IN AT THE START

Pub­lic Theater’s Oskar Eustis re­calls the thrill of wit­ness­ing Mi­randa’s mas­ter­work blos­som.

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Oskar Eustis cal­en­dar@la­times.com

In May 2009, my friend Jeremy McCarter made me sit down and watch a video of the now-fa­mous ren­di­tion Lin-Manuel Mi­randa gave at the White House of the open­ing song of “Hamil­ton.”

At the time, the song was all that ex­isted of the show, and its first per­for­mance took place in front of Barack and Michelle Obama. (The pres­i­dent later sug­gested that he should get a Tony along with the “Hamil­ton” pro­duc­ers, since the show had be­gun its de­vel­op­ment at 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave.)

The song pierced me, thrilled me and con­verted me. I had been com­pletely obliv­i­ous to the size and scope of Lin’s ge­nius, and in 4 min­utes and 32 sec­onds I was awak­ened from my dog­matic slum­bers. It was im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that Lin had hit upon a sub­ject and a form that were bril­liantly suited to each other.

By reimag­in­ing the birth of our na­tion through a Found­ing Fa­ther who was a bas­tard im­mi­grant or­phan from the West Indies, a self-made man who not only preached in­de­pen­dence but man­i­fested in his life the free­dom and pos­si­bil­i­ties that Amer­ica al­lowed, Lin was putting the rev­o­lu­tion­ary back in the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion.

By us­ing the lan­guage of the streets to tell the story of our coun­try, Lin was re­claim­ing that story as a tale that be­longed to all peo­ple, not just the pow­er­ful. By writ­ing with wit and ir­rev­er­ence about a sub­ject ob­fus­cated and os­si­fied in the his­tory books, he brought the tu­mult of the late 18th cen­tury to con­tem­po­rary life.

What fol­lowed, for me, was three years of try­ing to con­vince Lin to come work on “Hamil­ton” at the Pub­lic Theater, where I have been artis­tic di­rec­tor since 2005. His ini­tial strat­egy for de­flect­ing me was sim­ple: “It isn’t a show, it’s a con­cept al­bum. Maybe the show will come af­ter the al­bum?” I thought this was a line de­vel­oped for the sole pur­pose of putting me off. Later I rec­og­nized a deeper truth: It was a way for Lin to keep his voice free, his im­pulses open, with­out hav­ing to feel the pres­sure of writ­ing a book for a mu­si­cal. As long as they were just songs, there was no obli­ga­tion to link them all seam­lessly in the telling of the story.

So I kept invit­ing Lin, Lin kept writ­ing songs, each more bril­liant than the last. (I re­mem­ber lit­er­ally scream­ing the first time I heard Lin’s demo of “Help­less.”) The world be­gan to slowly hear more of “Hamil­ton.” Amer­i­can Song­book at Lin­coln Cen­ter pre­sented an evening of Lin that in­cluded 12 songs from “Hamil­ton,” then still called “Hamil­ton Mix­tape”; New York Stage and Film at Vas­sar did a work­shop of what be­came the first act. Grad­u­ally it be­came clear to Lin, and to all of us, that this was in­deed a show. A mu­si­cal. And af­ter a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions, Lin agreed to come to the Pub­lic Theater to de­velop and pre­miere the show.

A Pub­lic choice

I be­lieve he chose the Pub­lic be­cause it was the right place to nur­ture this ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­si­cal into life. It is a civi­cally en­gaged theater deeply com­mit­ted to the idea that the cul­ture be­longs to ev­ery­one, and that the bril­liance of Amer­ica is in its deep demo­cratic in­clu­siv­ity. We give away 100,000 free tick­ets ev­ery year to Shake­speare in the Park; we have de­vel­oped ground­break­ing the­atri­cal work by giv­ing cen­ter stage to those who have been de­nied their place in the Amer­i­can story, we in­sist that the theater has some­thing to of­fer to the great de­bates of our time.

