I Saw Hamilton and Yes, It Really Is That Great
I made a very impulsive purchase last Friday: one ticket to see Hamilton the very next day.
My one-sentence review: “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Hamilton is the most popular Broadway show in years — possibly even decades. It’s gone beyond Broadway to become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.
RENT premiered 20 years ago and it’s the closest recent show to Hamilton in terms of cultural impact. I remember singing RENT in high school with my friends the way teenagers are singing Hamilton with their friends today. (Then again, it’s hard to compare the impact of a show from the early days of the internet. Just check out all the Hamilton tributes on YouTube!)
Sure, there have been other popular shows within the past 20 years, some of them fantastic, but none have been on this level.
Wicked was a huge hit and it’s still beloved by Broadway fans, especially for its music — but it didn’t quite cross over culturally in the same way.
The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q broke the mold when it comes to musicals — but both of them are on the vulgar side and perhaps that held them back from becoming more mainstream hits.
The Producers was huge, but much of that success was based on its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and the show suffered once they left.
Is Hamilton a once-in-a-lifetime show? Perhaps it is. But I think it might be a twice-or-three-times-in-a-lifetime show.
“It was simply, as I tell everybody, the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” –Michelle Obama
And it’s for that reason that I decided to spend the money on a ticket. I had just found out that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist and star of Hamilton, will be leaving the show on July 9. That’s the day that the Hamilton cast’s yearlong contracts are up, so many of the cast won’t be returning.
I wanted to see Lin-Manuel Miranda. And Daveed Diggs. And Leslie Odom Jr. And Renée Elise Goldberry. But who knows who will be staying after July 9? And who knows how much further the secondary market prices would go up after the Tonys this Sunday?
So I bit the bullet and bought the ticket.
It was the best not-AS-expensive-as-it-could-have-been-but-still-pretty-damn-expensive amount of money I’ve ever spent. Worth every penny and then some. I have never enjoyed a performance so much in my life.
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What makes Hamilton so good?
It’s the story of what our country is about, told through the extraordinary life of one man. Hamilton, at its core, is a story about an immigrant who used his smarts to get a ticket to America, then worked tirelessly to make our country as good as it could be. Hamilton was brilliant — perhaps even a genius. He was also impulsive and a bit of a hothead.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? –Opening lines of Hamilton
So many people have forgotten that America has always been a nation of immigrants, and that so many people place blame for their economic difficulties on the most recent arrivals. Today’s “Mexicans should just speak English” is really just another “No Irish Need Apply.”
That’s why it’s so powerful that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a show that was told largely through hip-hop through a cast comprised almost entirely of people of color. Hip-hop has always been the language of rising up against one’s circumstances.
“I understand how ridiculous the elevator pitch for this show is,” Lin-Manuel Miranda told NPR. “It sounds improbable. And then once you start hearing about Hamilton’s life story, it sort of makes sense. The mode of storytelling makes sense to the subject.”
Miranda chose to intentionally cast people of color because it was a reflection of how America looks today. The story of Hamilton is the story to everyone who fought adversity and came to this country with the goal of building a better life. The story of America is the story of all Americans, not just the people who have a skin tone that closest resembles the Founding Fathers.
“It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it. We are saying we have the right to tell it too.” –Leslie Odom Jr.
They say there’s always a piece of entertainment that so defines the era of a presidency. 24 for George W. Bush. Wall Street for Reagan. Hamilton is Obama’s opus.
Beyond its social importance, it’s also a damn good show. The music is beautiful and catchy — and not as hip-hop as the hype might have you believe. This is still a Broadway show at its essence. There’s a lot of hip-hop in the show but also plenty of ballads and jazzy showstoppers. Plus a dose of Britpop, courtesy of King George III.
The actors are fantastic. There seriously isn’t a weak link in the bunch — and every character has its own unique cadence, particularly when it came to rap. The costumes, the set (including a revolving stage) — it’s all top-notch.
And the fact that it tells the story of our country, though through a lesser-known Founding Father, and that it connects so well to today — that’s what makes the show even more special.
