Vassel gives students a new look at Hamilton
In the words of well-known lyrics from the show, Saint Michael’s College students were “offered some free advice” on Tuesday evening by Patrick Vassel, associate and supervising director of Hamilton. Vassel currently works on the show on Broadway, in Chicago, and on the national tour.
The recital hall in the McCarthy Arts Center was filled with both first-year students learning more about their common text and upperclassmen eager to meet a role model of theater in person. While Vassal brought invaluable insight to the table on Hamilton as a theatrical production, he also returned to his roots in education as both a student and an educator, discussing his journey from a Catholic liberal arts education in political science to a pivotal role in developing one of the greatest Broadway phenomena of all time.
“I was convinced that the way I should make a difference in the world was politics,” he said when discussing how he made the jump from his alma mater to teaching and then to theater. As a student at the University of Notre Dame, Vassel participated in student theater, but considered himself to merely be continuing a high school hobby. “That was really the launching point for me… I’ll do theater, but really I’m here to be a political science major.”
Yet all the while, the foundations of a career in theater were growing both on and off the stage. Vassel remembered being inspired by the student-directed shows at Notre Dame, his first taste of what directing could be like. He feels that all elements of his education, from “what you learn in a classroom” to “what you learn at a party,” are part of who he is today. “What I was learning in political science classes applied in other areas. I just didn’t realize how it would apply. I was learning how to analyze a certain situation, figure out what was really going on, and respond accordingly.”
After graduating in 2007, Vassel moved to New York City and began life after college as a communications employee and then a teacher with Teach for America, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching students in low-income communities. In 2009, after only three years of working at Explore Charter School in Brooklyn, he was on the fast track to becoming a principal. But that same year, he won a lottery ticket for a front row seat at Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. He would end up seeing the show 7 times on Broadway. “The show just blew my mind,” he said. “I had not heard a show that sounded like that before. That was the first time I opened up my playbill and I said ‘who’s making this? Who are these people? These are the people that I think I need to be working with.’”
Gathering contacts from his actor friends in New York, Vassel began to reach out to directors for assistant and associate directing opportunities, soon finding himself in touch with Thomas Kail, director of In the Heights. In 2014, after years of balancing his teaching job with occasional theater work and even a stint of full-time freelancing, Vassel received a phone call from Kail that became the turning point of his career: the opportunity that would soon allow him to take his final bow out of education and into full-time directorial success. “I’ll never forget the voicemail,” he recalled. “It just said ‘Vassel, it’s Kail. Call me. I’m about to change your life.’”
Kail was working with Miranda to adapt what was then known as “The Hamilton Mixtape” into a Broadway production. He wanted Vassel on board. Luckily, the show’s week of initial presentations coincided with Explore Charter’s spring break. Vassel eagerly accepted. “Did we know it would become this? No. Did we know that the material was good? Yes,” he said. “If nothing else, history teachers all over the country would be really big fans of the show, we would run for a month, and that would be it.”
Those initial months of Hamilton: An American Musical consisted of developing the production, making constant changes to the lighting, staging, content, and direction. Today, Vassel works to maintain productions across the country through casting and continuous correspondence with multiple production teams. He believes that the groundbreaking material Miranda created and the humble creative ethos that he brought to the show set it up for success from the beginning. “The best songs in the show that Lin wrote are not Hamilton songs,” Vassel said. “He wrote the show knowing that he would never get a chance to perform them. And when the show is written with that level of generosity, it informs and it infuses everyone else’s approach. That’s why we all showed up every day thinking… ‘He’s giving everything he’s got. I have to bring everything I have to this thing, and it can’t be about me. It has to be about the show.”
Vassel was well-prepared to discuss Hamilton with the crowd during the second portion of the evening, having read the Saint Michael’s faculty essays before arriving on campus. He praised professors Ouellette, Lew, and Dykstra for discussing elements of the show that the cast and crew talk about “all the time.” Professor Ouellette discussed the debate surrounding the actual historical events behind the show, as well as the subversiveness of the depiction. Professor Dykstra’s essay discussed the “layers of reality and truth,” as Vassel saw it, rooted in the rich history of New York City. “Professor Lew’s essay made some points that I talk about all the time in my auditions and casting,” said Vassel. “He mentions the beginning of “Wait for It,” the repetitive notes of Aaron Burr, and what that says about his character. We talk about that every week.”
Student questions touched on a variety of topics, from the future of hip-hop in musical theater to the process of designing and revising a production. One student, a theater major from the class of 2019, asked about Hamilton’s headway in diverse casting and whether the creators feel responsible for supporting other productions following in their footsteps. “We try to just lead by example,” Vassel replied. “At a certain point when you dive into those waters, it’s just internet comments that aren’t going to get anybody anywhere.” He touched on the difference between legitimate theater criticism and putting down productions for their attempts at diverse casting, calling on critics to make those distinctions clear and fair. He also expressed enthusiasm for the future of bringing diverse voices to the stage.
For instance, Miranda’s bridging of two traditionally oppositional genres opens new doors for creators of hip hop and musical theater alike, he said, explaining, “Lin is such an alien in that he happened to grow up on equal parts musical theater and hip-hop.” Vassel hopes that the long-form style of theater will appeal to musicians who may not have considered it before, and that writers of theater will see the potential that Hamilton took advantage of for delivering more lines faster, letting more complex stories play out on stage.
The class of 2022 walked away from the discussion with the tools to better analyze the Hamilton text, process, and phenomenon. They also left with good reason to be hopeful and eager about the journey they’ve embarked on as first-year students.
Vassel stressed the importance of college as a space for failure and growth. “When you’re here, these next few years, you get to try anything that you want or anything that you’re interested in and you have room to do it. You have room to fail and try again,” he said. It’s advice that Lin Manuel Miranda himself took very seriously as a college student, determined to write a musical in four years. The project would later make it all the way to Broadway as In the Heights.