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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! Fun with ‘Hamilton,’ THE musical of an American generation

Critic At Large

Running to Oct. 20 at Fox Cities P-A-C


So “Hamilton” is finally in our midst.

The first of 48,000 people who scored tickets were swept up on opening night Tuesday in Thrivent Financial Hall of Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. Twenty-three performances remain to Oct. 20.

Those 48,000 are part of legions experiencing a phenomenon on Broadway, in Chicago, in London and in various cities across the United States in two road productions – with Hamburg, Germany, to come in 2020 and Sydney, Australia, to come in 2021.

In the title role of “Hamilton” in Appleton is Joseph Morales. (Company photo)

Rarely have as many people been as excited about a musical as for “Hamilton.”

Even people who ordinarily do not go to the theater have plunked down big money and traveled hundreds of miles to catch a show they know little about beyond the title. They went or are going because “everybody” loves “Hamilton.”

I was aboard a busload to Chicago in August so I could get an idea of what’s up.

What is up is a whole lot of fun stuff.

“Hamilton” eclipses “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King” and “Les Miserables” and “Cats” in the Department of Super-Sensational Hits.

That has to do with this: American ingenuity.

And let’s use the full title: “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

Ingenuity – originality – is the thrill of what’s happening now.

Surprise! The show is heavy-duty history. It is stuffed with stuff that happened 215 and more years ago – “junk” that bores many a high schooler to tears. You can almost hear initial reactions: “Singing about ‘The Federalist Papers’? OMG! Gag me!”

Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)

And yet author Lin-Manuel Miranda makes it work.

That’s partly because – another Surprise! – the Founding Fathers are of color, and they sing hip-hop. That tilts the head, makes folks watch and listen after they get over thinking, “What the?… huh?”

The show tells about the workings of the American Revolution in especially spirited and inclusive ways.

The radical casting is a statement about the American ideal: Let’s live it.

The music devised by Lin-Manuel Miranda crackles with churning heat, in keeping with the smoldering souls who founded our nation.

Key Founding Fathers are given personalities of music stars.

Think of Eminem as Alexander Hamilton, John Legend blended with Common as George Washington and Prince as Thomas Jefferson. Really.

These figures from history books and documentaries take on vivid personalities that relate to today.

The story and music are complex and oh-so-affirming of innovation. That “out there” aura is a magnet.

Being part of “Hamilton: An American Musical” – so many people interested, so many walks of life, so many parts of the nation (and world), so many voices in the buzz – is part of the attraction, too.

Something on such a scale like this comes along so seldomly – presidential elections aside – that it’s fascinating to see something so American being fascinating.

And, lo and behold, a connection can be made between Alexander Hamilton and Vince Lombardi, not as men but by way of the director – a person who can shape the final product as much as the creator.

Thomas Kail directed the Broadway production of “Lombardi,” which ran for eight months in 2010-2011. The play fictionalizes a few weeks of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach as he deals with star players and the magnetism of his wife.

The production was outrageous in its own way. “Sports” and “Broadway” are mutually exclusive, and yet “Lombardi” succeeded. By the way, its full title is “Lombardi: A New American Play.”

The one and same Thomas Kail directed the Broadway production of “Hamilton: An American Musical.”

Thomas Kail. (Matthew Eisman/Getty Images)

Eric Simonson, playwright of “Lombardi,” says Thomas Kail was involved in formative stages of work on “Hamilton” during the run of “Lombardi.”

Some people in Green Bay met and shared stories with Thomas Kail when he came to the city on a research mission in 2010 to find out more about Vince and Marie Lombardi and the atmosphere surrounding the Green Bay Packers.

His saga continues abroad. Here is a take on his work from a reviewer of the West End (London) production of “Hamilton: An American Musical”:

“Thomas Kail’s restaged Broadway production is confident but not flashy: a series of taut, almost tableaux-like scenes with crisp, minimal set and choreography that allows the music, words and the striking figures of the cast – largely BAME actors in period dress – to take centre-stage.”

A British acronym, BAME stands for black, Asian and minority ethnic.

