hit show, “In the Heights” — the musical he conceived while in college at Connecticut's Wesleyan University that went on to win four Tony Awards — when he whiled away the hours at the beach reading Ron Chernow’s biography "Alexander Hamilton."
“Long before he’s 50 pages into it, he’s wondering to himself who might have already made this extraordinary story into a play. Into a musical. He searches. Finds nothing. No one,” the Smithsonian Magazine article states.
That fortuitous book choice planted the seed for what has become one of the most popular shows in musical theater history.
Fast forward a few months, and Miranda left his white hammock behind for the White House when, in May 2009, he raps about Alexander Hamilton at the “White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word,” telling the audience the song is part of a hip-hop album he’s working on.
"It's a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” he said while introducing his song, soliciting a laugh from the audience. “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 word’s ability to make a difference.”
The song he performed was an early iteration of “Alexander Hamilton,” the musical’s opening number.
On to Broadway
Actor and Utah native Thayne Jasperson will never forget the day he received a pitch from a casting agency that said, “We have a new musical about Alexander Hamilton. It’s told through rap. Are you interested?”
“My first thought was kind of, you know, ‘Oh. That doesn’t sound that great,’” Jasperson said with a laugh, “but when I learned who the team was, the creative team — the writers and the director and choreographer and all of that — I knew I wanted to work with them.”
The creative team Jasperson was so eager to work with was like deja vu for anyone familiar with “In the Heights.” Miranda, who by this time had made tremendous headway in creating the script, lyrics and music for “Hamilton,” was joined by director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire — the same team who had worked on Miranda’s previous success.
“I just think that Lin wrote a really incredible piece that was really fleshed out by a really incredible creative team,” Joseph Morales, who plays Alexander Hamilton in one of the two U.S. touring casts, said of the group, which still helms the New York production and the musical’s national tour. “… It’s just a perfect storm of all these brilliant people coming together.”
Jasperson auditioned for the musical and won a spot in the show’s first workshop, which started in January 2014.
“It’s crazy because right from the get-go, hearing the music and going through the whole story in our first workshop … and I thought, ‘This is incredible. This is going to be a huge hit,’” Jasperson remembered. “I don’t think anybody knew the way that it would become this outlandish show that everyone is dying over now.”
Jasperson remained with the show as part of the ensemble through a second workshop, through its three-month run off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theater early in 2015 and on to its official Broadway debut at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with Miranda performing the lead role of Alexander Hamilton. The show had a lot of buzz about it even before the show’s official opening on Aug. 6, 2015, with “advance ticket sales of $32 million, sold-out houses for months and a list of celebrity endorsements that included President (Barack) Obama,” according to an article from deadline.com.
Even Ben Brantley, the New York Times theater critic had to admit: “Yes, it really is that good.”
And the accolades just kept coming.
At the 2016 Tony Awards, “Hamilton” was nominated for a record-breaking 16 awards and won 11 of them.
The cast album debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard Top 200 chart (and at No. 1 on Cast Albums, No. 3 on Rap Albums, No. 5 on Digital Albums and No. 9 on Top Album Sales) and topped out at No. 3 — a rarity for a musical theater album. The album also went on to win the 2016 Grammy for best musical theater album.
“(I) knew ‘Hamilton’ was something that was going to make history and was going to ignite the youth and people to be excited about musicals and history combined,” said Jasperson, who has performed in “Hamilton” now for more than four years. “… It’s been a cool thing to gel with reality, history and also popularity with the music and bringing that all together so people can vibe with it.”
Morales agreed. He watches audiences night after night connect with the story of a man who lived more than 200 years ago.
“It takes the history off the books and off the page and it turns it into something that people can relate to,” he told the Deseret News.
In March 2016, seven months after the show’s Broadway debut, members of the cast joined Miranda as he returned to the White House to perform the completed version of “Alexander Hamilton.”
More than a history lesson
“Hamilton’s” popularity has yet to wane in the 2½ years since its Broadway debut.
The production in New York is still going strong, two casts are traveling the United States on tour and the show is also available long-term in both Chicago and London.
Tickets to the show still routinely to sell-out — including in Denver, Des Moines and here in Salt Lake City — a fact both Morales and Jasperson attribute to the show’s relatability as well as its entertainment value.
“I think (audiences) think, ‘Oh, this is going to be an upbeat show about history and rap and it’s going to be really fun,’ Morales said, "which it is, and at the same time, it really hits you with the true things in life and I don’t think that people really expect that.”
Beyond the shows themes, "Hamilton's" creators are also hoping the musical can have a broader impact through its educational outreach program.
The Hamilton Education Program, known as EduHam, was organized by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in conjunction with "Hamilton" creators as a way to combine theater, history and education. The program was launched in New York City and is currently available in Chicago, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, Houston and now Salt Lake City, thanks to a $6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation expects EduHam will reach 100,000 students across the United States through the grant.
Locally, EduHam will bring the musical and a special corresponding U.S. history curriculum to 2,300 high school students and teachers from Title I public schools in Salt Lake City, according to a previous Deseret News article.
As part of this special curriculum, students will create Founding Fathers-inspired compositions that they can perform through rap, song or the spoken word, according to Josh Loftin, director of communications at Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. Finalists will be chosen by participating schools to perform these compositions onstage at the Eccles Theater on May 4, after which all EduHam participants will view an exclusive matinee performance of "Hamilton."
“The Hamilton Education Program is an opportunity to open the doors for theater for kids who otherwise may not have the opportunity to be entertained by live theater,” Luis A. Miranda Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda's father, said in at an October 2017 press conference at the Eccles Theater introducing the program.
Tim Bailey, Gilder Lehrman's director of education and a Utah native, previously told the Deseret News he approached creating EduHam with three critical elements in mind: teaching students essential content knowledge, teaching critical thinking skills that extend beyond the classroom and engaging students in such a way that they would never forget it.
“It doesn’t matter — liberal, conservative, moderate,” he said, “('Hamilton') seems to speak to everyone on some level.”
If you go …
What: The national tour of "Hamilton"
Where: Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main
When: April 11-May 6
How much: Tickets are sold out, but information about the lottery for $10 tickets is available on deseretnews.com.