Finally, I’ve never experienced such an enthusiastic audience in all my years of theatre-going. The Hamilton audience was electrifying. Everyone was so excited to be there, whooping and cheering at every opportunity. Me? I was so excited, I couldn’t stop shaking.
These are the Founding Fathers
Everyone has an image in their head of the Founding Fathers being these staid, old, gray figures who calmly worked together, who were polite, who wrote carefully and specifically in their writings.
Dude. That image couldn’t be further from the truth.
They were young. They fought. They often hated each other. They drank. They picked up women. They spread ugly rumors about each other in order to gain or retain power.
I mean, think about it. Do you really think a revolution was led by a bunch of old dudes? (I know, I know, Bernie. Sit down.) It was the youth of America that carried the country forward.
And I feel that if more people looked at the Founding Fathers this way, more young people would understand the impact they can have by getting involved in politics.
The more things change, the more things stay the same.
There was one point during Hamilton where my mouth literally fell open. And then fell open further. It was during the song “Schuyler Defeated”:
Hamilton: “Since when are you a Democratic-Republican?”
Burr: “Since being one put me on the up and up again.”
Hamilton: “No one knows who you are or what you do…”
Burr: “They don’t need to know me! They don’t like you.”
Hamilton: “Excuse me?”
Burr: “Oh, Wall Street thinks you’re great. You’ll always be adored by the things you create. But upstate—”
Burr: “—People think you’re crooked.”
Those lines were written a few years ago. But word for word, that conversation could literally be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump today.
Is Miranda some kind of sorcerer? I wouldn’t put it past him.
But more likely, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“So I guess the biggest takeaway is, yes, this election cycle is bizarre. But it’s no more bizarre than the election in 1800, wherein Jefferson accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite and Adams responded by [spreading rumors] that Jefferson died, so Adams would be the only viable candidate. He was counting on news to travel slow! That, weirdly, gives me hope.” –Lin-Manuel Miranda
We need more shows with intentional casting of people of color.
Hamilton is famous, in part, for using a cast of almost entirely people of color. It’s not the first show to cast people of color in traditionally white roles, but it’s the first show of this magnitude to intentionally do so. (Then again, you could argue it’s the first show of this magnitude…ever.)
There’s a difference there. It’s one thing to say, “We’ll be open to everyone and cast the best actor.” That’s happening more and more often — like Kyle Jean-Baptiste, who became the first black actor to play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway before tragically dying in an accident last year.
But it’s something else to intentionally casting actors of color in the roles of historical figures who were white.
The truth? It makes zero impact whatsoever on the believability of the show. This is a musical. People randomly burst into song and dance. I think it’s fair to say the ship for realism has sailed.
The important thing is that George Washington has gravitas, strength, maturity, that he can command a room and have the respect of everyone present. From Christopher Jackson’s first moments onstage as Washington, you don’t have a moment of doubt that he is Washington.
And that Thomas Jefferson has sophistication and swagger with a touch of eccentricity, thinly veiled sexism, and a bit of a mean streak. Daveed Diggs, in a Prince-esque purple velvet coat and white cravat, is probably my favorite depiction of Jefferson in pop culture so far!
And then there is Aaron Burr. Well-intentioned and on the cusp of power but never quite getting to exactly where he wanted to be. Insecure as a result. And increasingly bad at hiding his insecurity as time went on. Please give Leslie Odom Jr. the Tony now!
Does their race change anything? Or make it…different? Not whatsoever. And anyone who says the casting makes the show worse is the kind of person to whom you shouldn’t cater, frankly.
I hope Hamilton opens the door to more intentional casting of people of color — and I think it will. It creates more opportunities for actors of color. (Daniel Dae Kim, the Lost and Hawaii 5-0 actor now appearing in The King and I, recently pointed out that the only roles for Asian men in the Broadway canon are in The King and I and Miss Saigon — that is it. TWO SHOWS. If an Asian actor wants to get any other role in a classic musical, he needs to depend on so-called “nontraditional casting.”)
