By Denny Patterson
After a year of stage-less plays and empty venues, theatre goers could not be more thrilled to see the return of live performances. That also means we will see the return of Hamilton, one of Broadway’s most sought out musicals.
Taking the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and telling it through today’s lens, Hamilton has made a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. Based on Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography, Lin-Manuel Miranda created a revolutionary moment in theatre, which features a score of delightful ear candy that blends hip-hop, jazz, and R&B.
OutClique had the opportunity to connect with Manny Schvartzman, the Associate Music Director of Hamilton’s traveling tour with Broadway Across America. He touched on Hamilton’s impact, what goes into preparing a theatrical tour, and some of his memorable moments.
Denny Patterson: Can you begin by telling us how you got involved with Hamilton?
Manny Schvartzman: I got involved in April 2019, about a year before the pandemic hit. I had just come off of another tour and saw that the position was open.
DP: In your opinion, how important of a production has Hamilton become?
MS: Very important. Hamilton has taken a big step forward into a lot of social equity issues that have taken place over the last year, politically, and also just being an adversary for human rights. I think a lot of the issues that we still have to face in this country have come to light, and Hamilton has taken a big step forward in addressing what that is. Maybe there’s not an easy solution, but for being a Broadway musical, I think they have taken an enormous leap forward as far as addressing some of these issues and trying to set some plans in place on how to get more equity and justice for everybody.
DP: What do you always hope audiences take away from my Hamilton performance?
MS: That is a good question. I think there is a level of amazement to the show with the music, lights, and how captivating it is, but there is also a story in there about love, loss, and fighting for what’s right, and how those three things sometimes do not agree with each other. There’s that aspect of it, but there is also the aspect of looking at history from today’s lens. That is so much different than just opening an encyclopedia and reading. It humanizes a lot of these characters, and to me, that makes it very cool. Like, he was more than just a guy who did this and that. I think it is so cool to tell history that way. Personally, I am not a history buff, but I have learned things from the show, which made me want to go back and be like, what actually happened with this kind of stuff? So, the emotional part, the spectacle part, and the part that makes you reflect on yourself and history.
DP: What goes into preparing a show this extravagant?
MS: After a show has been on Broadway, a new company will be created to either go to a city or tour. Our company toured. So, a casting call will be put out for all the characters and ensemble members, and we will put them through what that all entails. Singing, dancing, callbacks, reading for different roles, etc. The show will be cast, and we will all show up on day one of rehearsal where we will do music rehearsals as if you have never seen or heard the show, even though most people probably have. I don’t think anyone has ever joined Hamilton and said: what is this? What am I doing? I think everybody sort of knows it, but even still, we have to treat everybody as if they have never heard it before. Chances are, fans of Hamilton do not equal Hamilton company members. The ones that put on the show. What that means is, if you are jamming out to the car soundtrack and know every lyric, that does not mean you are ready to perform. We have to teach it to you from the inside out. So, we go through the rehearsal process, which is usually four weeks or so of intense rehearsals, eight hours a day, six days a week. In that time, not a minute is spared. It is a very focused, dedicated time where we split up in different rooms. Choreography goes into this room, principals go in here, the director and their team will be in a third room, etc. We mesh all those words together, then do a tech week on the last week, which means we will go on the stage for the first time and work with lighting and everything. That is also when the band tends to join, and the crew will be building the set. Wardrobe, which is a beast of its own, needs to measure everybody and get the appropriate sizes, wigs, and shoes. Every department head and their team are working full-time to bring all these elements together. Then we perform it until we get it right.
DP: Personally, what have you enjoyed the most about being a part of Hamilton?
MS: I love having a great band to play with and working with a great cast, but one of the things I personally love, that fills my heart each time, is being able to be part of a band that finds ways to still have fun and have individuality to how we play things. We are not just reproducing a track that we have to play. We are adding a little bit of ourselves within all the notes that we play, and we still keep it within the realm of what it used to be. I think those little pockets of time are really fun for us to click, and find places that we get to enjoy ourselves. I love that aspect of it a lot.
DP: I can only imagine how excited everyone is that live theater is coming back. What did you miss the most about touring and traveling?
MS: I missed being in a different place, a different scenario. There is never a dull moment. You deal with the weather, you deal with public transportation, you deal with the vibe of the city. It is constantly changing, and there is nothing you can do to control it. We opened in Atlanta, then we will play in a city in Rhode Island, then go to Philadelphia, then we’ll play in Des Moines, Iowa at some point. How do you even connect all those cities that have a vibe of their own? The people, the restaurants, that is the coolest part. Just experiencing new cities. When I look at a map now, I think, wow, yeah, I have been there. I ate at this restaurant. I was at that airport. I always remember the feeling of being in a city. I don’t remember what I saw all the time as much as what I felt when I saw it, and touring gives you that incredible flexibility. And if you do not like a city, we are going to leave soon. Hang tight. If you do like it, we are going to leave soon, so experience it the best way you can.