And we’ve got a pretty good track record of de­vel­op­ing and pro­duc­ing bold mu­si­cals, from “A Cho­rus Line” to “Caro­line, or Change” to “Fun Home.”

The struc­ture of the first act was al­ways clear, in­deed laid out in that very first song Lin wrote, which gets Hamil­ton from birth to New York City; the rest of the act brings us to Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton ap­point­ing him to be the first sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury. We could have taken an act break af­ter the win­ning of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, and cer­tainly “York­town” felt like a fan­tas­tic first act cur­tain, but it was clear we needed to set up the stakes for the sec­ond act be­fore let­ting the au­di­ence go. The first act was cre­at­ing a na­tion; the sec­ond act would be build­ing a na­tion.

The struc­ture for the sec­ond act was much less ob­vi­ous. Ron Ch­er­now had nar­rated Hamil­ton’s life in his mag­is­te­rial bi­og­ra­phy, and his book pro­vided a pow­er­ful spine for the ac­tion. Nonethe­less, the show needed to fo­cus on the dra­matic jour­ney at the heart of our hero’s tale, and for­mu­lat­ing that dra­matic ac­tion cor­rectly was our most im­por­tant task. For me, the most suc­cess­ful ar­tic­u­la­tion was this:

Hamil­ton is driven by both per­sonal am­bi­tion and by ide­al­ism, and for most of his life the two were in­sep­a­ra­bly in­ter­twined. When pub­lic dis­grace and per­sonal tragedy seem to over­whelm him, he must choose be­tween his own in­ter­ests and the good of the coun­try. At the cost of his own life, he chooses his coun­try.

One of the great gifts of the show, and one of the rea­sons au­di­ences have re­sponded so rap­tur­ously, is that “Hamil­ton” un­leashes our of­ten-dor­mant pa­tri­o­tism. It al­lows pro­gres­sives to unashamedly love Amer­ica.

We knew Hamil­ton’s story ended with his death, as our mu­si­cal must. The show be­gins with Hamil­ton an­nounc­ing “I am not throw­ing away my shot”; it ends with him do­ing ex­actly that. No one knows pre­cisely what was in Hamil­ton’s mind dur­ing his fa­tal duel with Aaron Burr, and Lin strug­gled with Hamil­ton’s fi­nal words un­til very late in our process.

In my of­ten sim­plis­tic way, I was push­ing him to an­swer the ques­tion of what Hamil­ton was think­ing; rather than pro­vid­ing a de­fin­i­tive an­swer, Lin bril­liantly made Hamil­ton’s un­cer­tainty the heart of his fi­nal speech.

Years be­fore “Hamil­ton” opened at the Pub­lic on Feb. 17, 2015, I had been com­par­ing Lin to Shake­speare. Each of them took the lan­guage of the com­mon peo­ple and el­e­vated it into verse, thereby en­nobling both the lan­guage and the char­ac­ters who spoke it. They both told the found­ing sto­ries of their na­tion in a way that rec­og­nized ev­ery­one, of all classes, as cit­i­zens. They both em­ployed a free­dom of form that was ex­hil­a­rat­ing and mas­ter­ful.

But Shake­speare and Lin also re­fused to be com­pletely pinned down, leav­ing their nar­ra­tives open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion and con­stantly re­newed de­bate. Leav­ing them, in short, en­tirely hu­man.

Lin gath­ered around him an amaz­ing group of col­lab­o­ra­tors, each of whom was essen­tial to this show.

Alex La­camoire, or­ches­tra­tor and mu­sic di­rec­tor, the curly­haired cherub I saw at the piano in that first clip of Lin at the White House, is not only a bril­liant mu­si­cian but a deeply lov­ing col­lab­o­ra­tor. He shares so much mu­si­cal DNA with Lin that he was able to ex­press all the di­verse mu­si­cal in­flu­ences of the mu­sic while al­ways mak­ing it feel like one score.

