Hamilton, Round Two (I know, I know)

What I’ll always remember about seeing Hamilton on November 2, 2016, is that shortly after my boyfriend and I took our seats, an older couple came and sat in front of us, and the man was wearing a Cubs hat. Any other night, we would not think twice about this. But obviously, for Cubs fans, Wednesday was not any other night.

I can imagine the look on the man’s face when he realized Game 7 of the World Series would land on the exact same night that his wife had decided, before the baseball season even started, they should see Hamilton. Actually, I have no idea if this was the scenario – maybe he was the one who really wanted to see the show. He seemed cheerful enough for me to believe he had not been dragged to the show totally against his will. But what a dilemma! I’d already thought with slight disappointment about how there’d be no way I could follow the whole game, but I’m not a Cubs fan and the choice for me was obvious.

He checked his phone at intermission, and the show ended with enough time to catch the last couple innings, but I loved watching everyone around us commiserate with him. (I commiserated, but not so much that I didn’t go on a little diatribe about how I would not be happy about phone-checking during the show. I thought no one could hear me, but two girls sitting near me spoke out in agreement.)

And that’s the thing. Wednesday night, the Richard Rodgers Theatre was maybe the least acceptable place in New York to be checking your phone for the Game 7 score (no one did, by the way – and I truly hope no one did at any other theater, either). With Hamilton, your decision is made. You are at Hamilton. Nothing could top it.

Obsession-wise, nothing has topped Hamilton for me at all in 2016. I first saw the show in March (and I know I’m lucky to have seen it at all, let alone twice, in this calendar year), having longed to see it for months but not knowing much of the music or much about the musical’s development. After I won the lottery by some miracle, I was vaulted into the deepest, most consuming cultural obsession I’ve had in awhile. I will try not to overstate what the show has meant to me, but I can honestly say it’s brought me closer to some friends who also found themselves obsessed – it became our common ground – and it has broadened my interest in theater as a whole. This is all on top of the first and strongest reason I love this show: It’s history and theater presented in a totally new form. We’re drawn to it because nothing else has been or is now like it.

From March on, I’ve listened to every song, memorized nearly every lyric (I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never fully grasp “Guns and Ships”) and thrilled in the discovery of hidden meanings and wordplay. At a certain point, my familiarity with the soundtrack overtook my memory of specific moments from the show. The fact that I’d seen the show was mostly useful for being able to tell people I’d seen the show. I didn’t imagine the stage production when I listened to the songs, and honestly, I was fine with that.

Cut to early July, when I’m opening my boyfriend’s birthday gift to me (his true gift has been tolerating my constant Hamilton sing-a-longs for most of this year). It was a not-well-kept secret that he was getting me the Hamilton soundtrack on vinyl, but a couple times at dinner, he expressed how excited he was for me to open my present. Had he forgotten that I basically knew what it was? It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited; I just couldn’t understand why this was being so built up. I didn’t even think about the possibility that something else might be involved, so I know I wore a confused look when I opened an envelope taped to the back of the box and removed two tickets to Hamilton on November 2.

I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went from there, but he revealed that he’d purchased the tickets when a block went on sale in February – and that was even before I won the lottery. I felt a little bad that I’d unknowingly ruined his plan to take me to Hamilton for my first viewing, but because he’s a gracious human and fully attune to the inner workings of the show, he said he was just happy I got to see the original Broadway cast. My thoughts turned to how to prepare Timmy for his own first Hamilton viewing. Over the next few months we listened to most of the soundtrack together, and I think he’d say his viewing of Hamilton’s America was also helpful.

So, that’s the scene-setting. As far as the show itself, it hasn’t missed a beat. Yes, there were slight variations in the way certain parts sounded or were acted, but isn’t that the whole point of seeing it live? The (mostly) new cast carries on the spirit of the old with energy and precision. It was a joy to watch.

Part of my joy came from experiencing it in fantastic seats (left side of the orchestra). Far be it from me to complain about winning the lottery, but the downside is that front-row seats make it impossible to appreciate the full spectacle. So. much. happens. visually in this show that it’s a completely different experience with a little distance. “Satisfied” especially – I was eager to see the “rewind” section play out in person, and I was blown away. I feel like I’ve now seen the musical in its true, full context.

Most of the lead roles have been replaced from the original cast; Christopher Jackson remains as Washington, but he was out with an injury on Wednesday night. His understudy, Nik Walker, did a great job and played some of Washington’s spoken lines a lot differently (in a good way!) from how Chris Jackson does them on the soundtrack.

