Popular entertainment isn’t necessarily the place to go and study history, but it can prompt audience members to learn more about the past. Certainly Hamilton is a recent and prominent example of this.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has acknowledged that Hamilton is not a precise historical record. While it is drawn from Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography of Alexander Hamilton, anyone tested on their knowledge of the statesman based solely on the musical’s libretto might not score so well.
Nonetheless, Hamilton has prompted a vast reconsideration of a relatively forgotten founding father of the US. It had sufficient power to prevent his image from being removed from the $10 bill, which had been under discussion before the musical’s huge success.
While many productions, whether at subsidised or commercial theatres, often create materials such as study guides for education (and group sales), Hamilton has taken things “a lot farther by working a lot harder”, to quote the show. The result is Hamilton: The Exhibition, a 35,000 sq ft journey into Hamiltonian history spearheaded by David Korins, the set designer of the show, now open in Chicago.
Planned to tour, but not on the weekly schedule typical of show tours (Korins says it requires 18 lorries), the exhibition appears designed for the Instagram era. But beyond being a visually engaging interactive extension of the musical, the exhibition called on the services of several major Hamilton scholars, who had written about the musical’s divergence from the historical record in the wake of the show’s success. It reportedly works to clarify the true history, rather than simply enhance the musical’s libretto.
Korins was in the lead, but the exhibition features audio and video from Miranda, and a fully re-orchestrated version of the show’s score by Alex Lacamoire, sure to sate the appetite of Hamilton fans. It may be the first of its kind, but Hamilton: The Exhibition may point a way forward for the brand extension of popular, history-based theatre productions. Just imagine if Bock, Harnick, Stein and Robbins had created a traveling show about the history of Jewish Russians in the days when Fiddler on the Roof held the record as Broadway’s longest-running musical.
While Korins was engrossed in the exhibition, Hamilton director Thomas Kail was involved, as co-creator with Dear Evan Hansen’s book writer Steven Levenson, on a different historical project. Now in the latter half of its run on the US cable network FX is the eight-part dramatic biography of director-choreographer Bob Fosse and his muse and spouse, the acclaimed musical actor Gwen Verdon.
Drawn from Sam Wasson’s biography titled Fosse, the TV version has been retitled Fosse/Verdon, giving the latter at least as much screen time and, so far, the lion’s share of sympathy as it recounts the pair’s personal and professional partnership. While Hamilton, both musical and exhibition, drew not only from Chernow but from Hamilton’s own writing, Fosse/Verdon is a fascinating re-examination of the man via Wasson, but it also stands alongside Fosse’s own self-examination. After all, he co-wrote and directed a thinly veiled depiction of his life to date in the 1979 film All That Jazz.
Kail, who also directed multiple episodes of the show, and Levenson take a perspective from the #MeToo era in their depiction of Fosse and the show’s elevation of Verdon in what has previously been a Fosse-centric story. It may send viewers back to the Wasson book and other accounts of Fosse’s career, but if nothing else it will surely change the way subsequent theatre artists consider his seminal work in the future. Other members of the Hamilton team are also involved in the TV show, with Miranda as an executive producer and creative contributions from Lacamoire as well as choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
It’s not just Hamilton that has examined this period of history through drama. Just this week it was announced that a new production of the musical 1776, about the events that led up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, will receive its second Broadway revival. Originating at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2020, the show will wind its way across several theatres in the US before landing at Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre in 2021.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, 1776 may well come in for some reconsideration of its own. While there have already been stagings that have altered the all-white cast that characterised the original production, it will be interesting to see whether the new version, directed by Diane Paulus, addresses the gender imbalance in the cast, which had 24 men and two women in the original production.
Yes, we know what was accurate from history, but must today’s creative approaches adhere to the factual record, or can they serve a higher purpose when mounted for new generations? Our view of history is constantly evolving, and as Hamilton has shown, how we present that history can change, successfully, as well.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/