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‘Hamilton: The Exhibition’ Opens in Chicago to Eager Fans

The sweeping show uses interactive visuals, games and sets to provide an in-depth look at the history behind the hit musical

"Hamilton: The Exhibition" opened at Northerly Island in Chicago on April 26, 2019. (Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

On Saturday, April 27, hundreds of fans waiting in line for the opening of "Hamilton: The Exhibition" received a special surprise: The man behind the hit Broadway musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, appeared on the scene with donuts in hand, ready to reward the so-called "Hamilfans" who had braved the dismal Chicago weather with sweet treats and selfies.

As Michael Paulson reports for The New York Times, a specially constructed 35,000-square-foot structure on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline is the first locale to host an immersive, surprisingly educational exhibition on "Hamilton." Dubbed "Hamilton: The Exhibition," the show features an in-depth look at the eponymous Founding Father’s life, correcting historical inaccuracies seen in the musical while simultaneously fleshing out events and themes raised by Miranda’s Tony Award-winning creation.

Catering to the musical enthusiasts sure to flock to the space, the exhibit also includes an audio guide narrated by Miranda and original cast members Phillipa Soo and Christopher Jackson, a reworked instrumental version of the soundtrack recorded by a 27-piece band, and 3-D footage of Miranda leading the Washington, D.C. cast in a performance of the musical’s opening number.

Amazingly, "Hamilton: The Exhibition" cost $1 million more to launch than its Broadway predecessor. Built to travel (at least with the aid of 80 moving trucks), the show carries a hefty price tag of $13.5 million, as opposed to the musical’s $12.5 million—a fact that may account for its high admission rates, which stand at $39.50 for adults and $25 for children. Although the exhibit’s Chicago run currently has no fixed end-date, Jeffrey Seller, the musical's lead producer and the individual in charge of this latest venture, tells Paulson it will likely stay in the Windy City for several months before moving on to cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s Steve Johnson, Miranda, who served as an artistic advisor for the exhibition, describes the show as a “choose-your-own-adventure” experience. Those hoping to delve into the details of the Revolutionary War, federalism and early 19th-century fiscal policy will want to pay attention to wall text and audio narration, while those more interested in the musical will enjoy interactive visuals, games and set pieces crafted by exhibit designer David Korins.

Writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, Miriam Di Nunzio highlights several of the exhibition’s 18 galleries: There’s the “Schuyler Mansion” ballroom, dominated by bronze statues of Alexander Hamilton, the Schuyler sisters, and George and Martha Washington, and a recreation of the Battle of Yorktown that Seller, in an interview with the Sun-Times’ Mary Houlihan, likens to “a giant [animated] Risk board.” Also of note are a “Hurricane” room centered on Hamilton’s youth in St. Croix, a gallery dedicated to Eliza Hamilton’s efforts to ensure her husband’s legacy following his death in 1804, and a “Duel” space featuring life-size statues of Hamilton and Aaron Burr with their pistols raised.

In essence, "Hamilton: The Exhibition" strives to fill the historical gaps left by its namesake musical.

“I couldn't even fit Ben Franklin in my show,” Miranda tells the Daily Beast’s Kimberly Bellware. “I couldn't get the state of Pennsylvania in. But here, we can do a deeper dive on slavery in the north and the south. We can talk about Native American contributions, [and] we can talk about women in the war effort.”

As Bellware observes, one such nod to these hidden histories is a statue of an enslaved woman standing at the edge of the Schuyler ballroom. Rather than providing a cursory overview of slavery in colonial America, the accompanying audio narration urges visitors to consider the figure as an individual, asking, “Where was she from? Who did she love? What were her dreams?”

Focusing on Hamilton specifically, The New York Times’ Jacobs points toward an unassuming sign clarifying the “ten-dollar Founding Father without a father”’s stance on slavery: Although the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” finds Eliza stating, “I speak out against slavery / You could have done so much more if you / only had— / Time,” the exhibit notes, “The real Hamilton wasn’t an abolitionist, but he did oppose slavery.”

It’s worth noting that "Hamilton: The Exhibition" has its flaws: For the Chicago Tribune, Johnson notes that the show features a cast of reproductions, as the warehouse’s climate has yet to prove stable enough to house actual artifacts, and argues that it too often relies on heavy blocks of text to convey the history behind the musical’s catchy tunes. Still, Johnson concludes, these are just “quibbles.” Overall, “there are a thousand choices on display in this exhibition, and almost all of them at least satisfy, while a great number go beyond that to surprise and delight.”

In the words of "Hamilton"’s King George III—the musical's resident source of comic relief—you’ll be back.

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