How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore become the central figure in a unique live event that merges karaoke, sing-along traditions and a record-shattering Broadway musical?
Hamilton, brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been smashing expectations since its Broadway debut in August 2015. Other musicals, like Les Miserables and Rent, have inspired intense adoration, but Hamilton seems to defy all previous models with its unflagging success and nearly universal acclaim. Fans, the majority of whom have not seen the musical live, express their love through drawings and fan fiction, and — no joke — there's been an uptick in visitors to Hamilton-related historical sites.
Here in Los Angeles (where Hamilton won’t hit the Pantages' stage until August 2017), a group of fans has found a new way to express its obsession with other devotees from around Southern California. Hamiltunes L.A. is a bimonthly live sing-along that invites Hamilton fans to join together to perform tunes from the musical.
Once a month, organizers host a full sing-along at the Clubhouse, where the entire musical is sung track by track. Smaller-scale events, known as a “Rocheambeau,” take place at the Nerdist School Theatre and follow the same model, but scaled down to a greatest-hits version. The organizers, known as the cabinet, are themselves Hamilton superfans who pepper their conversation with references, sometimes not even realizing they’ve done so.
As audience members line up outside the theater, they're invited to participate in a #Ham4Ham session, modeled after impromptu outdoor concerts Miranda devised to entertain flocks of fans waiting for lottery tickets. Inside, performers find that props like a King George III wig and an American flag are at their disposal. An improvisational attitude reigns, with participants jumping up to mime action like the slow-motion fatal bullet discharged during Burr and Hamilton’s duel.
There is a sign-up list for each song, and participants are called to the stage with only a microphone and a three-ring binder of lyrics to guide them. Audience members are encouraged to sing along throughout, providing the chorus to songs, as well as the sound effects and vocal interjections that help define the unique sound and orchestrations of Hamilton.
Founder Liz Kerin explains, “I used the Rocky Horror model early on. This is not a performance. This is an audience-participation thing.” It is above all, an opportunity for Hamilton fans to celebrate their fandom in a communal space.
Singing ability is also not a factor — all that’s required is enthusiasm and gusto. Cabinet member Jack Kelly stresses that, saying: “If you want to go onstage and sing, go onstage and sing. We are, sometimes literally, behind you 100 percent. ... I’m not a classically trained singer, but people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re so good.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re hearing the passion that I have for this, and if you went up and did it, I would hear the same thing. I would think you’re amazing as well.”
The crowd is peppered with former high school theater students. While many have moved on to other professions, they still harbor a love of performing that Hamiltunes allows them to indulge.
“In L.A., if you want to act or sing or be onstage, you gotta be pursuing it so hard,” says cabinet member Mia Resella. “A lot of us are not pursuing acting, but we think it’s fun to go sing in front of people, and so, it’s our only chance to go do that.”
Hamiltunes L.A. is a space for L.A. theater lovers to celebrate an art form frequently overshadowed by the movie business. “How often do you get to have an event in L.A. where people geek out over musicals?” asks audience member Chrissy Sparkles. “It’s not very common here at all. It’s one thing if you’re in New York and there’s piano bars everywhere, but we don’t have anything like that readily available here.”
The sing-along events, which began essentially as house-party karaoke in December 2015, have swelled rapidly in size and scale. Full-scale events are capped at 80 people due to space restrictions, and the RSVP list fills up within 15 minutes of release. Fans come from as far afield as Riverside, San Dimas and San Diego.
Hamiltunes L.A. has found itself facing an exploding popularity akin to the musical itself by virtue of modeling the same inclusiveness and diversity found onstage. The show touts itself as “The story of America then, told by America now,” and Hamiltunes L.A. builds on that example.
Cabinet member Omar Najam explains that Hamiltunes L.A. exists to perpetuate the groundbreaking tenets of the musical. “It’s that idea that everyone’s voice matters,” he says. “And everyone gets to speak. Every show is completely different because people are doing different takes on characters and exploring different facets of themselves and of the musical.”
Beyond screaming out show tunes with a crowd of 80 like-minded individuals, the diversity of the experience and the performers is one of the joys of Hamiltunes L.A. A white 20-something girl spits out Aaron Burr’s verse, while a middle-aged Latino man takes on the musings of Thomas Jefferson. An unassuming girl in glasses comes alive prancing around in a wig as King George III, belting her guts out.
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Hamiltunes L.A. is bringing disparate groups together offstage as well. Participants and organizers alike cite the “welcoming atmosphere” and sense of community that keeps them coming back — bringing friends back with them or making new ones while there. “L.A.’s a really tough town to meet people in,” says guest Meredith Placko, “so it’s nice to meet other Hamilton nerds.”
Many of the cabinet members (of which there are six) did not know each other when Hamiltunes L.A. started but were united through mutual friends and a shared love of a Broadway show that has returned musicals to the mainstream.
For cabinet member Jack Kelly, Hamiltunes L.A. was not simply a chance to rejoice in the rejuvenation of musical theater but a place to find his people. “I’ve lived in L.A. almost four years, and this is the first time that I’ve ever had friends that I genuinely really love,” he says. “It makes me so happy that people are finding community and finding friends and finding something to love unabashedly and be passionate about.”
In the show, Hamilton sings, “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” With the reach of Hamilton inspiring everything from artistry to sing-alongs to friendships, Lin-Manuel Miranda has sown the seeds of a legacy that’s already yielding fruit.