London is just as nuts about “Hamilton: An American Musical” as is Appleton. The reviewer even whines about the excitement: “Yes, it’s kind of a drag that there’s so much hype around it.”


What is delicious is we kicked the British out – took a couple of times, but we gave the the boot – and here comes a Star-Spangled Banner saga waving the land of the Union Jack.

The reviewer for London Time Out put it this way: “Inevitably it still feels like an American story. But we’re a nation hooked on American stories.”

That reviewer notes “(T)here are faults to find, from male-centricity to US jingoism.”

Ahem, there is no getting around that it was men who forged the ideas. Duh. And an “American Musical” is going to have, what, British jingoism? Duh.

The reviewer for The Guardian of London, distills the show as “history de-wigged: it’s a rollercoaster of a show in which a bare-headed, largely non-white cast capture the fervour and excitement of revolution while reminding us how much America’s identity was shaped by a buccaneering immigrant, Alexander Hamilton.”

If anything, “Hamilton: An American Musical” is a sterling summation of history that affected both sides of the Atlantic.

The Guardian reviewer also says “the show’s virtuosity becomes a little taxing” in the second act and questions whether Lin-Manuel Miranda “ever fully establishes the difference between Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian paradise and Hamilton’s one of urban entrepreneurship.” Hmmmmm, a lot of people missed that, too. Yeah, sure.

The reviewer in Metro of London gets caught up in the wonder: “(A) musical about the Founding Fathers of America should make us Brits recoil. It should make us want to head to the nearest half price ticket booth to search for a show with ‘Oliver’ or ‘Joseph’ in the title. The British are as traditionally as warmed up to the American Dreams as Americans are to a warm serving of Spotted Dick (a pudding made with suet and dried fruit). Yet, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ is so bravely different, so stylishly rule-breaking and so g-d catchy, it’s impossible not to be won over by its innate charm.”

The BAME casting in London took a hybrid turn with role of the 5-foot-7 Alexander Hamilton being played by 6-foot-4 actor. Now how many Brits think Hamilton was a towering guy?

Individuality is hard to get around on stage. In production I saw in Chicago, it was fascinating to hear the many textures and shadings of voices in the Founding Fathers. Lin-Manuel Miranda may have defined what they sing and how, but a person’s voice is their imprint and theirs alone. Which is to say there now are a lot of Alexander Hamiltons, George Washingtons, Aaron Burrs, Thomas Jeffersons – and Eliza, Angelica and Peggy Schuylers – singing on stages these days, each in his or her own way, with people thinking that must be how the role is supposed to be sung.

The reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter (UK version) finds “a breadth of ambition and a theatrical exuberance that take the breath away…

“The London show sees director Thomas Kail and his New York production team intact, but with an all-new, multiracial British cast onstage, resulting in a show that feels comfortably bedded in from the get-go, a confident and well-oiled machine, yet with the unmistakable frisson (excitement, thrill) that comes of fresh blood.”

Audiences leaving Appleton’s PAC will be just abuzz buzz buzz buzz buzz as their British counterparts.

And to think a key figure in “Hamilton: An American Musical” passed our way. What follows is a reprise of a column I wrote in March 2018, after the Appleton gig was announced.

(Warren Gerds image)

It is true that Vince Lombardi had nothing to do with Alexander Hamilton.

But the Broadway play “Lombardi” is connected to the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

“Yes,” says Eric Simonson, who wrote “Lombardi.”

A native Wisconsinite, Simonson is a part-time Door County resident. He also is founder of Door Kinetic Arts Festival, an incubator for creative folks that is put on every June at Bjorklunden near Baileys Harbor.

The director of “Lombardi” was Thomas Kail.

The director of “Hamilton” is Thomas Kail.

Kail won a coveted Broadway Tony Award for his direction of “Hamilton.” Overall, “Hamilton” won 11 Tonys, including Best Musical and (for Lin-Manuel Miranda) Best Book and Best Original Score.

“Lombardi” made its Broadway premiere in October 2010 and ran until May 2011.

“Hamilton” made its Broadway premiere in August 2015, and it’s still running there.

In 2008, Thomas Kail directed “In the Heights” (music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda) on Broadway.

