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Hamilton: 15 fascinating facts about the biggest musical of all time

The Broadway smash hit is coming to Canada, and this week, tickets sold out almost instantly.

The Broadway smash hit is coming to Canada, and this week, tickets sold out almost instantly

Lin-Manuel Miranda performs at the Hamilton Broadway opening night at Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6, 2015 in New York City. (Neilson Barnard)

It's one of the most popular musicals of all time — and now Hamilton is coming to Canada.

The feverishly anticipated Toronto run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre stretches from Feb. 11 to May 17, 2020, and the tickets, which ranged from $50 to $500, sold out almost instantly.

The smash-hit musical 'Hamilton' recently secured a record 16 Tony nominations. (Hamilton Broadway / Sam Rudy Media Relations)

So what exactly is the show about? Just how well has it done? How did it cause a presidential political stir? Which song took a year to write? And what's all the fuss about? Check out these 15 fascinating facts about the most successful musical of all time.

It's about Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton follows U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean who became George Washington's right hand man during the American Revolutionary War, as well as the first U.S. secretary of the treasury.

As anyone who has seen the show will say, however, it's anything but a dry historical tome: the fast-paced, high-energy show tells Hamilton's story using hip-hop, R&B and pop.

In an early review, the New York Times called it "a meeting of old and new, Colonial and millennial."

It all started with a vacation and a book

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was on vacation in Mexico when he read author Ron Chernow's biography about Hamilton, and began to imagine it as a musical.

"I was like, 'This is an album. No, this is a show. How has no one done this?' It was the fact that Hamilton wrote his way off the island where he grew up. That's the hip-hop narrative," Miranda told Vogue.

"So I Googled 'Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical' and totally expected to see that someone had already written it. But no. So I got to work."

 

It's not the first Hamilton

It wasn't the first time, however, that Hamilton's story has hit the stage. Hamilton was also the name of a 1917 Broadway play written by a high-society woman named Mary Hamlin and starring George Arliss, and it followed the underrated founding father as he helped devise a new financial structure for America.

At the time it won favourable reviews, but then it fell into obscurity.

"Congratulations are due to Mary Hamlin and George Arliss upon the cordial public reception accorded to their play 'Hamilton,' upon the occasion of its first production in this city," read the New York Post. "The piece is a welcome and, in some respects, notable addition to the small body of genuine American drama."

It was inspired, in part, by Les Misérables

From childhood Miranda loved musicals, and performed in several high school productions. One of his all-time favourites is Les Misérables, and that musical theatre classic inspired Miranda's thinking on Hamilton.

Hamilton tells the story of an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean who ended up becoming the first U.S. treasury secretary. (Joan Marcus/The Public Theatre)

"The things that you can see in Hamilton that are affecting people are also present in Les Mis. One, it's trying to capture so much of the human experience that even if we fall short, we've got a lot of it. I mean, Les Misérables starts in prison. It's 'Look down, look down, you're standing in your grave.' And then it goes up from there," he said in an interview with Grantland.

"In terms of musical theatre, it's the opposite of what most people's prejudices with musical theatre is: It's not sunny and uplifting. I think that's why it struck such a universal chord with people. This is not happy show tunes. The one they do give you, it's prostitutes. And it comes with this ironic twist," said Miranda.

"It's like a masterclass in how to use themes in order to take a short circuit to someone's tear duct or heart or gut."

It took a long time to create

Miranda wasn't a newbie to the musical theatre world; in fact, when he set out to create Hamilton, the writer, composer and performer had already won a Tony for In the Heights, a hip-hop- and salsa-infused show set in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighbourhood.

Still, it took Miranda a full year to write the first song, and another year to write the second.

Okieriete Onaodowan and the cast of Hamilton perform a moving medley at the Tony Awards. The hip-hop musical won several awards. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Long before the show ever hit the stage, however, Miranda performed that first rap at an evening of music and spoken word at the White House in 2009. He was just 29 years old.

"I'm thrilled the White House called me tonight because I'm actually working on a hip-hop album. It's a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton," says the young Miranda in the now-famous YouTube video, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

"You laugh, but it's true. He was born a penniless orphan in Saint 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 I think he embodies the word's ability to make a difference."

The performance won an immediate standing ovation from the crowd, which included then-President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

 

It (mostly) sticks to the facts

When writing the show, Miranda used some creative license with the history, but for the most part was a stickler for the facts, and even hired author Chernow as a consultant on the project.

He read Hamilton's voluminous writings, and visited the New York spots where history happened — including Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street where George Washington gave a farewell address to his officers.

The original cast of the smash-hit musical "Hamilton." (Joan Marcus / Hamilton )

He also spent time writing at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest surviving house in Manhattan, and the one that Washington used as his headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights. Later it became the home of Vice President Burr.

"I met with the head of the Museum of American Finance, and he showed me the plaque on the side of an office building that says, 'This was Thomas Jefferson's residence in New York,'" Miranda told the New Yorker.

"I love that we are just a bunch of layers above where all this shit went down."

Most of the cast is non-white

America's founding fathers were all white, and many of them owned black slaves; in Hamilton, however, people of colour play the leading roles — and Miranda says that was very intentional.

"This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance. Our story should look the way our country looks. Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it's a very powerful statement without having to be a statement," Miranda told the New York Times.

