Meet the Jews behind the scenes of the hit musical, Hamilton.
By Alice Burdick Schweiger
Photography by Joan Marcus
Hamilton fans in the Motor City are celebrating as the Tony Award-winning juggernaut about America’s newly hip Founding Father heads to the Fisher Theatre for performances March 12-April 21.
This groundbreaking hip-hop/jazz/rap/R&B musical, with a nod to more traditional Broadway tunes, captures the spirit of Alexander Hamilton and the Revolutionary War era and boasts plenty of Jewish contributions to creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius production.
Lead producer Jeffrey Seller, the Oak Park native who attended Temple Israel and the University of Michigan and recently donated $1 million to Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre, was a proponent for the project from the beginning.
“Hamilton’s story reflects the long line of Jewish immigrants who came to America’s shores seeking opportunity to better their lives,” Seller says. “He gets on a boat to New York to further his education, prospects and opportunities, and we see a direct line to the Jews of Eastern Europe who came to the United States for the same reason.”
Hamilton shares the Founding Fathers’ compelling story. Born out of wedlock, he lived on the Caribbean islands of Nevis and St. Croix. His mother died when he was young, and he was abandoned by his father. While still a teenager, he traveled to America, settling in New York City.
Overcoming numerous obstacles along the way, he attended King’s College (later Columbia University), co-authored the Federalist Papers (a series of 85 essays urging citizens to ratify the new U.S. Constitution), served as George Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, founded the Federalist Party and the Coast Guard, and became the first treasury secretary. Along the way, he married and had seven children.
In 1804, at age 47, he was killed in a duel by his rival, Aaron Burr, whose character’s story intertwines with Hamilton’s throughout the musical.
Noted for its groundbreaking casting of non-white actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures, Hamilton introduces playgoers to George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others. Some of the actors play dual roles, switching to new characters in the second act. King George III provides comic relief.
Notably, Daveed Diggs, the son of a Jewish mother and African American father, originated the dual role of Lafayette and Jefferson on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor for his inspired performance.
The Detroit cast includes Joseph Morales as Alexander Hamilton, Nik Walker as Aaron Burr, Erin Clemons as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, Marcus Choi as George Washington, Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton and Fergie L. Phillips as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison.
Miranda read Jewish Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, while on vacation and approached Chernow about turning his book into a hip-hop musical. Chernow agreed. Miranda wrote the lyrics and music, and the rest is history.
In addition to Seller, who had previously produced Miranda’s Tony Award-winning In the Heights, Jewish members of Hamilton’s creative team include director Thomas Kail, set designer David Korins, associate choreographer Stephanie Crain Klemons and sound designer Nevin Steinberg.
Miranda’s Jewish Ties
Seller says the New York-born and -raised Miranda (his parents emigrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico) has been profoundly affected by the strength of his family and his regular visits to Puerto Rico in the summers, where he stayed with his grandparents.
But he has been surrounded by Jews most of his life.
“Lin grew up in the Washington Heights area of New York City, which had a lot of Jews living there [as well as a sizable Hispanic community],” says the New York City-based Seller. “He went to Hunter College elementary and high schools, which also had many Jews attending, so he nurtured very close friendships with a lot of Jewish kids.”
At Wesleyan University, where he met Hamilton director Thomas Kail, Miranda, a 2002 grad, joined a Jewish a cappella group, the Mazel Tones. His performance of the old-school Israeli song “Hinei Ba HaShalom” has gone viral, thanks to one of the members of that group. Miranda has said that he performed at bar mitzvahs to help pay the rent.
In 2009, New York’s Yeshiva University awarded Miranda an honorary degree. He later tweeted, “The day I became a Jewish doctor!”
When Miranda married Vanessa Nadel in 2010 in New York, he arranged a surprise performance of Fiddler on the Roof’s “To Life” at the reception. The production included Miranda’s father-in-law, father, groomsmen and bridesmaids. (Google “To Life: Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise” to see it on YouTube.)
Seller and his children attended the wedding.
“Lin is a cherished and close colleague and friend with whom I talk on a regular basis,” Seller says. “We do a lot together, including recently purchasing the Drama Bookshop in New York City,” along with Thomas Kail and Detroit-born theater-owner James L. Nederlander, president of the Nederlander Organization.
Seller shares that Miranda wrote some of the songs for Hamilton while visiting him on Long Island.
“He would spend time at our house in the Hamptons on a regular basis, and he wrote a little bit of the music at the house,” Seller recalls. “He wrote one of the show’s most iconic songs, ‘The Room Where It Happens,’ on my front porch. I have a piano, and he brought his keyboard.”
As of today, there are five companies of Hamilton: one each in New York, Chicago and London, and two touring productions. Seller wants the Detroit audience to know the touring company is every bit as good as the Broadway production.
“When you see the set design of Hamilton outside of Broadway, it looks exactly the same. Every single piece of staging, the lighting design, every costume is exactly the same.
“That is our commitment to the general public. When you see the show in Detroit, you are getting the exact same thing people get in New York.”
Hamilton runs March 12-April 21 at Detroit’s Fisher Theater. Tickets are available at BroadwayInDetroit.com or ticketmaster.com. Producer Jeffrey Seller and Broadway in Detroit will also have a digital lottery for tickets beginning with the show’s first performance (March 12) in Detroit at the Fisher Theatre.
Forty tickets will be sold for every performance for $10 each. The digital lottery will open at 11:00 AM ET on Sunday, March 10 for tickets to the Tuesday, March 12 performance. Subsequent digital lotteries will begin two days prior to each performance.