How lucky we are to be alive right now, here in the age of Hamilton. The Tony-nominated cast and crew members of the smash-hit Broadway musical sat down with Anderson Cooper for a SiriusXM Town Hall on Tuesday, taped on the Richard Rodgers stage.
EW was there for the event — which rather miraculously took place just hours after creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda gave the commencement address at UPenn, and just hours before Hamilton‘s regular Monday night performance. The conversation premieres on SiriusXM channel 72, On Broadway, on Friday, May 20, at 6 p.m. ET, and will repeat throughout the week — but in the meantime, here are some of the best things we learned:
Lin-Manuel Miranda uses Timehop.
MacArthur “genius” recipients and Pulitzer-winners: They’re just like us! When Cooper mentioned to Miranda that Monday was exactly seven years and four days since his initial performance of “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House, Miranda said actually, he did know it was around the anniversary. “My Timehop on my Facebook showed up recently, and all of my entries from that day — back when Facebook updates were still in the third person — are ‘Lin-Manuel Miranda is in a van with James Earl Jones. What?’, ‘Lin-Manuel Miranda is meeting Michelle Obama…what?‘”
Of the experience performing at the White House Poetry Jam, Miranda remembers, “It was a very surreal room. It was George Stephanopoulos next to Zach Braff next to Spike Lee… it was like a Mad Libs of the internet.”
Before each performance, cast members can see the list of which celebrities are in attendance. Some choose not to look.
Cooper asked the cast members if they get nervous when celebrities show up in the audience, and the answers really varied. “I don’t like to know,” said Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr. “There’s a list that exists before every show that has all the ‘fancies’, so you can know if you’d like to know…. At this point, we all know backstage who likes to know. Chris doesn’t mind knowing, Daveed doesn’t really like to know.”
Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, said she just wanted to know which day was finally going to be the day Beyoncé came. Daveed Diggs, who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, said he’s fine as long as the celebrities aren’t sitting in the first five rows — which are the only faces he can really make out because he has bad eyesight. “Y’all are people,” he says, gesturing to the audience in rows 1-5, and “Y’all are just shapes,” he says to the back of the theater.
The best time to approach Miranda about a new project? When he’s full, and when he’s just been praised.
Director Tommy Kail let us in on his secret: At a party after a small performance of some early Hamilton material in June of 2011, “Lin was eating cheese and crackers, and people were saying nice things to him — which is usually when I realize I should make my move, because he’s not hungry, and he’s just been satiated in his applause quotient. ‘Lin, did you hear how hard they were clapping? We should do more.‘” Seems like it worked.
Miranda told Chris Jackson (who plays George Washington) about Hamilton during a performance of In the Heights.
During a scene in which Miranda and Jackson had to look like they were making inaudible small talk in a bodega set onstage, they would actually have real conversations about life. “We’d talk about everything behind that counter, and then we’d go out and sing and dance, no one would ever know,” Jackson said. It’s there, he explained, that Miranda told him, “I’ve got the next thing…. It’s about the treasury secretary.” To which Jackson replied, “…Who?”
Not even the actors have fully grasped the complex meanings within Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography.
When Cooper brought up a detail that he noted probably doesn’t even register with most audience members — the fact that Burr moves in straight lines, while Hamilton always moves in arcs — Blankenbuehler’s subsequent discussion confounded even the cast members. “I felt that the show was always revolving… and a lot of that had to do with the fact that Hamilton would never stop thinking. The options were infinite, the things he wanted to accomplish were infinite. So Hamilton’s movement is always circling throughout the course of the show,” he explained. Blankenbuehler thinks the audience perceives “forward progress, or at least inevitability, counterclockwise,” so “every new choice that Hamilton makes makes the stage turn counterclockwise.”
At this point, Miranda interrupted: “I’ve done this so many times, and I didn’t know that,” he said incredulously.
Blankenbuehler continued: “When we’re resisting fate, the action on the stage goes clockwise — and that only happens a few times: When Hamilton’s dying…” But then Cooper interrupted, addressing Jackson’s utter shock: “Christopher, the look on your face right now… I wish the [radio] audience could see it.”
Blankenbuehler protested, “That’s why when you cross to stage left, it’s so important!”
And Jackson, in mock anger, said, “You don’t understand. I’m learning about my show right now… I’m serious!” He explained missed the last few initial rehearsals, where the cast was learning why they do certain moves. “I’m still learning today why I move over there, and why I got a note just the other day that I was two feet out of my light!” he yelled.
The whole show, even down to Howell Binkley’s lighting, is designed to mimic Alexander Hamilton’s nonstop pace.
There are no “blackouts” in Hamilton because the show is designed to transition so seamlessly between songs, so it never loses momentum. A traditional fade-to-black scene change would slow that momentum — so lighting designer Howell Binkley keeps the lights on throughout (until intermission, of course).
The look of the stage, with the action happening down below and rafters above where spectators watch, was partly inspired by paintings of 19th century operating theater.
If you’ve seen The Knick, this will look familiar to you: Miranda explained that for inspiration, Kail brought the entire design team an image of Thomas Eakin’s painting “The Gross Clinic”. And it wasn’t just visual inspiration: “It was a really cool image for how we were going to approach Hamilton’s life,” Miranda explained. “We’re going to take it apart, and we’re going to see how things got to where they were.”