This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance. Our story should look the way our country looks. Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it's a very powerful statement without having to be a statement.- Lin-Manuel Miranda on choosing a diverse cast

"In the first two minutes of this show, Lin steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris steps forward and says he's George Washington, and you never question it again," adds actor Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role of Aaron Burr — the historical figure who shot Alexander Hamilton — and won both a Tony and a Grammy for his performance.

"When I think about what it would mean to me as a 13-, 14-year-old kid, to get this album or see this show — it can make me very emotional. And I so look forward to the day I get to see an Asian-American Burr."

"That'll be the note that goes with the school productions," adds Miranda. "If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up."

The show also confronts slavery

In interviews, Miranda regularly makes the point that slavery comes up in the third line of the show, setting it apart from many historical works that fail to mention the founding fathers' use of slaves.

Bryan Terrell Clark poses as George Washington from the smash-hit musical Hamilton. (Instagram / Bryan Terrell Clark / @therealbtc)

"I was very conscious of it. And ­having the show from Hamilton's perspective is a blessing, because he was ahead of the other founding fathers. He grew up on Nevis and Saint Croix, which was one of the key points on the triangle [slave] trade, and so he saw the brutality. He wrote about the smell of the ships before they arrived on the island carrying slaves," Miranda told Billboard in an interview.

"So he was repulsed by the practice and got the importation of slaves banned in New York and co-founded the New York Manumission Society. So he's morally on the right side of ­history — in contrast to Washington, and in ­contrast to Jefferson.

"When we meet Jefferson in the play, people are scrubbing his floors. You have to hit it and you have to hit it early and often, because this was a part of their world."

It contains almost no dialogue

Traditionally, musicals have dialogue between the songs, and for a time Miranda worked with a playwright — but found the spoken text didn't meld with the hip-hop.

"We actually went down the road with a playwright. There's a version of Act 1 where we had songs and they were the songs that are in the show, but we found that if you start with our opening number, you can't go back to speech. The ball is just thrown too high in the air," he explained to Grantland.

"So then the challenge for me became, how do I write scenes that still have this hip-hop feel? And that's when I would listen to Friend or Foe by Jay-Z on a loop." 

Members of the original cast from the musical Hamilton. (Joan Marcus)

It packs in a whole lot of words

Musical theatre isn't usually known for fast-paced dialogue; because it's sung, it can take a long time to get a thought across — but using hip-hop, Hamilton has seriously disrupted that norm.

In fact, the stats-minded website fivethirtyeight.com took the cast albums of eight top musicals, and calculated the number of words they contained per minute.

Oklahoma! clocked in at 59 words per minute, with a total word count of 4,303; Pirates of Penzance had 58 words per minute, with a total of 5,962; Phantom of the Opera had 77 words per minute, and a total of 4,709 words.

But Hamilton blew them all out of the statistical water: the show packs in 144 words per minute, and its total word count is 20,520.

According to fivethirtyeight, the fastest tracks are just under 200 words per minute, while the slowest range from 64 to 80. If Hamilton were sung at the pace of other Broadway shows, it would take four to six hours to perform.

It caused a political stir

Shortly after the 2016 U.S. election, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended Hamilton, which offers a strongly pro-immigration message, and was booed by members of the audience. After the final curtain call, actor Brandon Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, made a statement from the stage.

In this image made from a video provided by Hamilton LLC, actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, speaks from the stage after the curtain call in New York on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016 and delivers a strong message to vice president-elect Mike Pence. (Hamilton LLC/Associated Press)

"Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir — we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir," he said. 

"But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colours, creeds and orientations."

Pence later said he was not offended by the remarks, and that the boos were "what freedom sounds like." President-elect Donald Trump, however, did not share those views, and demanded an apology.

"V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing," Trump wrote on Twitter. "This should not happen!"

 

The show's success has surpassed Miranda's wildest dreams

In 2016, Hamilton was nominated for 16 Tony Awards — a new record — and won 11, including best music. Since then it has won many other top awards, including the 2016 Grammy for best musical theatre album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Tickets are impossible to come by, selling out more than a year in advance; during an eight-performance run in 2016, the show grossed over $3.3 million, making it the first Broadway show ever to bring in more than $3 million for eight shows.

Many say that Hamilton has been a game-changer, that it has ushered in a new era of musical theatre — and nobody is more surprised than its creator.

"Anytime you write something, you go through so many phases," he says. "You go through the I'm a Fraud phase. You go through the I'll Never Finish phase. And every once in a while you think, What if I actually have created what I set out to create, and it's received as such?" Miranda told Vogue.

Jelena Adzic with the lineup to buy tickets for the musical Hamilton at Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto, October 28, 2019. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

"With this show, the real world has surpassed my fantasy life to an absurd degree."

Canadians really, really want to see it

Hamilton is such a hot ticket that theatre lovers snapped up all of the Mirvish Productions season subscriptions back in July — they cap the number at 47,000 — so they could be guaranteed seats.

Then when tickets went on sale to the general public, people lined up for hours, and smashed Canadian musical theatre records.

"[The Mirvish family] has done every major blockbuster in theatre: Hair, A Chorus Line, CatsLes Mis, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of The Opera, The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Come From Away," John Karastamatis, Mirvish's director of communications, told CBC News.

"But there's never been this kind of demand for a show. It's 10 times that demand of anything else."

 

 

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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