My favorite performances of the night came from Mandy Gonzalez, who replaced the goddess Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, and Michael Luwoye, who performed as Burr (he is both the Hamilton alternate on Sunday and Brandon Victor Dixon’s understudy for Burr). Mandy Gonzalez hit all the right notes as Angelica, and it was fun watching her in “Satisfied” especially – I liked the ways she played Angelica’s initial conversation with Hamilton. Her line “where’s your family from” sounded less like interrogation and more like someone smitten and searching for any way to keep the conversation going.

And Michael Luwoye was phenomenal, too. I heard that Leslie Odom, Jr., the original Burr, said he would play Burr differently depending on the night; some nights Burr was a sympathetic character, other times, he was a true villain. I wouldn’t say he was played as a villain on Wednesday, but he certainly had a mean streak. You believed he and Hamilton could have 30 years of disagreements, and you believed that he pushed everyone away while figuring out his own plans (Burr singing “I’llllllllll keep all my plans close to my chest” in “Non-Stop” is one of my favorite parts of the entire show). Part of me thinks the success of the entire show rides on the success of Burr’s performance, and this was a success for sure.

This is a special show, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. To see it with a rapt audience and see it thrive after so many major casting changes gave me hope that it’ll endure all its coming iterations, from the London production to the tour. That my mom will love it just as much as I do when she sees it come to Portland in 2018. That I’ll love it just as much as I do now when I maybe win the lottery again five years from now (who am I kidding, I’m never winning anything again). If/whenever I see it again, I’ll experience the joy anew.

Odds & Ends (spoiler alerts, I guess, if you haven’t seen Hamilton, but these are mostly just elements that come across in the stage production but can’t be caught on the soundtrack): 

*Hercules Mulligan is the flower girl at Hamilton and Eliza’s wedding. I completely missed that the first time around, and it brought me insane joy.

*One of my favorite parts of the soundtrack is Burr introducing Jefferson at the beginning of the second act in “What’d I Miss?” “You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas!” he sings. I always heard it as him repeating the name, but when Jevon McFerrin (Seth Stewart’s understudy, performing for the night) sang it, the first Thomas was introductory, and then the second one was said to Jefferson, like “come on out!” Even now, listening to the soundtrack, I hear that intonation from Leslie Odom., Jr., but I didn’t pick up on it before, and I love it.

*One of the revolutionaries hands a Reynolds Pamphlet to the conductor.
*I count myself especially lucky to have seen Jonathan Groff as King George III, since he was the first original cast member to depart, but let me tell you – Rory O’Malley is just as perfect as his replacement. Timmy, my boyfriend, leaned over me during his first song and asked “is he an original?” meaning….if he’s this good, he must be.
*When Philip Hamilton confronts George Eacker while the latter is attending a play, some of the ensemble members actually stage a little play-within-a-play for that moment of the song.

I won the Hamilton lottery! Here is the story.

The Broadway gods smiled upon me Tuesday night, and I won the lottery for Hamilton. I had a front-row seat to the show I’ve wanted to see for a year, and I’m now living in its glow.

I’m not a theater critic, so I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley to tell you how marvelous Hamilton is as a show (note his first line). Yet while I’m not qualified to tell you how Hamilton is changing the American musical, I can at least explain what it meant to me, as a history nerd, theater lover, and someone drawn to works of art that are totally and completely new.

Since winning the online lottery Tuesday (a complete out-of-body experience, by the way…I’ve definitely gone back and re-read the email even after the fact since I’m not totally convinced it happened), I’ve been trying to re-assemble the timeline of my Hamilton obsession. It started last spring, when I began hearing buzz about its run at the Public. At that point, I don’t think my interest went much beyond general intrigue. I think often about how history might become more accessible for the general public. What would get people, especially young people, interested in those topics that seem dry on paper? I loved the idea that a musical about one of the Founding Fathers was actually really good.

Last summer, when the show transitioned to Broadway, it crossed over into phenomenon phase. Tickets were impossible to acquire (or afford) and each time I played the lottery outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, thousands of other fans were playing, too, so chances of seeing it that way were slim.

For awhile, my desire to see the show was driven by my desire to be part of the conversation; it was less about the show itself. Even in the summer, I knew little about it, minus the names of a few of its stars, but my interest in the show and its creator/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew even larger after a New York Times Magazine story from July, which was the first place I read about how the show portrayed Hamilton: It wasn’t a straightforward retelling of what happened in America’s early days, but a meta-narrative, exploring Hamilton’s place in history, how he and other founding fathers considered the ways they’d be perceived in future generations, and how their stories were carried forward.

