More than 2,500 "Hamilton" fans filed into the gilded Hollywood Pantages Theatre on Monday evening, though the musical isn’t set to have its opening night until Wednesday.
Instead, the crowd assembled to hear a conversation with some of the brains behind the phenomenon: director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music supervisor, orchestrator and co-arranger Alex Lacamoire.
The hour-long discussion, moderated by Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor Mary McNamara and organized as part of the Ideas Exchange series, touched on the musical's origins, creative development, meteoric rise and continuing evolution.
"I don't want to over-hype it, but 'Hamilton' may be the one thing that can unite our very divided country," Times Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Davan Maharaj said to applause in his opening remarks. "After all, Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are huge fans."
Lacamoire and Kail took the stage with Blankenbuehler, who won laughs by striking a “Staying Alive” pose when his bona fides (as a dancer on Broadway’s "Saturday Night Fever" and as the three-time Tony-winning choreographer behind "Hamilton," "In the Heights" and "Bandstand") were announced.
Cheers also went up at the mere mention of composer, lyricist, book writer and original Alexander Hamilton performer, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lacamoire recounted the moment the composer brought the musical’s first song to him, a song they eventually performed together — Miranda rapping, Lacamoire playing piano — at a White House event that First Lady Michelle Obama organized in 2009 to celebrate the spoken word.
“At first when I heard the opening number, I couldn't tell whether he was serious about it or whether it was supposed to be a joke, because it seems like such an absurd pairing in a way,” Lacamoire said, referring to Miranda’s mash-up of hip-hop with early American history. “And when you watch the video of him performing it at the White House, when he explains what he's about to do, you hear the room laugh as well. But then you hear him do it and you realize ,'Oh my God, he's dead serious about this.'"
One Pulitzer Prize, 11 Tony Awards and a Grammy later, "Hamilton" has proved to be far from a joke. The theater fell silent as Blankenbuehler recounted his first time hearing the concept album that would become frenzy-inducing theater.
"I remember thinking that what he's creating … could work almost in any venue," he said. "It could be a film, it could be an album, it could be a play, and I remember being so inspired by it but at the same time so nervous that I wouldn't be included because I knew it could be successful any place. I started saying my prayers that night that it would become a show."
The creative team talked about the show’s ability to bridge the gap between 1776 and 2017, between historical figures and the audience.
"What we want to do is humanize everybody in this and not have them up there on dollar bills and pedestals but actually put them on the ground," Kail said. Colonial bonnets were tossed so that actors’ contemporary hairstyles became part of that linking between past and present; period costumes were designed to move like contemporary fashion.
"All of a sudden you're hearing text that maybe you studied 10 years ago or 30 years ago, but you're hearing a beat that makes you realize that the street is happening right now," Blankenbuehler said. "And so all of a sudden, everybody started seeing history not hundreds of years ago but history as in, 'Oh, I know that person, he lives on my block,' or 'That's a leader I would follow today.'"
The message rises up through propulsive music that drives the entire production, the creative team said.
"The beat in our show is equal parts low and badass and high and aspirational, and that reminds us that that's the fight that we continue to go through every day," Blankenbuehler said. "And then we realize, 'Oh, my fight every day was their fight 250 years ago.' … The show is about ourselves."
Ticket-holding fans waiting for their turn to see the national tour heard Lacamoire talk about the ways songs might shift from city to city based on the actor who’s playing the role — how the essential truth of the scene or emotion of the moment never changes, but the emphasis on certain notes might be tweaked ever so slightly.
They also heard just how much the team’s success has been based on collaboration and trust built over years, and the ability to rework numbers dozens of times before getting it right.
Before the night ended, McNamara relayed questions submitted by The Times' HS Insider program for high school students as well as a few from Miranda himself.
"First of all, he wants to know, do you miss him?" McNamara asked to audience laughter.
"I think we answered that question," Kail said. "Deeply."
Check back for video of this Ideas Exchange conversation. It will be posted along with other news from the “Hamilton” national tour, cast interviews and more at latimes.com/hamilton.
follow me on twitter @sonaiyak