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How 'Hamilton' Inspires Louisville Artists to Think About Theater Differently

Hamilton
Courtesy of "Hamilton: An American Musical" Photo by Joan Marcus.
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Doug Schutte, playwright and owner of the Bard’s Town, says he laughs when he thinks of what will happen when -- six or seven years down the road -- the rights to the script of “Hamilton” become available to the public.

“We’ll have five or six Louisville companies doing it all at the same time,” he says.

That's a testament to the widespread acclaim of the 2015 Broadway show -- a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, the founding father perhaps best known for writing most of the Federalist Papers and being involved in both a sex scandal and a duel.

It was an unexpected hit. Producers just raised premium ticket prices to $849, and it was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony awards -- of which it won 11 on Sunday night. But Hamilton is making history in other ways, too.

Men and women of color play historical figures who were all white. Renee Elise Goldserry, who plays Angelica Schuyler, told Time in a 2015 interview: "We have the opportunity to reclaim a history that some of us don’t necessarily think is our own."

This choice offers not only a different interpretation of American history -- it signals a shift in casting practices in a realm of theater that traditionally lack diversity. And it isn't just on Broadway. "Hamilton" has inspired some Louisville theater professionals to think differently about cultivating more diverse local casts.

“I think it’s easy to do that with plays that nobody knows, but in this particular instance, it’s with founding fathers who everyone sees or pictures in their head as white,” Schutte says. "That's what made it really special."

Michael Drury, the artistic director of Pandora Productions, agrees.

“I am hopeful that (the success of the show) has an influence on artistic directors as they are casting, so that they feel empowered to cast against traditional stuff,” Drury says. “I’m also hopeful that it has that effect for our theater community more broadly.”

Drury says the diversity displayed in “Hamilton” goes beyond the cast; it includes the musical styles and writing techniques implemented by creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to tell a story that, until now, only appeared in textbooks.

“I’m hoping it opens people up to seeing history in a different  way -- that it frees us up to create historical plays with a different perspectives," Drury says.

Janelle Hunnicutt is the co-artistic director of Smoked Apple Theater Group, an African-American community-based theater group in Louisville. She says the musical is a personal inspiration as she tries to get the company -- which is producing its second full-length play -- off the ground.

“(Miranda) created a story where I don’t look at it and think, ‘Oh, I love Eliza, but I know I’ll never be cast as Eliza,'” Hunnicutt says. “Or a male actor saying, ‘Oh, I want to play Aaron Burr, but I can’t because I am black,’ or, ‘I’m Latina, I can never play that.'”

She continues: “But here we are. We have a black man playing Aaron Burr on Broadway. So I look at that with Smoked Apple, and I believe anything is possible.”