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Before There Was Hamilton

Ten years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail and many others from the creative team behind Hamilton had their first Broadway hit with their Tony and Grammy Award-winning In the Heights. The pleasure of that musical — which began as a student production when Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown and later developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford — was splendidly on display this summer at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park.

To celebrate the show’s 10th anniversary, Ghostlight Records is releasing a three-LP soundtrack exclusively through Barnes & Noble, marking the first time the show has been offered on vinyl. The set features newly remastered audio, 21 tracks and 90 minutes of music, and a 12-inch-by-12-inch booklet with full lyrics, original Broadway show photos, a synopsis and a liner note from Kail. An MP3 download card is also included.

“[The anniversary] acts as a reminder of the things you’re proud of with people you love,” says Kail, 41. “That’s what this show represents for me, especially in a week where I can tell people I’m working with some of these same collaborators on a completely new project.”

Kail is referring to the limited television series he will direct and co-produce with Miranda based on the lives and careers of choreographer-director Bob Fosse and Broadway legend Gwen Verdon. Andy Blankenbuehler will choreograph the series coming to FX next year, with Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams attached as series leads. “One of the things that brings so much joy in my life is that I’ve been able to keep some of the most inspiring, thoughtful, kind human beings — who also happen to be exceptionally talented — in my life. The chance to sit with them and take a moment to reflect back and share what was for so many of us our first Broadway experience is something I’m soaking in now.

“I feel in many ways the DNA for Hamilton — and a lot of other things we made [since] — are very evident in In the Heights. If you listen and watch that show it’s abundantly clear that it’s written by Lin-Manuel Miranda [and orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman], and the fact that the spirit became the fuel for us is apparent.”

Recent news is that Warner Bros. has bought the rights to the film version of In the Heights for $50 million and is expected to shoot next summer. Jon M. Chu (Step Up franchise) is attached to direct. “I don’t have anything to do with the movie, but I’m a huge cheerleader for it and can’t wait to buy a ticket.”

More locally, theater fans can try for tickets to what was the creative team’s next big project after In the HeightsHamilton. The touring show plays The Bushnell in Hartford Dec. 11-30, shortly after Kail, Miranda, Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire accept Kennedy Center Honors for their work on Hamilton. They will receive the award on Dec. 2., and the event will be broadcast Dec. 26.

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Cynthia Erivo

From Broadway to Hollywood

Cynthia Erivo was a sensation in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, for which she won the Tony Award for her performance as the downtrodden yet triumphant Celie. Since then the British actor-singer has launched a film career with several movies about to be released and a major one to begin filming in the fall based on the life of Harriet Tubman. But first she will be performing in concert Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Ridgefield Playhouse — and it may be the last chance to see this incredible singer perform live for a while.

What will she be singing? “With shows like this I tend to want to do songs that bring me joy and a look into the kind of music I listen to,” Erivo says. “I tend to do some Aretha Franklin, like ‘Natural Woman.’ I like rock like Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ and Annie Lennox’s ‘Why.’ ”

On the front burners blazing are a string of films this year and next, including Widows with Liam Neeson, Bad Times at the El Royale, starring Chris Hemsworth, Jon Hamm and Jeff Bridges, Chaos Walking with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, and Needle in a Timestack with Orlando Bloom and Leslie Odom.

And then there’s the big one: Harriet, filming this fall for a 2019 release, in which she plays the former slave and American abolitionist and political activist. Erivo will sing some gospel spirituals in the film.

“But I’m never going to leave my live performing behind,” she says. In fact, one dream theater project is in the “talking stage,” and she’s also chatting up her friends, the Oscar, Grammy and Tony Award-winning composing team of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman). “I’d love to do a new musical, too.”

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Bess Wohl

Child’s Play

Bess Wohl likes challenges. Several years ago the playwright gave herself the assignment to write a play with almost no dialogue, and that turned into the Off-Broadway hit Small Mouth Sounds. Now she’s taken on the adage of “never work with children or animals” and, though there are no animals in her new play Make Believe, there are four children as main characters. The play premieres Sept. 6-30 at Hartford Stage, which commissioned the work.

“There are plays that have the theatrical convention of adults playing children, but I was really interested in putting [actual] children on stage,” Wohl tells me from her Brooklyn, New York, home where she was six days away from giving birth to her third child. “But I didn’t want them in a ‘kids’ play or where they are cutesy comic relief or where they are on stage just for a few minutes. I wanted to see if I could put them in an adult play and have them tell an adult story for an audience of adults.”

Wohl, a grad of the Yale School of Drama along with the show’s director, Jackson Gay, knew there were capable kid actors out there carrying musicals such as Annie and Matilda. “And it happens in films all the time. But for the stage this is a huge experiment.”

There are also older actors in the 90-minute work playing the children’s characters as adults in the two distinct time periods of Make Believe. But the show opens with the kids as these four siblings — ages 5 to 10 — playing “pretend” in the attic playroom. “I hope the audience takes on the role of detective in trying to understand what’s happening in these children’s lives through the games they play. It’s a play about memory, trauma and time passing and really deals with how our childhoods do — or do not — live with us for the rest of our lives, what has changed and what has stayed the same.”

And will her next play have animals? “The next play, I think, is just going to be a pony alone on stage,” she laughs.

Have You Heard ...

… Connecticut will have its first trans-identifying director at one of its Tony Award-winning theaters. Will Davis, artistic director of Chicago’s American Theater Company, will stage Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre May 1-29.

The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s two-part epic play that many are calling the next Angels in America, is moving this fall from its Young Vic run to the West End of London. But few know that Hartford Stage commissioned the work and it was written when Lopez was an Aetna playwriting fellow when his play Reverberation was premiering at the theater. Though Hartford Stage did not further produce The Inheritance, its associate artistic director Elizabeth Williamson is the dramaturg for the London productions, staged by top-tier director Stephen Daldry. The show is destined for New York in the not-too-distant future.

… Before you see Hamilton at The Bushnell in Hartford in December, you might check out my talk so you’ll get the most out of your investment of a theater ticket. I’ll be presenting Ten Things to Know Before You See Hamilton at Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m.


This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Did you like what you read? You can subscribe here.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for the Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.