With millions of people listening to Hamilton’s original cast recording long before they sit in a seat, Hamilton confronts a challenge most other original musicals don’t: familiarity. The Founding Father’s biography has been revived in classrooms, but it’s more than plot spoilers. Kids can recite the entire score; adults see the faces of the original cast splash across magazine covers and late-night couch time. The property has become so intertwined with its original actors and who they are, new actors need to devise how to create their own character amidst insatiable expectations.
Actors Miguel Cervantes, Karen Olivo, and Joshua Henry deliver as they cast their interpretations on Alexander Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler, and Aaron Burr, respectively, in Hamilton’s new sit-down production at the The Private Bank Theatre in Chicago.
The original Hamilton creative team had no desire to replicate or imitate Broadway. “‘This is your Hamilton,” Cervantes recalls his music director, Alex Lacamoire, saying. “‘The story … will be created by these new people, and not re-created by new people.’ That was a huge burden lifted off of my shoulders.”
Mounting the Midwest production meant building from the ground up. The idea: make Hamilton Chicago as singular as Hamilton Broadway.
Henry welcomed the opportunity to mold his own Aaron Burr. “I believe in not trying to be someone else,” he says. “The minute you try to be someone else, as an actor or in life, you falter, and we see that with Aaron Burr.”
While Henry felt empowered to differentiate from Odom, Jr., Cervantes sensed the inextricable link of Alexander to creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. But Lacamoire reassured him: “We’re going to stay true to the words and we’re going to stay true to what [Lin] wrote, but the way the actor Lin created his Hamilton is not the way you need to do it. I’m not going to ask Josh to be Leslie. I’m not going to ask Karen to be Renée.”
Renée Elise Goldsberry won a Tony for her Broadway performance as Angelica, but Olivo separates herself from what came before (as she did in her Tony-winning turn as Anita in West Side Story). She approaches Hamilton “the same way that I approach the classics.” “If I was going to play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, it’s been done so many times and by incredible actresses, but it’s trusting the material,” says Olivo. “It’s being immersed in the text and, in our case, the score, and saturating yourself in what’s on the page so much that it lives in your subconscious.”
It’s an apt comparison: Hamilton to Romeo and Juliet. After all, in the documentary Hamilton’s America, artistic director of the Public Theater Oskar Eustis calls Miranda the Shakespeare of our time. His story and lyrics stand like scaffolding, a jungle gym on which actors can play, experiment, deviate and still deliver the same message—even within a single performance. “I have been more or less a creature of habit in my onstage dealings,” says Cervantes. “[But] in this show, from night to night and scene to scene, all of a sudden words come out of my mouth differently. Something about this world that we have created makes things very—cheesy theatre word—organic.”
Collaborating with the Hamilton squad, Olivo, Cervantes, and Henry created an Angelica, Alexander, and Aaron no one had seen before, catered to their skills.
Henry uses his barrel-chested lung capacity to blow the roof off the house in Burr’s Act I solo, “Wait For It.” “[Alex] was like, ‘I feel like I just want to unleash you even more for this, like I want you to do more of what you do,’” Henry remembers. “That took a while for me to trust that, to trust myself and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to try to hit this note or extend this phrase or minimize this,’” says Henry.
Not all changes can be seen or heard; each actor carries their own emotional truth in their portrayal. Olivo infuses Angelica with vulnerability, juxtaposing Angelica’s courage—a cockiness similar to Hamilton’s—with sensitivity. She shines in her understated “It’s Quiet Uptown.” “I feel like there’s more Karen in that moment than there is Angelica,” says the mother of two, “because I understand the heartbreak.”
Cervantes also understands the psyche of his character. “I’m a smaller guy, so I embody more the scrappy energy,” he says. His Hamilton errs closer to the brash guy in the history books—constantly out to better his peers and make a name for himself. “It’s not a show that requires you to do it a certain way,” says Cervantes. “[Lin] wanted to create a show that didn’t live because of him, even though he created it.”
Therein lies the key to the show’s longevity. The contemporary style of the hip-hop score will eventually cede to something new all the kids listen to. Another musical about the trope of rising up against a superpower will emerge. But the malleability of Hamilton’s material allows more than one master.
The shoes of these revolutionaries can not only be filled for generations, they’ll stretch, as more actors find pieces of themselves tied up in the history of Hamilton’s America.
Miguel Cervantes and Karen Olivo currently star as Alexander Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler in the Chicago production of Hamilton. Joshua Henry opened the Chicago production of the smash musical as Aaron Burr, but has departed to prepare to launch the national tour of the show. Wayne Brady currently stars as Burr in Chicago.