Soon, thoughts of putting “Lombardi” on Broadway entered the picture.

Eric Simonson says, “Tommy was reading the New York Times one day, and in the sports section it was announced that Fran Kirmser and Tony Ponturo were going to be producing a play about the life of Vince Lombardi based David Maraniss’s book (‘When Pride Still Matter: A Life of Vince Lombardi’). He picked up the phone, called them and said, ‘I want to do this. I want to put my name in the hat.’

“By this time, he had done ‘In the Heights.’ That’s pretty much all I think anybody knew him for at that time. Fran and Tony called me up one day and said, ‘Do you know anything about Thomas Kail?’ and I said I didn’t. They said, ‘He really wants to do this. He really wants to be considered for “Lombardi.”’ And so I said, ‘Fine.’ I don’t know how many weeks went by, but there was a phone call arranged. I happened to be in Green Bay and at Lambeau Field in the Atrium when that call happened.”

As the production of “Lombardi” was taking shape, this idea popped up: Fly star Dan Lauria (who would play Vince Lombardi) and the creative team to Green Bay to have them get the feel for all things Packers.

Thomas Kail was along and rubbed shoulders with Green Bay Packers players and Coach Mike McCarthy on the practice field, visited the office of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame to see and feel artifacts related to Vince Lombardi and met with women who held close associations with Marie Lombardi, Vince Lombardi’s wife.

Author David Maraniss was present, too, for more direct fodder.

Thomas Kail got a dose of the Packers and Vince Lombardi fact and lore that most people can only wish for.

This grand time was to help him direct “Lombardi,” which would bring the legendary coach, amazingly, into the realm of theater.

The play was no “Hamilton” which is a phenomenon, but “Lombardi” still enjoyed a colorful and successful run on Broadway.

In other words, before the wondrous “Hamilton,” there was “Lombardi” – and the two are connected by Thomas Kail, who came to Green Bay on what amounted to a magical trip.

“Lombardi” is filled with inspirational stuff about greatness.

Did the gist of “Lombardi” the play and the man, rub off on Thomas Kail in the shaping of “Hamilton”?

This Green Bay Packers fan likes to think so.

Eric Simonson says, “Tommy’s strength as a director is he’s really great at listening. You know that you’re heard. All of his actors know that when they work with him he’s going to listen to you and he’s going to take whatever concerns you have into consideration. He’s very respectful, and he’s very creative.”

As for the “Hamilton” phenomenon, Simonson says, “It’s a relationship that he had with Lin-Manuel (Miranda, playwright and creator of ‘Hamilton’).

“They worked on ‘In the Heights,’ and I remember when we were doing ‘Lombardi’ Tommy mentioning this next musical that he was working on. He was really excited about it. I asked, ‘What’s it about?’ He said, ‘Alexander Hamilton.’ I thought (skeptical look on his face), ‘Okay’ (and a laugh). And he said, ‘It’s going to be rapping Hamilton.’ ‘Okay’ (and another laugh).

“Those relationships are very important, that mutual respect.

“He often mentioned he would learn from people in the theater community. He had been doing it for years. He was friends with 80-year-old theater practitioners, and he maintained those friendships because he always felt that he had something to learn from them.

“He’s a good guy. He’s a mensch (a person of integrity and honor). If you looked in the dictionary under the word ‘mensch,’ you’d find a picture of Tommy Kail.”

Eric Simonson and Thomas Kail also worked on another Broadway play, “Magic/Bird,” about the chemistry of basketball stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Eric Simonson says, “‘Lombardi’ was meant to be the start of a mission, to bring a new kind of audience to theater. People who go to see theater tend to be the same types of people, and that’s been going on for decades, maybe centuries. So starting with ‘Lombardi,’ the idea was there’s this untapped audience out there who may not think that they like theater, but we bet you if we give them a subject matter that they are interested in, they’ll like theater. And we were part of that mission. He was part of that mission, I was part of that mission.”

And now “Hamilton” is bringing a whole lot of people to the theater – period – to see a show about a seemingly unlikely figure for a sung-through and rapped-through musical sensation.

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