That concept has long fascinated me; I thought most about it when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and learned how Lincoln was so concerned with doing something important enough to be remembered, because the idea of an eternal afterlife wasn’t comforting; he needed to do something that would make his name indelible on earth. Hamilton doesn’t present its titular character as having quite the same motivation (and I haven’t read the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda to create the musical) but I see parallels. It’s that layer of historical perspective that makes the show so fascinating to me.

What Hamilton really comes down to for me, though is Lin-Manuel Miranda. The man’s a genius. He read the Chernow biography and saw something in it no one ever noticed: Alexander Hamilton embodies hip-hop. (Watch the snickers he gets when he explains that to an audience at the White House when he first performed what became Hamilton’s opening number there in 2009.) More than that, he created an entire musical out of it, and not a cheesy song-and-dance, which I’m sure it could have become if treated by less capable hands. It’s a feast for your ears and eyes, on top of being a fresh presentation of history.

To watch Hamilton in the theater is to know you are witnessing something new and different. You have never seen a musical like this. You have never learned about history like this. It pays homage to its predecessors across musical forms, but in channeling them all, it becomes something they were not. Lin-Manuel Miranda created this whole thing – the concept, the music – and as you sit in the theater, knowing this man playing Alexander Hamilton conceived the whole idea, you realize it is extraordinary.

Now that Hamilton is such a phenomenon, actually seeing the show is a meta experience. You’re there to see Hamilton, but you’re also THERE TO SEE HAMILTON! I’ve never seen a show with such an engaged audience. And since all the lottery winners sit in the front row, it’s obvious to everyone else in the audience that you’re one of the lucky 21 who had their name picked. Who got to see the show just by chance. When I handed the usher my ticket, she shared in the excitement, saying “Oh my gosh, you won the lottery, congratulations!” That made it fun. I also treated myself to an adult beverage because I was going to have myself a night (and I wanted the souvenir cup).

Now it’s annoying for me to say, “oh, you just HAVE to see it” because I know that for a lot of people, it’ll be impossible to see this show unless they suddenly fall into wealth, or they get lucky like I did and win the lottery. It’s true, though. There’s an energy in the theater you simply won’t get just listening to the soundtrack. The cheers start when the lights first go down, and the clapping and hollering never let up. Of course at other shows, certain lines will get a laugh, but at Hamilton, “immigrants, we get the job done” gets straight-up applause.

Something unique about the performance I attended: It happened the day after the cast was all over the news for performing at the White House. Even that morning, Lin-Manuel had been in DC with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. I remember noticing his tweet early in the day, replying to a fan and confirming that he would be performing that evening. Little did I know.

I also realized it was the first time I’d sat in the front row at any show. I got to see the spit and the sweat. Thanks to the proximity and the depth of emotion I could sometimes witness, I think I love songs that otherwise might not mean much, like “Dear Theodosia,” the ode Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborns. I’ll always listen to that song thinking of Leslie Odom, Jr., sitting onstage not far from me, beaming at this imaginary child. I was amazed at how easily he transitioned from rap to this gorgeous ballad.

My enthusiasm for Hamilton has not tempered since I’ve seen the live show. Now I’m hard at work memorizing the soundtrack, and I’m still soaking up every piece of information about the show and its creation I can get my hands on. It’s a fun show to be obsessed with, and I’m happy that Tuesday’s performance was just the beginning for me.

I leave you with a few random Hamilton-related clips that I hope help you fall in love with this show if you haven’t already:

A performance of “One Last Time,” which is emerging as one of my favorite songs from the show. Christopher Jackson, who plays Washington, gave probably my favorite performance at the show itself. How can a song can be so beautiful, and explain why Washington stepped away from the presidency after two terms better than any history textbook?

A #Ham4Ham performance outside the Richard Rodgers in October; the three actors to have played King George during the Public and Broadway runs perform, “The Schuyler Sisters,” one of my favorite songs (with Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays one of the sisters, rapping the Aaron Burr part):

Aforementioned clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping what became the opening number at the White House in 2009:

Goddess Kelli O’Hara performing at a #Ham4Ham:

The Hamilton Cast at the Public last year, paying tribute to A Chorus Line on its 40th anniversary (it also played that theater):