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Here comes 'Hamilton': What you need know about the musical coming to Baltimore that took over the world

Here comes 'Hamilton': What you need know about the musical coming to Baltimore that took over the world
Bryson Bruce, center, is one of the stars of the production of "Hamilton," coming to Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center starting June 25. (Handout)

Four years after “Hamilton” debuted in New York, nearly three years after it began running in Chicago, 18 months after it opened in London and a year after it occupied Washington, the blockbuster musical that envisages the nation’s founding fathers as rappers will finally arrive in Baltimore on Tuesday.

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“Hamilton” has been setting records in the four years since it made its off-Broadway debut and subsequently went on national tour. In addition to nabbing several awards typically bestowed on theatrical productions (the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama plus 11 Tony Awards) the musical has even picked up a prize for which it previously had not been eligible. In December, “Hamilton” became the first work of art to receive a Kennedy Center honor in the awards ceremony’s history; traditionally, the prizes have gone to individuals.

Ron Legler, president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, where the musical will be staged through July 21, anticipates that Crab City residents will identify with the show’s depiction of the struggles that beset the emerging nation.Tickets remain available.

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“This show is about a country that’s young and scrappy and hungry,” Legler said.

“Everyone talks about how gritty Baltimore is. I think there will be a connection with audiences in this city even more so than in the rest of America. We’ve both had our struggles, but we’ve grown from them and keep getting better.”

In keeping with “Hamilton’s” revolutionary spirit, below are the answers to 17.76 questions that will tell you everything you need to know to make the most out of the musical. The information was gleaned from interviews, box office records and the 2016 book “Hamilton: The Revolution” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.

1. Why is the casting such a big deal?

Creator Miranda’s central insight is that real-life leaders such as Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and George Washington were the 18th century equivalent of the rap pioneers — quick-witted, hot-tempered and larger-than-life. These are people who are improvising a new nation on the fly and who could be spectacularly self-destructive as they rewrote history. Since rap is dominated by African American artists, the key roles in the musical had to be played by performers of color.

2. What else is “Hamilton” famous for?

The musical is sung-and-rapped through. Like an opera, there is no spoken dialogue.

3. Can I still get tickets?

As of press time (noon June 19), it was possible to buy a ticket for any performance, though just a handful of seats were available for dates in June.

4. Is “Hamilton” the most popular musical of all time?

“Hamilton” is phenomenally successful and continues to topple box office records. Earlier this year it became the first musical to gross $4 million in one week. But … no, it’s not the champ. As of May 26, “Hamilton” had racked up $530 million in gross box office receipts and was is in eighth place. “The Lion King,” still running nearly 22 years after it opened in 1997, occupies the top spot and has grossed $1.6 billion.

5. Do I have to prepare in advance?

No. Yes. It depends.

“Hamilton” is notoriously intricate verbally. Miranda crammed an astonishing 20,520 words into the not-quite three-hour musical, according to Leah Libresco, an intrepid reporter for the website fivethirtyeight.com, who counted every one of them. That’s between three and five times the word total for most musicals. (To be fair, that’s nothing for a nonmusical; Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” contains more than 30,000 words.)

To capture every nuance, you might want to listen to the soundtrack a few dozen times before experiencing the musical live.

6. What historic period does the musical cover?

The first act deals with the the Revolutionary War. The second act chronicles the three decades after victory and the formation of the U.S. government.

7. Who were Miranda’s musical influences?

The musical pays homage to such gods of rap and hip-hop as The Notorious B.I.G, Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z and Mobb Deep. But while young audience members may geek out on the rap references, their elders may appreciate the nods to such famous musicals and operettas as “South Pacific” and “The Pirates of Penzance.”

8 What’s special about the set?

“Hamilton” isn’t one of those musicals with show-stopping effects. No chandeliers will crash from the theater ceiling towards the audience (“Phantom of the Opera”) and no helicopters land on stage (“Miss Saigon”). The stage design is reminiscent of both the hull of a ship and of a young nation under construction. Perhaps the coolest aspect of the set is the double turntable that revolves in both directions. This allows the action to seemingly rewind and go back in time to depict a key moment from the perspective of another character.

9. Do the actors wear period costumes?

Costume designer Paul Tazewell’s rule was “period from the neck down; modern from the neck up.” In other words, performers wear 18th century garb, but their hair is their own — or at least, appears to be. The only ridiculously curled white Colonial-style wig in the show is worn by Peter Matthew Smith, the actor playing King George III, and it is made from yak hair.

10. What dance styles will I see?

Andy Blankenbuehler’s Tony Award-winning choreography is inspired by everything from jazz to jitterbug to to hip-hop to ballet. Just as some lyrics are reprised in various forms throughout the show, there also are some step sequences that return to move the plot forward.

11. What else will I notice about the casting?

In the “Angelica” tour that will visit Baltimore, actors Bryson Bruce and Chaundre Hall-Broomfield portray the title character’s closest friends in the first act and his worst enemies in the second act. When you see the show, think about what that casting choice might be saying about these real-life figures.

12. Is the musical historically accurate?

Rick Bell, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, was impressed by the show’s grasp of historical detail from the etiquette of dueling rituals to a cannon-stealing raid that occurred during the Revolutionary War. But he’s troubled by an important omission.

“The decision to use black and multiethnic and multicultural actors to represent white founding fathers has a problematic side,” Bell said. “It makes it easy to miss the fact that the show contains no enslaved characters. There are no black characters on stage but a lot of black people.”

13. What about the love triangle that the musical implies existed between Hamilton, his wife and her pretty sister?

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“It’s ambiguous,” Bell said. “There is no smoking gun. We know that Alexander Hamilton was a flirt. His surviving letters show him flirting with a lot of people, including his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler.

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“It makes for a great story on stage. Miranda wrote ‘Satisfied’ for Angelica, which is the best song in the show. Who am I to say it shouldn’t be there?”

(Bell will discuss the show’s historical accuracy in greater depth June 27. Details are below.)

14. Does this show have any Maryland connections?

The show quotes a lyric written by former Baltimorean Tupac Shakur. Miranda told “The New Yorker” magazine in 2015 that Shakur, who was fatally shot in 1996, reminded him of Hamilton. Both possessed verbal virtuosity and both were perhaps fatally undiplomatic, Miranda told the magazine.

15. How did “Hamilton” change what might be in your wallet?

In 2015, then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that as part of the redesign of the $10 bill, an as-yet unnamed woman would replace Alexander Hamilton. The news caused an uproar among the musical’s fans, who argued that Hamilton deserved the honor because he helped create the modern American financial system. Lew backed down and the following year announced plans to bump Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill instead and replace him with an image of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman — though that plan, too, might be postponed until at least 2026.

16. Where can I eat?

Good luck finding a reservation at the few local restaurants immediately before showtime and within walking distance of the theater; a spot check revealed that many are booked up through the musical’s four-week run. You can dine farther away or partake of the new “Hipp Happy Hour.” A fixed price of $49.95 per person (including tip and taxes) buys theater lovers unlimited dinner and drinks from a prix-fixe menu that will include Caribbean jerk chicken skewers, pulled beef sliders and desserts. The offer is available to anyone with a ticket to that evening’s show.

17.76. What spinoff activities are being offered?

The first-ever “Hamil-tunes: A Night of Karaoke for Hamilton Fans” will be held Monday at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Take your shot in front of the mic the night before the opening of the Baltimore run while the audience sings along. Tickets cost $17.76 and proceeds will be donated to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

In addition, Bell will deliver “Hamilton: How the Musical Remixes History” on Thursday at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. The lecture will be followed by a reception and costs $15 for members and $20 for nonmembers.

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