But intentionally casting actors of color gives kids role models, seeing people who look like them on stage. It’s so valuable for children to know that they can be whoever they want to be.
And for us, the consumers, it allows us to experience incredible performers we would have been kept out of roles otherwise. Take Daveed Diggs — he had no exposure to Broadway. Prior to starring in Hamilton, his only Broadway experience was listening to Fiddler on the Roof as a child.
Broadway has been a historically white form of entertainment — both for the entertainers and the audience. It’s one of few art forms where pieces from decades and generations ago are performed with equal vigor to contemporary works. And many of those old works are rife with racial stereotypes. As much as I’d love to see Daniel Dae Kim in The King and I, and as beautiful as the music is, I’m not a fan of the show’s cringe-inducing portrayals of Asians.
Even with Hamilton, the current level of diversity in Broadway isn’t enough. But it looks like the tide is turning. Slowly.
Theatre is the first step — probably the easiest step. TV is next. Then film. Film is slowest to change.
For me, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and see The Crucible on Broadway before it closes in July. Like Hamilton, the characters in the show are all white historical figures, but the show features several black actors, including Hotel Rwanda‘s Sophie Okonedo.
This is the same reason why I see comedies starring women in their opening weekend. The more money they make, the more opportunities there will be for films like these in the future.
The Best Part: Finding the Hip-Hop Easter Eggs
I was hanging out with my friend Beth a few months ago and she had the Hamilton soundtrack on in the background. I was zoning out but immediately perked up when Jefferson rapped, “And if you don’t know, now you know, Mr. President.”
“Wait — did he just reference Biggie?” I asked. That line is from the end of every verse in “Juicy.”
“Yes! There are lots of those in the show.”
There are so many winking references to hip-hop throughout Hamilton — and Broadway musicals as well — and tracking them down is insanely fun. Genius.com is an absolute gold mine! Miranda pops in there every now and then, but he’s said that he doesn’t want to give everything away so people can have fun figuring it out.
“This was a guy who used words to get everywhere and do what my favorite hip-hop artists do — if not write about their struggles, their lives, then transcend their circumstances by sheer virtuosity.” –Lin-Manuel Miranda
The Cabinet debates between Hamilton and Jefferson are turned into rap battles that reference Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” with Jefferson even laughing with the same “Ahaha-ha-ha!”
Hamilton spells his name out like Biggie in “Going Back to Cali”:
“A-L, E-X, A-N-D,
E-R, we are, meant to be”
Compare that to
“It’s the N-O, T-O, R-I-O,
U-S, you just, lay down, slow”
Hamilton even references DMX. (“Meet him inside. Meet him inside.”) I mean, don’t get me wrong, I looooove dancing to DMX when four drinks into a sweaty basement party and I make a point of watching him sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every Christmas season (you’re welcome for that link), but the dude has the smallest vocabulary in hip-hop.
You can see the hip-hop references for yourself within the video embedded above.
But more than that, I think the fun is making the connections yourself and wondering if they’re true. (Not unlike my recent love stories post.) When the Marquis de Lafayette turned it up in “Guns and Ships,” I immediately recognized it. “That’s totally Twista!” I (silently) exclaimed in my seat.
Listen to Lafayette here (starts at 0:30):
Now listen to Twista’s verse in Kanye West’s “Slow Jamz” (starts at 2:51):
That said…Miranda probably didn’t base Marquis de Lafayette on Twista, of all rappers. But Busta Rhymes was one of his biggest influences. His song “Break Ya Neck” seems to lay the groundwork for Lafayette’s verse as well:
In my opinion, Angelica is pure Nicki Minaj! Listen to her showstopper, “Satisfied,” here:
Now compare that to Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”:
No, Nicki isn’t as strong a singer as Renée Elise Goldberry. But those rhymes in “Satisfied”? They recall her perfectly.
The Battle for Accessibility
This is a show that every American should see. Yet the great irony is that with ticket prices so high, in addition to it being based in a very expensive city, only the most privileged are able to see it. How do you make Hamilton more accessible?
