The Room Where It It Happens: Planning a “Hamiltunes: An American Sing-Along” Program for Libraries
January 28, 2019
Anjelica Rufus-Barnes, Prospect Heights Public Library District
On a Saturday night last December, the audience atHomewood Public Library was enlivened by an intergenerational group of patrons performing onstage. By the third song, the audience clapped and yelled as they enthusiastically heard the first line: “I am not throwing away my shot!” It took only a limited amount of encouragement from the emcee for the audience to spell out the name of the main character: A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R. That night, the revolution was in full swing as performers and audience members interacted for the library’s third “Hamiltunes: AnAmerican Sing-Along” program.
“Hamiltunes” is a sing-along event that originated in Los Angeles in late 2015 by Hamiltunes LA, a nonprofit that began as a group of friends who had started singing songs from the Broadway musical Hamilton at public gatherings. In June 2017, Homewood Public Library’s youth programming librarian Kelly Campos was on Twitter when Hamilton show creator Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted a link to a press release on BroadwayWorld.com.
It mentioned the release of The Hamilton Instrumentals as well as the show producers’ authorization of a free sing-along program through Hamiltunes LA. Campos emailed the group immediately to sign up. A couple of months later, Hamiltunes LA approved the one-year licensing agreement. Homewood then paid for music licensing through ASCAP and purchased the instrumental tracks. The library set a December 2017 date for its first licensed event.
Campos and Ashley Sander, the library’s event coordinator, collaborated on ways to make their program a celebration of both the show and the talent in the community. Because the“Hamiltunes” agreement was written for individuals and not libraries, they researched how Hamiltunes LA first started and how other libraries had done Hamilton -related events before the press release. While there are different ways to do the program such as regular karaoke and curated performances, they decided to run the event as a sing-along with a participant sign-up lottery that would be open to anyone ages eight and older.Doing it that way allowed them to reach a wider audience with varying ages and backgrounds. “When people can unite around a fandom, they immediately have common ground,” said Campos.
The library opened audience registration two months ahead of each sing-along. An additional link on the registration page led to a Google Form for performer sign-up. Children under the age of 13 needed parental permission to participate. Beginning with the second “Hamiltunes,” participants signed up for an unlimited amount of parts within as many songs as they wanted, as opposed to just three for the whole show. An additional note stated that performers were required to sing the ensemble parts from backstage.
Although the form included a question about the confidence level of a participant’s talent, Campos and Sander were more focused on ensuring that there would be various ages performing at the same time. The age spread during all three events was between 8 and 65. Campos notified participants about two weeks in advance of their songs and parts. Participants usually did not know nor met each other until the night of each sing-along. One participant came from middle Indiana and drove two hours to perform at the library for the original event.
“[‘Hamiltunes’] allows folks who may not have a chance to perform on stage a place to show off their skills as well as create space for folks to overcome fears of singing in front of others,” stated Hamiltunes LA cabinet member Jack Kelly in an email interview.
If someone received a part that they realized they were not comfortable with, they contacted Campos so she could reassign it. She mentioned how a nine-year-old received two parts and songs in the first event but decided to drop one. The part he kept was Hercules Mulligan’s rap in “Yorktown.”
“He was really nervous about dropping the f-bomb. His parents were like, ‘It’s okay, it’s for the show. You don’t have to do it, but it’s okay,’” Campos explained. Meanwhile, the teenagers rooted for him backstage and gave words of encouragement. “When he said it, everybody went ‘Ahhhhh!’ It was the most amazing thing. These are kids who would never see each other. Yet, they had this really great moment of togetherness around a show that they all love.”
THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
Campos and Sander originally thought the first “Hamiltunes”was going to be inside the library’s 68-capacity meeting room.They had to reconfigure their plans once the registration count surpassed it and reached 130, including 20 participants. They decided to stage that and subsequent sing-alongs in the adult services department, just outside of the meeting room. The room became a performer check-in and audience snack area.A section of the youth services area served as the backstage.
Four staff members, two teen volunteers, and one security monitor worked the program for all three runs. As the emcee,Campos made announcements, ran the music, held up audience participation signs, and fixed any onstage difficulties. A backstage manager kept performers on task, facilitated prop swapping, and reassigned absentee parts. Sander and a second staff member werec o-house managers. They took care of audience check-in, gave out raffle tickets, replenished snacks, and managed offstage difficulties. The security monitor enforced the no-videotaping policy (per the licensing agreement). The teen volunteers set up and tore down the audience and snack areas. They also sang background vocals for some of the songs. For the third“Hamiltunes” in December 2018, two additional staff members helped the teen volunteers move shelves and set up seats.
The stage included one stereo, two speakers, five microphones, five music stands, and five binders with the CD lyrics between the entrance of youth and adult services. Three additional song binders were located backstage next to the prop table.
For the first event, it took Homewood’s team almost two hours to set up, with the biggest challenge at the time being how to smoothly run the sound system. Weeks in advance, Campos used Audacity, a free audio editing software, to rip both the instrumental and soundtracks and layer them. For each“Hamiltunes,” the left speaker had the instrumental track on100 percent volume, while the right speaker had 20 percent of the soundtrack’s volume infused with 80 percent of the instrumentals’ sound. She did this so performers heard their place in the songs. Campos also included fifteen seconds of silence between songs to give time for applause and character switching. Although there were syncing issues during that event, they were rectified in subsequent sing-alongs.
WHAT TIME IS IT?
The December 2018 program had a mixture of novice and advance performers with the majority of participants appearing to be under age 30. Additionally, there were smaller parts left open for audience members who wanted to participate onstage.Campos made a request for volunteers during each announcement before the first song. Three audience members signed up for the small parts and a couple of the ones left by absentees. Other performers took the remaining songs after the final call for audience volunteers.
Campos and Sander decided between the original and second events to include audience participation. At the December 2018 sing-along, Campos encouraged this by holding up signs with heavily repeated words and phrases that the audience could sing with the ensemble. The audience also sang along with the performers to songs that they knew by heart.
“We have gotten a lot of people who attended the program in the past who were not our regular patrons.” Sander said. “They said, ‘I didn’t know libraries did things like this.’ If it’s gets them to come back to the library, then it’s absolutely worthwhile.”
The three-hour event included a fifteen-minute intermission to raffle off Hamilton-related swag such as The Hamilton Mixtape CD and Hamilton: The Revolution.
WHAT COMES NEXT
The December 2018 “Hamiltunes” was Homewood’s final performance under Campos’ licensing agreement with Hamiltunes LA. She and Sander believe that they may get another license down the road but for now would like to see what other libraries do with it. As part of a session at the ILAAnnual Conference in October 2018 focusing on the iRead summer reading program, Campos presented the event as part of the committee’s 2019 Summer Reading Program theme“It’s Showtime at Your Library.” An entry in the 2019 iREADResource Guide features more information about the licensing process and step-by-step advice about setting up an event. TheResource Guide and other iREAD materials are available for purchase at ireadprogram.org.
Campos, Sander, and Kelly agree that “Hamiltunes” is “the perfect library program” because it engages the community and includes history and the arts. “My advice would be to allow your community's passion to drive the sing-along, promote diversity and inclusion, and lean into the themes presented in the show,” Kelly said.
Added Campos, “If nobody in your library is a fan of the show, do not attempt it. It only works if you have multiple staff members who love the show and want to get down and dirty with it because it’s a lot of work. It’s rewarding and fun. It gets people excited to come into the library.”