DP: Do you have any memories or moments that stand out the most to you?
MS: The first time I ever conducted the show. That was such a monumental moment for me, just because of the amount of preparation it took, but it went by so quickly that I don’t remember a lot of it [laughs]. However, I do remember a specific moment where I was like, wow, to be here is very special. That was when I saw the conductor sitting in front of the stage and the rest of the band in the pit. I remember a feeling of nerves going, alright, I have to cruise this ship on my own for the very first time. I remember looking down at the keys, giving the cues to the camera, and looking at the music hoping not to make a playing mistake, hoping not to make a conducting mistake, hoping not to do all those things that go through your mind. After a few minutes into the show, maybe six to seven minutes, there is a moment where the piano does not play, and I remember lifting my head and looking up. Being like, wow, this is crazy. That was probably the most memorable moment for me.
DP: Do you have a song from the musical that is your absolute favorite?
MS: I have always loved “Yorktown.” If I had to say there is one song that just feels good, it feels good to play, and it has always felt good to listen to, I would say “Yorktown.” The other answer to that would be, it kind of depends on what I am going through in life, what I am thinking about, and what I am feeling that day. I think this show has so much, for so many emotions, depending on what you are thinking about. If you want to overcome something, if you are hurt about something, if you feel reflective, if you are thinking about your family – there is a song for so many of those emotions in this particular show, and I don’t think any song is lesser or greater than any other song of the show, but the one that pumps me up the most is “Yorktown.” Just the dance break and the way the song builds.
DP: Can you talk a bit more about your background? Have you always had a passion for theatre and music?
MS: I think my theatre passion started when I was in high school. I have played piano since I was pretty young, and I went to a performing arts high school. I was a classical pianist at the time, and I was too good to play anything but classical, or so I thought. I remember what I did very well, or so I was told, I could accompany other performers, instrumentalists, and singers. I realized that playing classical music makes it so much about the solo part of you. You just play what you want, and collaborative work on the piano makes it about the group. Because I did that a lot in the classical world, the theatre department needed a piano player, and they asked me to play. It was Fiddler on the Roof, and my initial thought was, this isn’t like Beethoven. This isn’t real music. Who wrote this stuff? I only said that because I had only really exposed myself to some of the classical greats, but then I realized how much fun that was. I made a bunch of new friends, and I realized this is actually really cool. I don’t have to play piano by myself, I still get to give off myself and my art form, and I get to be like an equal partner to the show. I wasn’t just the pianist, but I also wasn’t just the one and only pianist. I was not the highlight of the evening. I thought, I really like this. I like being part of a team, and that is kind of where it started. From that moment on, I never was not involved in some production. Regional, high school, children’s theatre, professional theatre – I think I have done most forms of theatre.
DP: Besides Hamilton, are you currently working on any other projects?
MS: Not big, exclusive projects like that. I am potentially working on a television series that will come out maybe in a year, or year and a half from now. I am starting to work on that, but as far as theater, it has been difficult because the pandemic shutdown and affected theater everywhere. A lot of my productions became my home studio. I have done a lot of my own productions, but it is all in the form of recorded works and producing music for other people.
DP: What are some future goals you would like to achieve with your theater career?
MS: I would like to be an even more established conductor and music director than I am now. Also, I want to arrange and orchestrate more. I want to lean more into that aspect of it. I would love to be able to take new works and new musicals and give it my flair, musically, and have it grow into something. I think that would be awesome, and I would love to be able to do more where I can do multiple shows and make sure the music team is where it needs to be for that production. Right now, I can only direct music one show at a time. So, those are a few goals in mind.
DP: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to mention or plug?
MS: Wherever you are and whatever your goals are, support whatever it is because the whole arts industry has taken a large hit over the last year and a half. I feel fortunate and blessed that Hamilton is such a major production, we almost have a little bit of sense of job security, but I know too many people that do not have that. So many small theatres are having a tough time opening up, and this is nationwide. Whether it’s going to an art museum, an art show, a jazz concert, a classical concert, whatever you do, just get out there and support as much as you can.
Stay connected with Schvartzman by following him on Facebook. For more information about Hamilton and Broadway Across America, visit broadwayacrossamerica.com.