In The Presence of an Icon (Or, “That Night I Waited Five Hours for Tickets to See Bette Midler on Broadway”)

At 4am Saturday, my alarm rang. By 4:45, I (along with my boyfriend, a saint) was sitting in Shubert Alley with the seven others already in line. Our mission? Secure standing room tickets to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! that night.

At 10am, the box office opened. We each walked away with two SRO tickets.

At 8pm, the overture began. At 8:10 or so, Bette Midler appeared onstage, and one of the greatest nights of theater I’ve ever experienced took off.

Some background on why this was such an early wakeup call:

Months ago, I came to terms with the fact that I was only going to see Hello, Dolly! by a great stroke of luck or by suddenly coming into wealth. Once the Tony nominations were announced Tuesday and the show racked up ten nods, my determination to see the show was renewed and I took luck into my own hands. I researched the cheap ticket situation (no rush or lottery, but $47 for SRO). Going off the advice of a kind stranger on Twitter (whose tweets appeared when I searched “hello dolly standing room”), I decided to wake up (very) early Saturday, head down to the box office, and see what I could do.

A brief aside to sing the praises of my boyfriend: Not only did he wake up at 4am and sit with me for every minute of our 5-hour wait for the box office to open – he also brought camping chairs so we each had a real seat. But that’s not all. Since each person can purchase up to two SRO tickets, he snagged a pair, but instead of going to the show himself, he bequeathed them to my theater-obsessed coworkers (my roommate took the fourth ticket). Yes, I know, he’s the best person ever.

Seven people were already in line when we arrived, but given what my Twitter friend had told me (he assumed 15-18 SRO per show), and knowing they would be selling for both matinee and evening, I felt good about our chances. Five hours later, we emerged victorious.

Ok, now for Bette.

I honestly had no idea what I was in for. I mean, I kind of did, because it’s an icon in an iconic musical role. But what I didn’t understand until reading the Playbill is that she really hasn’t been on Broadway much (before 2013, it had been 40 years), and that this is her first huge, headlining musical on Broadway ever.

The first time she appears onstage, she’s disguised; she and two other actresses ride out on a carriage, their faces buried in newspapers. One by one, they drop the papers into their laps, and when you see that third face is Bette Midler’s, some crazy musical theater reflex is activated and you start clapping without even realizing it.

The clapping never really stops. Actually, it even goes beyond clapping; in some cases, it was full-on arm-waving, as if the person expected her to notice, stop and point, and proclaim, “Yes, I love you, too.” She may as well have done just that; the electricity in that audience never waned. David Rooney’s review in The Hollywood Reporter puts it perfectly: “Midler soaks [the enthusiasm] up like a heat-seeking beacon and then beams it right back out into the house.”

If simply being in Bette Midler’s presence was the best part, I still would have walked away happy. But more than that, she was also fantastic in the role. I loved hearing her sing, watching her dance and ham it up for the audience.

Every other element of the production was fantastic, too. It reminded me why I love classic musicals. As I’ve become a more knowledgeable theatergoer, I’ve discovered the joy of those that are more outside the box, too – Dear Evan Hansen, or, yes, even Hamilton – but seeing Hello, Dolly!, with its stage awash in colorful costumes, its songs catchy and classic, the whole thing borderline cheesy, I was reminded why I love standard musicals. I didn’t grow up with much attachment to Hello, Dolly! in particular, but it reminded me of the shows that first drew me to a love of musical theater.

I will admit to being bummed when we learned David Hyde Pierce’s understudy would be on that night as Horace Vandergelder. Next to Bette, he was a big reason I wanted to see the show (because, Niles Crane, hello). But Michael McCormick, who performed that night, didn’t seem to miss a beat, and played Vandergelder as the character I knew him to be; he had a gruffness that I almost couldn’t imagine in David Hyde Pierce.

The man standing next to me during the show had also seen the show a few nights earlier, with Pierce. He said he was also terrific, but McCormick wasn’t leaving anything to be desired. (And for the record, this man I spoke with was visiting NYC, had purchased his earlier tickets well in advance, but loved the show so much that he decided to tough it out in the standing room line for another chance.)

Gavin Creel, who played Vandergelder’s employee, Cornelius Hackl, was the great discovery for me. He’s been in tons of shows, but I’d never seen him before, and I absolutely loved him. It was when he started singing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” that I realized there was much more to this show than just Bette Midler.

And yet, there still was Bette Midler. At the risk of sounding incredibly corny, I’m kind of excited to thumb through my old Playbills someday and think about how lucky I was to collide with this show, with that star.

Then I’ll remember I only secured the tickets because I spent five hours in the middle of the night waiting in line. So I wasn’t just lucky; I had to work for I, too. I hesitate to say I’d do it again, because Saturday night was such a purely lovely theater experience (and because no one should lose that much sleep on a weekend). But I’m so glad I did it once.

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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):

 

Friday Night at “The King and I”

A couple months after I first moved to New York City, I saw “Nice Work if You Can Get It” on Broadway. I was by myself, still didn’t really know anyone in the city, and thought a musical starring Matthew Broderick sounded like a good way to kill a Sunday afternoon.

I went to the box office maybe an hour before the show to see if I could buy a rush ticket. They warned me Kelli O’Hara, the star, would have her understudy perform that afternoon. If I remember right, someone else in line for tickets actually left when they heard this news. But I was dumb and didn’t know the difference so I took my ticket gladly, figuring I wouldn’t know the difference.

The show was enjoyable. I wasn’t blown away, but it did end up bing a nice way to spend a few hours. I don’t remember who the understudy was, but as I’ve started paying a little more attention to theater over the past few years, all I can think of when I hear Kelli O’Hara’s name is how I missed my chance to see her that September afternoon in 2012.

All this is a long way of explaining how last night, seeing “The King and I” at Lincoln Center Theater, I finally had my first taste of Kelli O’Hara onstage. And it was unlike anything I’d seen before.

Even though I may pay a little more attention to theater than I did a few years ago, I didn’t hear about this “King and I” revival until a few months ago, when a couple friends at work (true theater buffs) told me how excited they were. I decided I wanted to go, in no small part because I really did want to see Kelli O’Hara onstage. But the whole idea of a classic musical getting an elaborate Broadway treatment – at Lincoln Center, no less, which I can say with conviction is my favorite place in New York City – was compelling.

I can’t write eloquently about theater, so I’ll spare trying to explain all the particulars of what I enjoyed. Putting words to everything would ruin it, anyway. I, notorious non-cryer, started tearing up as Kelli O’Hara and the kids sang “Getting to Know You.” During “Shall We Dance,” as Anna and the King (played by Ken Watanabe) were gliding around the huge Vivan Beaumont stage, there was a distinct moment in which I thought, I’ve never seen anything like this with my own eyes, happening right in front of me, before. Where did these feelings come from? I do not know. Go see this show and feel it for yourself.

Read Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times if you want a critic’s opinion. It will only make you more eager to see the show. I loved what he said when stating that Kelli O’Hara plays Anna: “You lucky theatergoers.” We are lucky, indeed.