Andy Blanken­buehler’s chore­og­ra­phy adds a di­men­sion to Hamil­ton that I’ve never seen be­fore — a form of ab­stract but pro­found nar­ra­tive that con­tin­u­ally sup­ports and en­hances the story. His danc­ing dra­maturgy would be­come a pro­found piece of the show.

Jef­frey Seller is the com­mer­cial pro­ducer who has been at­tached to Lin and his work for Lin’s en­tire ca­reer. I would come to trea­sure Jef­frey as a part­ner: His bril­liant com­mer­cial in­stincts were matched by his deep com­mit­ment to sup­port­ing the show in be­com­ing the best pos­si­ble ver­sion of it­self.

And guid­ing the en­tire ship was Tommy Kail, Lin’s friend, fel­low Wes­leyan grad­u­ate and the di­rec­tor of “Hamil­ton.” It was with won­der­ment and awe that I watched Tommy di­rect. I have never seen a di­rec­tor more able to in­spire the best pos­si­ble work from ev­ery­one around him, more will­ing to let the best idea win in any de­bate, more able to lead from vi­sion and prin­ci­ple. He is a mir­a­cle.

Ob­vi­ously, there were many other vi­tal con­trib­u­tors to this show, but it was th­ese four, along with Lin him­self, who were the lead­er­ship. I was priv­i­leged to be among them.

‘Joys and drama’

The story of “Hamil­ton’s” open­ing at the Pub­lic, the enor­mous ac­claim with which it was greeted, and its sub­se­quent move to Broad­way and trans­for­ma­tion into a cul­tural icon, was ex­tra­or­di­nary, full of count­less joys and drama.

We played “Hamil­ton” in the same theater where “A Cho­rus Line” had opened 40 years be­fore. At a time when Amer­ica was suf­fer­ing des­per­ate unem­ploy­ment, “A Cho­rus Line” was the mag­nif­i­cent mu­si­cal about need­ing a job; it ran for 16 years on Broad­way. It spoke to its time as pow­er­fully as “Hamil­ton” speaks to our mul­ti­cul­tural Amer­ica. In April 2015, on the 40th an­niver­sary of the open­ing of “A Cho­rus Line,” we brought the orig­i­nal cast back to the Pub­lic to watch “Hamil­ton” At the end of the show, the cho­rus of “Hamil­ton” ser­e­naded the orig­i­nal com­pany of “Cho­rus Line” with “What I Did for Love.”

First Lady Michelle Obama came to the show at the Pub­lic. As I was walk­ing her down to the Green Room to meet the cast, she said to me, “This is the great­est work of art I have ever seen, in any medium.”

My joy was im­me­di­ately tem­pered by my crush­ing re­al­iza­tion that I was the only one who had heard her say it. But a year later, when the en­tire com­pany were guests of the Oba­mas at the White House, she said it again, word for word, on na­tional TV.

On that same trip, I had the joy of watch­ing Chris Jack­son, our bril­liant orig­i­nal Wash­ing­ton, sing “One Last Time” di­rectly to Pres­i­dent Obama, less than a year be­fore Obama would leave of­fice. There was not a dry eye in the room, and when the pres­i­dent thanked us, he fin­ished by say­ing, “Let’s teach ’em how to say good­bye.”

“Hamil­ton” is a bril­liant mu­si­cal, and a bril­liantly en­ter­tain­ing one. But it is more than that be­cause it was cre­ated by the huge and gen­er­ous hearts of the artists who made it, most of all Lin him­self. Broad­way mu­si­cal num­bers, hip-hop and Bea­tle-es­que bal­lads all seem to be­long to­gether, be­cause they are all things Lin loves. In that way, the form of this amaz­ing mu­si­cal man­i­fests the egal­i­tar­ian an­gels of this coun­try. It doesn’t just speak of a na­tion where we all be­long; it cre­ates it on­stage. May it in­spire all of us to make our coun­try as good as “Hamil­ton.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

PUB­LIC THEATER artis­tic di­rec­tor Oskar Eustis spent three years on the trail of “Hamil­ton.”

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