CHICAGO — Audrey Burcham and Grace Troelstrup got up at 5 a.m. Saturday to be sure they’d make it on time. By 7, three hours before a large “Hamilton” exhibition opened here, they were standing at the front of the line with their moms. Audrey, 12, was clutching an Alexander Hamilton doll as well as a hard-bound collection of inspirational tweets from Lin-Manuel Miranda and, of course, a Playbill; Grace, 13, was wearing a gold star “Hamilton” knit cap and toting “Hamilton: The Revolution,” the explanatory book known to fans as the Hamiltome.
“We’re obsessed,” Audrey said. Grace nodded in agreement. “Hamilton is our life now.”
Hamilfans (yes, that’s what they call themselves) have a lot of ways to engage with the juggernaut musical. There’s the show itself, of course, now playing in six productions in North America and Britain, with a seventh expected at some point in Germany, and the books and the app and the cast recording and the mixtape.
But now “Hamilton,” created by Mr. Miranda, has taken a step that appears to be without precedent in the theater world. On an island in Lake Michigan (well, it’s called Northerly Island, but it’s really more of a peninsula attached to a popular park) the show has erected a huge shed in which it has created a high-tech exhibition that combines entertainment (a 3-D theater offers a rare you-are-on-the-stage view of Mr. Miranda leading the Washington cast in performing the show’s opening number), education (more than you probably want to know about the Articles of Confederation) and commerce ($25 for your very own pair of King George socks).
The exhibition is a commercial venture, overseen by Jeffrey Seller, who is the musical’s lead producer, and designed by David Korins, who is the musical’s set designer. It has been capitalized for $13.5 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission — more than the cost of the original Broadway musical, which was $12.5 million. Tickets are $39.50 for adults, $25 for children and free for Chicago public school groups.
The show is betting that interest in “Hamilton” remains so high, both among those who have seen the show and those who have not, that it can sustain the exhibition here for months and then move it to another location — San Francisco or Los Angeles are “logical options,” Mr. Seller said. It is built to tour, although it will require space — the exhibition occupies 35,000 square feet in a hangar-like structure that is 300 feet long and 100 feet wide — and expense: Moving it will take 80 trucks, compared to just seven to move a touring production of the show.
The exhibition is starting in Chicago in recognition of the musical’s success here, where the first production outside New York opened in 2016, and the musical has now been seen by more people in Chicago than in New York.
Among those who attended a ribbon-cutting on Friday was the mayor-elect of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, who said she had seen the musical four times (once in New York, three times in Chicago), and was “blown away by everything about it.”
The exhibition is a cousin to any number of museum-lite shows, often combining artifacts and fun-for-the-family activities in a selfie-conducive setting, that have been mounted in association with television shows (“Downton Abbey”), movies (“Jurassic Park”), games (“Angry Birds”) and musical groups (the Rolling Stones). Some are mounted at nonprofit institutions — just within the last year, New York has seen museum exhibitions about David Bowie (at the Brooklyn Museum), Harry Potter (at the New-York Historical Society) and Tolkien’s Middle-earth (at the Morgan Library & Museum). But many are in less rarefied for-profit settings — at shopping centers, for example. Just this week, a “Hunger Games” exhibition is opening inside a casino hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
“Brands are looking to connect with consumers, and people are looking for an experience that is more than being on their phones all the time,” said Tom Zaller, the chief executive of Imagine Exhibitions, which helped conceive this project but is no longer working on it. “There have certainly been other ‘Hamilton’ exhibitions that museums have done, but your typical ‘Hamilton’ theater fan is probably less likely to go to a history museum than to hear Lin-Manuel Miranda tell them the story.”
The immersive exhibition tracks the life of Alexander Hamilton, who was the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, from his childhood in the Caribbean to his fatal shooting on a dueling ground in Weehawken, N.J., and it also uses his life as a tool for exploring early American history.
It follows the arc of the musical, but also delves into issues that are only lightly mentioned onstage — like the role of slavery in the economy of the Americas, including colonial New York, and offers information about soldiers of color, women at war and Native Americans. A room focused on the election of 1800 features silhouettes of those excluded from voting in early America, including women, enslaved African-Americans, Native Americans and poor whites.
There are carnival-game-style exhibits that try to help visitors understand Hamilton’s concern with debt, banking, and manufacturing policy, and, inside a facsimile of George Washington’s wartime tent, there is a tabletop plan for the Battle of Yorktown featuring toy ships and soldiers that move by magnetization. There is a room with a spiral path to represent the hurricane that affected Hamilton’s early life, there are quotes about Hamilton from famous Americans and there’s a legacy area where visitors can write down their own wishes for America.
“I have so many people come up to me and say, ‘I hardly knew anything about Hamilton, and I want to know more,’” Mr. Miranda said in an interview here. “This is for them.”
There are, of course, many nods to the musical, including an audio guide narrated by Mr. Miranda and two other member of the original cast — Phillipa Soo and Christopher Jackson., The exhibition also has a soundtrack that will be familiar to fans — it’s a reorchestrated instrumental version of the show’s score, recorded in a Los Angeles studio by a 27-piece band.
Scattered throughout are small white signs that correct historical inaccuracies in the musical. On the audio guide, Mr. Miranda refers to them as “tweaks to history” and “fun facts that set the record straight.” The most significant, given the debate in some circles over how the musical depicts its hero’s relationship to slavery, is a sign that says that “The real Hamilton wasn’t an abolitionist, but he did oppose slavery.”
Mr. Miranda is straightforward about the fact that his musical is not precise history. In a welcoming video to the exhibition, he says, “I made a lot of things up,” and in the interview he said, “Don’t expect to pass a test on Argentinean politics by watching ‘Evita.’”
The exhibition aspires to greater historicity. Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale, served as an adviser and narrates some of the audio; Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School, served as a consultant.
“There are two ways to respond to the musical — one is to say, ‘Everything is not accurate, and I don’t like that,’ and the other is to say, ‘Everything is not accurate, so come with me and let me tell you more,’” Professor Freeman said. “I’ve been studying this period for many decades, and I’ve never seen this kind of interest — people want to know more, and it’s a wonderful thing that the show wanted historians to come in and offer a responsible version of more.”
Professor Gordon-Reed, who called the musical “fictionalized biography,” said the exhibition “attempts to tell the story in broader context.” “I imagine lots of young people will be there, and this will give them a more nuanced view of what happened in early America,” she said.
Early attendees seemed impressed. Among those lined up for the opening were Alex Lipp, 19, of Chicago, and Cyandra Bennett, 19, of Sheldon, Ill. On Friday night, they had seen the musical in Chicago — Ms. Lipp cosplaying as King George and Ms. Bennett as Hamilton. And on Saturday morning, Ms. Lipp showed off a forearm tattoo with words from the show’s libretto, “History has its eyes on you,” while Ms. Bennett had the show’s signature star drawn in black makeup under her left eye. Because they were in the first group to move through the museum, they got an unexpected bonus — they spotted Mr. Miranda in the last room, and got a selfie with him. “It was surreal — I was shaking really hard,” Ms. Lipp said. As for the exhibition, she said, “There was literally nothing I didn’t like.”