The American musical is evolving. And "Hamilton," which opened Aug. 6 at the Richard Rodgers Theater, is at the forefront of the movement. The hit Broadway musical has connections to Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama both on stage and behind the scenes.
The musical, written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Thomas Kail, is an adaptation of Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. As one might imagine, the full cast of characters at the conception of the United States are present — however, they look a little different than they do on U.S. currency and sound a little different, too.
The show is nearly entirely cast with black and Latino actors and actresses, and its music veers far from typical music theater tropes, embracing hip-hop and pop music as narrative vehicles in the almost completely sung-through production.
"I didn't necessarily think when I saw the breakdown that that my character [Angelica Schuyler] was a fit for me," said Renée Elise Goldsberry (A 1993), who won Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk Awards during the Off-Broadway run of the show. "It said she was a mix between Nicki Minaj and Desiree Armfeldt [a character from the Sondheim musical, "A Little Night Music"], but they sent me a demo of Lin singing my song, and I was excited and challenged by it."
Goldsberry, a College of Fine Arts grad, is just one of several CMU connections to "Hamilton." Fellow dramat Leslie Odom Jr. (A 2003) was nominated for Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk awards for his portrayal of Aaron Burr, the narrator of the show; Scott Wasserman (A 2010) is the music assistant and beatmaster; and Paul Tazewell, a former costume design faculty member at the School of Drama, designed the costumes.
"Most people that I've worked with from CMU don't just do one thing well. My experience from my audition for the school on, was that there was an expectation to be open to anything, any form of storytelling." — Renée Elise Goldsberry
"I believe that everybody has a reason why they get on the bus to New York," Odom said. "Everybody has something that they want to say. I am saying the thing that I wanted to say when I got on that bus. The dream is equally achieved with the role and the project. The show is connecting with people in such a powerful and visceral way and we're having a wonderful time. As an experience, this is the ideal."
Goldsberry and Odom say working with fellow alumni is exciting, regardless of whether or not they were at CMU at the same time.
"It's the best because we speak the same language," Odom said. "What we find is, among the schools, there's plenty that we have in common, but each has a different dialect. It's so nice to come across someone who has your same accent."
Goldsberry chalks up the success of Carnegie Mellon alumni in the entertainment industry to their faceted talents.
"I think CMU is wonderful at finding someone that's not only talented but special," she said. "Most people that I've worked with from CMU don't just do one thing well. My experience from my audition for the school on, was that there was an expectation to be open to anything, any form of storytelling."
Both performers agreed that their time at Carnegie Mellon was one of the most formative in their lives as artists, helping them to hone their craft as well as build a community.
"It's a really beautiful time to be a young person working — on yourself, your soul, your relationships — without a lot of the complexities that come after school," Goldsberry said. "I encourage them to enjoy one of the best seasons of their life and when they get out, we're all waiting for them and excited to have them here. There are a lot of new adventures to be had and fellow alum to cheer them on."
Renée Elise Goldsberry (A 1993), center
Leslie Odom Jr. (A 2003)