If the soundtrack, the book and the app weren’t enough, fans of the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton can now tour the exhibition, which opens in a 35,000ft touring events space on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago this weekend.
The musical – which became a phenomenon after it opened in New York in 2015, spawning two other shows in Chicago and London as well as a touring version that recently visited Puerto Rico – has become one of the top-grossing musicals of all time. It has been nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tonys, winning 11, and a Pulitzer, and hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have seen it.
The musical portrays Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, as a kind of avatar for the United States – “young, scrappy, and hungry, just like my country”, as Hamilton describes himself in creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show.
Now Miranda and his team are back to expand on the story of the early American statesman – and to “ignite civic duty” through an immersive look at the beginnings of the United States combining abstract art with more straightforward educational displays.
“[The musical] awakened this general need to know more about this era,” Miranda told reporters ahead of the ribbon cutting at the exhibit. “This was an opportunity for a deeper drive.”
Like the Broadway phenomenon it grew out of, Hamilton: The Exhibition packages its historical story in popular entertainment. But the exhibition, which will eventually travel to other cities after its launch, looks to go even deeper into Hamilton’s story.
It also aims to correct the record on some of the show’s historical inaccuracies and omissions, and to serve as a reminder that in a turbulent time in the US, it is those with the “farthest-reaching ideas” who can change history for the better.
“He was not a perfect person, but this was someone who fought for the greater good,” the creative director, David Korins, who also designed the sets for the musical, told the Guardian as crews finished setting up the exhibition. “[The Founding Fathers] were not just iconic statues. They were living, breathing people.”
The exhibition also serves as a reminder – both frustrating and comforting, Miranda said – that many of the debates still raging in the US today date back to the beginnings of the country.
“The fights we had at the founding of this country are the fights we’re still having,” Miranda said.
The exhibit is housed in a hangar of sorts constructed specifically for the temporary show – with the eyes of a Hamilton portrait looking out over Chicago’s museum campus.
The exhibit takes visitors on a tour through Hamilton’s life, from his childhood in St Croix, in the Caribbean, to the revolutionary war and his political life in the US, and finally to his 1804 death during a duel with his rival, Vice-President Aaron Burr.
The story is told through a juxtaposition of historical replicas, such as recreated letters and documents, and more abstract renderings of the story, including a room with series of pulleys that delves into the annals of the coming together of the disparate states to form a single union.
It’s a spectacular display, one in which visitors can literally walk through the US constitution that Hamilton helped frame and loiter through a scene at a winter’s ball – a brief respite from fighting in the war between Great Britain and the States – that features posed figures from the story, including Hamilton and George Washington. Recordings from Miranda and cast members guide visitors through the experience.
“This is the single greatest effort for me in my career,” said Korins.
It was also one of the most challenging, as there isn’t really a precedent for adapting a musical into an exhibition. But then again, Hamilton is also no ordinary Broadway hit. In addition to the Tony awards and the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama, it won a Grammy for best theatre album and made waves around the world with its productions in Chicago and London and a series of US tours.
But the accolades only tell part of the story. Hamilton, with its hip-hop take on history and its color-conscious casting, has also taken on a much larger significance, serving as an educational tool that has even inspired some college courses, including at Northwestern University, just outside Chicago.
“It’s absolutely electrifying as a work of art,” said Caitlin Fitz, an associate professor of history at Northwestern who taught a Hamilton course.
That’s part of why the show connected so well with audiences and continues to resonate still, four years after it first hit the stage, Fitz told the Guardian. But, she said, she is also concerned that part of the reason theater-goers have latched on to Hamilton is that it presents what she says is a “feelgood version of American history that distorts reality”.
There are inaccuracies, Fitz said, including an exaggeration of the statesman’s anti-slavery credentials, and omissions, such as his notorious elitism, his militarism, “[and] his profound distrust of democracy”. The show also reinforces a framing of early American history that focuses mostly on the contributions of a small group of elite whites at the expense of others who played a role in the founding of the country.
“It masquerades as a progressive take on American history, but it’s also quite conservative in terms of the actual history it purports to tell,” Fitz said. “In that regard it offers something for everyone.”
The Hamilton exhibit – which featured consultation from big-name historians, including the noted Hamilton scholar Joanne B Freeman of Yale University – features notes in many of the displays clarifying or correcting facts the show glossed over or did not present accurately.
It also expands on the story as presented in the musical, similarly seeking to make what some might have viewed as dry history accessible and alive – not to mention Instagrammable.