‘Spamilton’ is an affectionate, high-energy lampoon of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece
By Christina Campodonico
As I learn during a dynamic roundtable with the cast of “Spamilton” at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, the hardest part of performing this parody show may actually be forgetting the lyrics to the famed musical it lampoons. You know the one — “Hamilton” — that mega-popular musical about an obscure founding father that took Broadway by storm two years ago and is currently playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
The songs in “Hamilton” can be downright infectious, which can be a problem for a parody musical that almost matches its wildly popular soundtrack bar for bar.
“I have slipped into the ‘Hamilton’ lyrics on stage a few times,” admits “Spamilton” ensemble member Zakiya Young, who plays a mock version of “Hamilton’s” Schuyler Sisters and impersonates Beyoncé, Michelle Obama and Audra McDonald in Gerard Alessandrini’s spoof, now playing at the Kirk Douglas.
“I can’t listen to ‘Hamilton’ until the show’s over,” adds William Cooper Howell, who plays “Hamilton’s” Pulitzer Prize-winning creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in the show. “Gerard is a genius at what he does, because he takes the actual lyrics of ‘Hamilton,’ or whatever show he’s spoofing, and he makes sure that the words he replaces it with are as close to the original words as possible. They have the same syllable count; they even rhyme.”
For instance, “I’m not throwing away my shot” from “Hamilton’s” memorable ditty “My Shot” becomes “I’m not gonna let Broadway rot” in “Spamilton.” These sonant similarities combined with earworm-worthy music may lead to more than a few slips of the tongue, so the cast of “Spamilton” takes every preventive measure.
“I have to go over the show before every show,” says Young. “Seriously, otherwise I don’t know what I’m doing, where I am.”
Wilkie Ferguson III, who plays Alexander Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr, has avoided seeing the real “Hamilton” in order to keep his mind clear of its catchy musical influences.
“I’m the only person in the world who has not seen ‘Hamilton’ and doesn’t know any of the music,” he says, “so my job here is made easier. I don’t get the lyrics confused.”
But there’s still “Spamilton’s” relentless pace. Challenging medleys spun from “Hamilton’s” canon and the world of musical theater — Sondheim, “Ragtime” and “Annie,” among others — bleed from one number into the next with barely a pause during the 80-minute production, which does not have an intermission.
“It’s a cardio workout,” says John Devereaux, who does double duty playing Daveed Diggs, the Tony Award-winning actor/rapper who originated the dual role of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette in “Hamilton’s” original Broadway run.
“I have two bathroom breaks that last maybe three minutes apiece,” adds Howell, “and the rest of the time I’m screaming my face off in a very high-pitched, nasally impersonation. … It feels like an accomplishment every single time I get to the last number. I’m exhausted, and I look into the audiences’ faces and say, ‘Somehow I made it through the story.’”
“It’s legit non-stop,” concludes Ferguson.
The eight-show-a-week schedule adds an extra layer of intensity to an already demanding show, but the cast appreciates the opportunities that the strenuous audition, rehearsal and performance process has provided —learning how to rap, juggling multiple vocal styles, mastering various caricatures and impressions.
“It was intense only because we are representing the entire cast of 30 people in ‘Hamilton’ with five [people], plus two extra [cast members] onstage,” says Dedrick A. Bonner, who plays George Washington. “And so a lot is required of us and we have to be multifaceted in many different styles of acting and also singing. Especially Zakiya, she sings everything. Every genre that there is, she has to sing.”
“If you wanna know what I do, come see me in the show, because it’s my whole resume,” jokes Young in response.
“It was the Olympics of auditioning,” recalls Howell. “It’s taken my voice and my talents and what I feel like I’m capable of to the very precipice of what I thought I was capable.”
Throughout the brisk, cabaret-style revue the cast of seven skillfully skewers what is arguably the most beloved musical of our cultural moment, but behind-the-scenes the cast actually has a lot of love for “Hamilton” and each other. They gush about their favorite songs and praise the game-changing precedent the musical has set for multicultural casting in the musical theater industry.
“When I saw ‘Hamilton’ I remember thinking in the middle of the show that it’s going to change the way musical theater is done forever,” says Howell, who identifies as Afro-Cuban. “Now when a new musical comes out and they don’t cast it multi-culturally, they have to be asked, ‘Why, why aren’t you?’ … For me personally, it’s opened doors to being able to audition for roles that I probably wouldn’t have been seen for had ‘Hamilton’ not existed.”
That said, “Hamilton” gets its fair share of knocks. A beggar woman (played by Becca Brown) hobbles up to Cooper’s Lin-Manuel Miranda several times to plead for tickets, a set of which can command hundreds or even thousands
of dollars. One zinger in the show even asks if it’s worth spending $800 to see “Hamilton.”
“If you look at the show in terms of an arc of storytelling, it’s sort of like a cautionary tale on the cost and price of fame,” observes Cooper. “You laugh, but it’s actually kind of a dark show — the cost of what happens when something becomes super, super popular, and what it does to the actual product.”
But ultimately, “tough love” for “Hamilton” and Broadway wins out in the end, observes Ferguson.
“You can love it and criticize it,” he says.
“And it’s not mean-spirited,” adds Young. “And that’s why [Gerard] ends it with ‘Yay, Broadway!’ … Every Broadway review has ended with some heartfelt ‘We love Broadway, and that’s why we’re here, making fun of it.’”
“Spamilton” continues at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 7 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $99. Call (310) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.