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The Hamilton Experience

It was January 2015 when I first saw Playbill’s announcement for a new show in previews: ‘Tony-winning In the Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda’s newest hip-hop flavored musical Hamilton reunites the Heights team—director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and co-star Christopher Jackson—to tell the epic story of Alexander Hamilton.’  

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Enter the Hamilton official lottery here!

When I was in high school, I submitted a graphic novel biography of Alexander Hamilton called ‘Don’t Get Burred,’ for an American history class project, and while I remember Hamilton’s story being somewhat bizarre, epic was not an adjective that came to mind.  Had I seen the words ‘epic,’ ‘hip-hop flavored,’ and ‘Founding Father’ linked in the description for a show by anyone other than the Miranda squad, I’d have been wary.  However, six years prior, the team completely swept me off my feet with In the Heights, a show that won the Tony for Best Musical by rapping a tale of Washington Heights gentrification in the same theatre that was once home to Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers.  Miranda knew how to refresh the traditional Broadway scene, and I was totally down for the ride.   

If only I knew beforehand how difficult getting a ticket to Hamilton would be…

The Golden Ticket

Following rave reviews off-Broadway while based at The Public Theatre, where the show became a hot new celebrity date-night destination*, Hamilton moved into The Richard Rodgers Theatre, the same space In the Heights occupied years before.  With the move to Broadway, the show came not only with Broadway-priced tickets— some being resold for over $1,000—but also a Broadway-style ticket lottery.  Two hours before show time, Hamilton hopefuls would line up outside the theatre to enter their names in the bucket, from which 21 ten-dollar front row seats were drawn each night (Alexander Hamilton’s face graces the ten-dollar bill).  I became one of those hopefuls, trekking down to 43rd Street through rain, snow, and frigid temperatures for a shot at the prize.

I was no stranger to Broadway lotteries.  They were how I saw many shows during college, including Miranda’s previous ones.  I had at least a 4:5 lottery record, but Hamilton was different.  The line just to enter the lottery would often span two city blocks, drawing hundreds of die-hard fans, inspiring the Hamilton cast to reciprocate their enthusiasm with sidewalk ‘Ham4Ham’ shows.  

Halloween night, entrants arrived at the theatre dressed as the Hamilton lottery itself.  When winners’ names were announced, ecstasy erupted from the mouths of the victors and all those around living vicariously through their bliss.  Police regularly had to remind participants to check for cars before running across the street to claim their tickets, while night after night, I left disappointed, empty-handed, and often times with frozen feet.  

After losing the lottery on one particular evening, I slugged around the corner to City Kitchen to buy myself my regular junk-food consolation prize.  I reached to pull the door open, but before I could, a very tall gentleman exiting the building opened it and allowed me to enter first.  That gentleman was Christopher Jackson (George Washington). I took the encounter as a sign that the next time I’d see him would be in the theatre.

The large crowds drawn by the lottery were soon viewed as a safety hazard, and the practice was shut down in favor of an online platform.  The designers of the site must have underestimated the Hamilton following, as on the first day of the online lottery, Hamilton broke the internet.  

When I’d resigned myself to an eternity playing the lottery, in an act of divine grace, a friend who was somehow in possession of extra tickets took pity on my regular defeat and gifted me one.  Just like that, my lottery days were over, and February 20, 2016 became the most important date on my calendar.  

On Grammy Monday, February 15, the cast of Hamilton performed the show’s opening number live for the award ceremony.  That broadcast was the most I had seen or heard of the musical to that point, since I’d purposefully shielded myself from internet clips and the cast album—which won a Grammy that night—in order to enter the theatre without preconceived judgments.  Watching the performance from the treadmill at my gym with a love-struck, goofy grin stretched across my face (which I’m sure confused all the people actually working out around me), my anticipation doubled, something I did not realize was possible.

In the Room Where it Happens

The day of the show, I arrived at the theatre and opened my Playbill to find, ironically, that Christopher Jackson’s understudy (Sydney James), as well as Renée Elise Goldsberry’s (Alysha Deslorieux), would be going on that day.  Even still, I sat giddily trying to contain my excitement.  In front of me, a couple who had waited all morning in the stand-by line**, scampered into their newly claimed seats.  I congratulated them on their good fortune.  They too were giddy, but I sensed that the majority of the theatre was not on the same cloud as us.  They were there to see just another Broadway spectacular.  

