When Frances Egler first crossed paths with Hamilton at New York’s Public Theater a few years ago, the show initially struck her as “a little Schoolhouse Rock!-y.” Soon, though, she found herself absorbed, and remembers quickly arriving at a different verdict: “This is amazing.”
Now Egler is looking at the show from the other side of the proscenium. As the Kimmel Center’s Broadway booker, she scouts the land for “product” to bring to Philadelphia. In the post for five years, the Pittsburgh-born theater-industry veteran has assembled an especially starry lineup just ahead: a 2018-19-season coda with Hamilton, which pulls into town Tuesday for a 12-week run at the Forrest Theatre, overlapping with a 2019-20 season that includes Come From Away, Mean Girls, and Dear Evan Hansen.
It’s Hamilton at the Forrest, though, that promises to be something of an event, even if Kimmel officials are declining to talk about how sales are going. They will say only that tickets are still available for all 95 shows (a 96th is a special performance for schoolchildren only).
Hamilton has rippled with unexpected force since opening at the Public Theater in 2015 and moving to Broadway, and it has now spread across the U.S. by way of four touring companies. Any “Schoolhouse Rock!-y” vibe it gives off is mitigated by a distinct gilding of hip-hop. The show has won 11 Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with the West End production garnering seven Olivier Awards. It routinely turns in impressive ticket sales and financial returns, and critics routinely adore it.
“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” says Egler.
It’s such a phenomenon that some approach performances wondering whether it can possibly survive the buildup.
“Well, Hamilton did,” wrote Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker in 2016. “It’s even better than the praise implies: funny, moving, touching, original in its adaptation of hip-hop prosody, and with a much larger emotional spectrum of sounds and feelings than the elevator pitch – a hip-hop musical about the birth of America – suggests.”
The ‘Hamilton’ jigsaw puzzle
The idea of bringing Hamilton here may have been an obvious one, but to a large extent, Egler and others involved in planning the Kimmel’s Broadway lineup must form a season based on some fixed factors, starting with what’s out there touring.
“It’s a real jigsaw puzzle,” says Egler, whose full title is senior director of programming and presentations. “We start with what weeks we have available at the Academy and the Forrest. And then I’m working to see shows anywhere from two to three years out, understanding what’s coming, what’s going to be able to tour.”
This lead time means the Kimmel’s 2018-19 season represents what was playing on Broadway in the 2016-17 season. As a member of the Broadway League and a voter for the Tony Awards, Egler sees everything on Broadway, and often in previews before shows actually get to Broadway.
“The other big demand we have is what Philadelphia wants to see. And Philadelphia wants to see the best titles as quickly as possible, so it’s that challenge,” she says.
The Hamilton touring company arriving at the Forrest now is coming off its engagement in Schenectady after playing places like San Francisco, Boston, and Atlanta. (This particular cast is called the “Angelica” cast, after one of the Schuyler sisters in the show.)
Philadelphia is a bit different from some other cities on the national Broadway circuit in that it’s “the largest city close to Broadway that has a Broadway series,” says Egler. That means some audience members might have a chance to compare qualities — and the quality — of what’s running in New York with what’s here.
While it’s true that big stars don’t generally tour — Leslie Odom Jr. played Aaron Burr in the original cast of Hamilton — Egler says that to her way of thinking, the quality of what’s seen in New York is no different from that of touring casts.
In fact, she says, there’s a freshness to touring casts, since they are often populated by ambitious talent working their way up. And Philadelphia benefits from proximity to New York.
Visitors bearing notes
“We are close enough to New York that often the creative team will come down to see a show and give notes and tighten it up. Certainly in Philadelphia you are going to see a very tight performance.
“I know the producers really focus on this, they want it to be as good as Broadway.”
Hamilton’s run at the Forrest is unusually long, so the Kimmel and its presenting partner, the Shubert Organization, have high expectations for audience turnout. The Forrest has a seating capacity of about 1,825, which means a selling potential of 173,000 seats. Still, Egler believes that Philadelphia’s hunger for Broadway is strong enough that it won’t dampen sales for other shows. Come From Away, for instance, opens at the Academy in October, concurrent with Hamilton.
Egler says Hamilton is “one of those few Broadway shows that has permeated absolutely everything.”
What’s great about it, she says, is that whether or not you know much about Broadway, its appeal arrives intact. “The arts can be really intimidating,” she says. “You walk into a place like Verizon Hall or the Academy [of Music] and you think, ‘Do I belong here?’ And it’s probably the most diverse cast that we’ve ever had the opportunity to bring to our stage. It’s telling the story of the Founding Fathers through a cast that doesn’t look like the Founding Fathers.”
It’s a safe bet the cast doesn’t sound like them, either. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is an amalgamation of musical styles. There’s hip-hop, to be sure, but it also dips into the more lyrical realms of Broadway and R&B. It shares something with a lot of classical music, which is to say it can be appreciated by the newbie for certain qualities, while revealing layers to those sensitive to wider references.
You might not know, for instance, that a song in the first act, “Ten Dual Commandments,” is an homage to “Ten Crack Commandments” by Notorious B.I.G. But when you do, the song resonates in your cultural consciousness in a larger way.
“Few people know less about hip-hop than I do,” says Egler, “but it works on so many levels. I’ve seen it four times. There’s always something to unpack from it, always something to learn from it.”
Aug. 27-Nov. 17 at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St.
Tickets: $127-$197, with a select number of $497 premium seats. Starting Sunday, 40 tickets will be sold for each performance, on a rolling basis, for $10 each through a digital lottery system.
Information: Kimmelcenter.org, 800-447-7400.