Well, I’ve joined a throng of people who were visibly self-satisfied at scoring tickets to Hamilton, bragging about their ability to pay and their perseverance. When the crowd enters the theater and sees the “official” pricing on the wall (the most expensive, “premium” tickets are $450) everyone openly scoffs, since many are paying a large multiple of that amount, and happy to do so.
How popular is Hamilton? They have to split the ticket-holders’ line into two, and it forms a huge “V” running for hundreds of yards down the block to the west and through a pedestrian walkway on the east. (The change from simply walking into a theater when the doors open, to these lines, occurred after 9/11 and it’s hugely annoying, especially if you’re not from out of town. Who queues to get into a theater? The British?)
The opening experience isn’t grand. The theater staff is rude and loud, realizing they don’t have to please anyone to fill the theater nightly. Once the doors open (somewhat late) they yell and scream for the cattle to get into the correct corrals. The ushers don’t so much “ush” as try to get people out of the way.
The Richard Rodgers Theater has a severe rake in the orchestra, so that the sight lines are superb. There’s the typical knee-knocking small space seating which makes coach flying seem comfortable by comparison (I’m told), but everyone can see the entire production, and quite well. Hamilton started five minutes late (the standard) and then proceeded to blow the roof off for 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Lin-Manuel Miranda created In the Heights, which I saw twice, and based this work on the biography written by Ron Chernow. Tour de force doesn’t explain this show. It is ground breaking in using modern hip hop and rap to movingly portray accurate history (e.g., Washington’s farewell address, “One Last Time,” or the ingenious “In This Room”). Moreover, it uses mostly black and Latino actors, and has very contemporary comparisons—Hamilton was a poor immigrant and became the first Secretary of the Treasury. The immigrant mentions (we were the ones who got things done) drew some intended hoots from the audience. I grew up a couple of miles from the spot where Aaron Burr shot Hamilton, on the Weehawken cliffs overlooking the Hudson River and Manhattan. There is a small monument marking the spot, which almost everyone ignores. It’s impossible to ignore Hamilton.
In the Heights was about a neighborhood, and the local rap made sense once I readjusted my thinking about what a musical is and can be. Hamilton is an historic rhapsody and I was surprised at how well music I normally do not listen to (because some of it is so violent and abusive) could have the emotional range and integrity to effectively deal so originally with a critical time in the history of humankind. Miranda himself is a force of nature on stage, but the entire cast is astounding, especially Daveed Diggs, who plays Jefferson as a street smart, fey, nuanced intellect, with moves that seem to propel him across stage without his feet moving. He doubles, believe it or not, as Lafayette. (There is a revolving part of the stage that adds a subtle, constantly-in-motion effect to the huge issues dealt with.) Another standout is Johnathan Groff as King George, done up like a donut, a fop, astounded at the revolting (in all senses of the word) colonists. His regalia alone is hysterical, but his delivery had me on the floor.
Hamilton is not all hip hop. There are departures into typical Broadway arias and moments where the change of tempo underscores a change in circumstances. This provided a mixture of sensation and contrast to the production that was brilliant.
So, we have a hugely creative, historically accurate work, with amazing musicality, and striking cross-cultural references representing both where America’s ideals originated (the story) and where they are going (the delivery). There’s nothing that can be wrong with that, right?
Well, there is. Hamilton has transcended being a theatrical production and become a phenomenon. (A perhaps weak analogy: Book of Mormon is basically a one-joke play which people flock to see because of its irreverence to a group that doesn’t fight back—an easy target. A “Book of Islam” would never have been staged, so I’ve never been impressed by the creators’ “risk taking.”) People are seeing Hamilton to say they’ve seen it, to avoid being locked out of social discussions, and to be “hip.” The cheering in the house began when the lights were dimmed, and I found some numbers to be predictable (building up to an inevitable mise en scene with the actors in the hackneyed dramatic poses) yet drawing consistently huge response. The standing ovation was launched immediately as the final scene notes began to fade.
Hamilton deserves a standing ovation. It’s a testimony to the vibrancy of the most contemporary music to emotionally portray the most historic of times. The acting, music, set, choreography, and direction are world class. Is it the best musical I’ve ever seen? No. I’d place it in my top dozen or so. Will you be seriously undermined in not seeing it? Only insofar as being unable to chat with that small coterie which has and will (though I suspect, in ten years, everyone will have claimed to have seen it on Broadway with the original cast).
The production is an intriguing and instructional sign of our times. Most of the patrons I could see in the lines and in the theater were white. I find it more than ironic that this opus about immigrants performed primarily by people of color has the most expensive tickets and ticket scalping I can ever recall on Broadway. (The thousand dollar and more seats are possible because the theater sells large blocks of tickets to brokers who savagely raise the prices.)
I’m glad I was there, I’m happy I can afford the ridiculous price it takes to be there. It’s wonderful music and a creative experience. But at the end of the day, it’s a performance, and it’s making a small amount of risk-takers very wealthy. And isn’t that just what Hamilton had in mind?
© Alan Weiss 2016