I’ve seen about thirty shows on Broadway and was afraid that the hype surrounding Hamilton would leave me jaded as I compared it to other smash hits, but as the lights dimmed and Aaron Burr rhythmically recited the infamous opening lines of the show, I swooned.  From start to finish, I was wholly captivated.  The show was smart, with layers and character complexities I did not expect, especially from the typically light, upbeat ‘hip-hopera’ genre.  Thomas Kail’s direction rendered all stage action effortless, and the performances were above top-tier.  Leslie Odom Jr.’s belting ‘Wait for It’ and ‘The Room Where it Happens’ were perhaps the most transcendent performances I’ve ever witnessed, causing me to question the known laws of the universe.  Yes.  It was that serious.  That’s what good art does.  

Hamilton was the best show I’ve ever seen.  In art critique classes, you’re taught not to use words like ‘liked,’ ‘good,’ and ‘best’ to describe works, but Hamilton simply was; it was in the Broadway league, but for some reason it was different, other, best— resulting in the earned Hamilton Mania.

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Miranda has opened America by placing people of color in the opening act of the nation, not as slaves, but as the manufacturers of history.

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Debrief

I’m a little over a month post-Hamilton now.  I purchased the cast album and to this day average around five full listens per week.  I still can’t hear ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ without experiencing all the feels.  Maybe it’s because I live uptown, or maybe it’s because the show’s effect was simply that profound.  The innovation wasn’t so much in the words— though the lyricality of the raps was most impressive—as it was who spoke them.

As a black woman, the founding of our nation was never something that resonated with me.  George Washington owned people like me, and Thomas Jefferson not only owned my ancestors, but also wrote pseudo-scientific arguments as to why they were sub-human.  For these reasons, as a person of color, it is often difficult to revere such men despite their leadership qualities.  When I think of the founding of our country, I don’t see myself in the narrative, at least not as a willing participant.  Yet, while watching Hamilton, I found myself enamored by characters I knew to possess these dark histories.

This is likely due to the fact that arguably the most unique element of Hamilton is that the cast consists predominantly of people of color***, allowing those who were excluded from the legislative halls of the 18th century to tell their story.  President Obama, a Hamilton fan himself, said of the show, ‘With a cast as diverse as America itself, including the outstandingly talented women, the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men — and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.’  Miranda has opened up America to the entire country by placing people of color in the opening act of the nation, not as slaves, the cheated, or downtrodden, but as those in a seat of authority, as the manufacturers of history.  The story doesn’t change, only who gets to tell it.

This begs the question, who is this play for?  Geeking out while recounting their experience seeing the show, the crew at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour noted that there was much familiar Broadway about Hamilton: the choreography and refrains evoke the smooth steps of Bob Fosse and pattering lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.  Similarly, the intricate raps of the characters, each modeled after a different established rap icon, welcome hip-hop aficionados into the Richard Rodgers with open arms.  Everyone has a seat (at least figuratively) in this theatre; this is the American Dream—for those who can buy a ticket (...capitalism is woven pretty densely into the fabric of the nation). 

The wall above my desk is minimally decorated for inspiration with cut-out illustrations of Kendrick Lamar and Lin-Manuel Miranda from an old AM New York. People like Lin-Manuel Miranda—and Alexander Hamilton—attained their level of success ‘by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.’  The Hamilton crew and cast know this, which is why the musical continues to garner accolades.  Each day they show up to do the work necessary to keep the show alive, to tell a story worth telling.   

 

*When I saw the show in February, I spotted Mark Ruffalo exit the theatre, but not even The Incredible Hulk could sway the Ham4Ham fans’ attention from the show’s cast.

**These days, the standby line is as impossible as the lottery.  Professional line-sitters sleep overnight outside the theatre and sell their spot in line to those willing to pay for their services in addition to the price of a ticket.

***Recently, the production came under fire for posting a casting notice calling for ‘non-white men and women,’ apparently a semantic issue more than anything else, since many—if not the majority—of casting listings specify ethnicity, age, and gender preferences for roles.

 

Averi Israel is a writer and theatre enthusiast passionate about art that starts meaningful conversations and brings participants closer to truth. New York, NY.

 

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