Sometimes, the show must go on, even if the performers have never actually seen it.
Such was the mantra for Clinton Canady IV, the entrepreneur behind “HamiltunesDC,” a singalong celebration of the hit musical “Hamilton.”
Canady was visiting a friend in Los Angeles in February when he happened upon a West Coast singalong called “HamiltunesLA.” In less than two months, he partnered with friends at District Karaoke to reproduce the experience at a drum store on Rhode Island Avenue. More than 60 people showed up to sing every song in the 2 1/2- hour show, even though most, like Canady, had never seen it performed on Broadway.
On July 3, a second, larger gathering at Busboys and Poets followed. Then, on Aug. 13, Canady and his girlfriend finally scored tickets to see the musical on Broadway. The next day, tickets for the third “Hamiltunes” sold out, and Canady pressed on with plans to stage his biggest gathering yet, knowing that, at least for now, the singalong is the closest a lot of these young and not-so-young, scrappy and hungry fans might ever get to seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show.
“Our goal is not to make it an exclusive event, like seeing ‘Hamilton,’ at the Richard Rodgers Theatre has become,’” Canady said. “Hamiltunes allows people to express themselves, and share their love of the show.”
Who are these folks raising glasses for the freedom to sing along? They are corporate lawyers, drama teachers, National Public Radio producers, stay-at-home moms and U.S. Army servicemen. But at Hamiltunes, most are known only by their stage names. (Canady goes by “Classic C,” but most monikers are somehow tied to the show.) After buying $15 Hamiltunes tickets for the Aug. 26 events, patrons submitted a list of songs and parts they’d like to sing. For example, “Cookie” successfully requested to sing the role of siren Maria Reynolds in “Say No to This.” Canady and Jesse Rauch, his partner from District Karaoke, keep track on a spreadsheet, which they eventually opened up to everyone attending to fill in the blanks.
One of “Hamilton’s” many hallmarks is its diverse cast; the only lead role played by a Caucasian is that of King George. Appropriately, the 160 singers who came to the Edgewood Arts Center in Brookland were a veritable human rainbow, and each role was fair game for every race and gender. Singers passed an “A. Ham” baseball cap around to each volunteer who took a turn singing the role of the Founding Father, whether it was an Asian girl, a Latino guy or Canady himself. Rachel Horn, a NPR producer, jumped gamely into the burly role of Colonial spy Hercules Mulligan. Dan Kois, a culture editor of Slate, claimed the part of Schulyer sister Peggy in a trio for “Hamilton’s” female leads.
“We’ve had a balding Peggy, so why not a female King George?” singer Elle Gitlin quipped on Twitter.
The monarch’s first ballad was belted by Suzanne La Rue, a voting-rights advocate who strode to the stage regally, wearing a crown, shaw and sunglasses, and carrying a wineglass. Later in Act 1, she passed the crown to Andrew Kim, a lawyer who ambled down the aisle with a Union Jack he ordered from Amazon draped across his shoulders.
“Flags make really good capes,” Kim observed at intermission, which he spent hanging out in front of the arts center with La Rue. He heard about HamiltunesDC through District Karaoke, but many others made the connection through friends of friends of friends on Facebook.
“What surprised me the most, the first time I did this, was that people showed up who I didn’t know,” Canady said. Since then, some of those strangers have become part of his Hamiltunes community. The Aug. 26 gathering was the first time he asked for volunteers, and many came early and stayed late to help set up the venue. Of course, there were also new first-timers, including two women who asked Canady whether he was going to audition for the upcoming “Hamilton” tours. (The show opens in Chicago in the fall, and will come to the Kennedy Center late next year.)
“That was really flattering,” said Canady, who has an MBA and works as a program analyst at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “But I don’t think so. I’m just really excited to be doing this.”
Six Washington theaters that are trying to achieve diversity at all levels — onstage, in administration offices and in the audience — have been awarded a share of $1 million in funding to help achieve those goals.
The Weissberg Foundation, which was founded in 1988 by local real estate developer Marvin Weissberg, has given out money to many area theaters over the years, executive director Hanh Le said, but this is the first time the foundation sought to codify its grant process and earmark funding for diversity initiatives.
“The grantees who had the stronger applications were the ones who were looking at diversity at all levels,” Le said. “How they operate, how their board governs, not just what they put onstage. We realized that this really is a capacity-building initiative.”
The six theater groups selected to receive the three-year grants are Adventure Theatre MTC, dog & pony dc, Forum Theatre, Gala Hispanic Theatre, Mosaic Theater Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
Left off the list were many of Washington’s larger theaters that previously benefited from the Weissberg Foundation’s largesse. For example, Arena Stage, Signature Theatre and Studio Theatre all received grants between $2,500 and $30,000 in the past year. They are now unlikely to receive that money.
The foundation remains committed to funding Washington theater, but establishing the Fund for Diversity brings the theater grants more in line with the foundation’s larger mission to support social justice, Le said.