The powers that be are making an effort. Hamilton and The Rockefeller Foundation are bringing 20,000 11th graders from needy New York schools to see the show each year.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is currently pushing for legislation in New York State that would make the use of ticket-purchasing “bots” a felony. The use of bots is already illegal, but the ticket industry earns so much money that plenty of brokers happily risk getting caught. Making it a felony could change that.
In the next round of tickets to be sold, the $10 daily lottery tickets are more than doubling from 21 to 46.
And while I couldn’t find any documentation of this, rumors are swirling that Miranda is working to make the high school performance version of the show available earlier than usual — perhaps around five years from now. For Broadway, five years is lightning-fast.
Finally, other Hamilton productions are in the works: Chicago first, then two touring productions and London. It will be interesting to see whether a musical about American history can succeed overseas, but if it does, it could take cues from Phantom of the Opera, performing in Bangkok a decade from now.
But what I would most like to see is a filmed performance of the show become available to schools and people around the world. This is totally doable — it’s regularly done for shows based in New York and around the world. Even if it were paid, it could still get into schools.
Also, it’s not going to impact ticket sales. Hamilton is golden for years to come. It’s not going to suffer a quality drop when the original cast leaves in July. I really hope they make an effort with this.
Should You Go?
Tickets for Hamilton are either phenomenally expensive or phenomenally difficult to get, and that makes them out of reach for most people. I get that. I wish it weren’t that way, because this is a show that everyone should see.
My perspective is this: if you can afford it if it means giving up some fun things, buy a ticket. I basically spent my entire discretionary non-essential budget for June. So I won’t be eating out much or going out for drinks or traveling or buying clothes or doing other activities for awhile, and for me, it’s absolutely worth it. And I realize how fortunate I am to be in this financial position.
For me, theatre is about witnessing. Witnessing the original cast in a show this incredible was a once- or twice- or three-times-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s the same as seeing your all-time favorite band live once in your life.
(Another thing that I’ll add is that I was up in the rear mezzanine and still had a great view. The Richard Rodgers Theatre doesn’t have a bad seat in the house. Which is more than I can say for other theaters in New York.)
If the Hamilton tour is coming to your city or someplace you could visit easily (like Chicago, which is getting a full residency), and you’re still on the fence, wait for the onsale and get the tickets. You can always sell them (believe me, you’ll have no trouble finding a buyer!).
That said, if you’re spending time in New York, enter yourself in the digital lottery every day. The chances of you being chosen are unlikely, but you never know. That could be you, seeing Hamilton in the front row for just $10!
And if seeing the show isn’t an option, there’s the magnificent soundtrack. You can listen to it online with a free Spotify account. (Though I recommend reading a summary of the plot first so you understand everything.)
I almost wish I still had a car so I could sing Hamilton at the top of my lungs while driving! (People generally frown upon that on the subway.) As it is, I’m very happy to be living in Hamilton Heights, named for Hamilton himself, and I’m typing this from a cafe on land that was once Hamilton’s estate, two blocks from his house, which you can visit!
There are SO many great pieces on Hamilton all over the web. Here are some I think you might enjoy:
- Hamilton Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Rolling Stone Interview [Rolling Stone]
- All the Hip-Hop References in Hamilton: A Track-by-Track Guide [Slate]
- Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast) on Genius.com [Genius]
- Review: ‘Hamilton,” Young Rebels Changing History and Theatre [New York Times]
- Watching a Brown Hamilton with a White Audience [NPR]
- ‘Hamilton’ Mania! Backstage at the Cultural Event of Our Time [Rolling Stone]
- Stop the Bots from Killing Broadway [New York Times]
- Broadway/Hamilton Carpool Karaoke with James Corden, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Audra McDonald, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jane Krakowski [YouTube]
- ‘Hamilton’ Inc.: The Path to a Billion-Dollar Broadway Show [New York Times]
- Questlove and Lin-Manuel Miranda Give Details Of The Hamilton Mixtape [Vanity Fair]
- Broadway Embraces Diversity, But Have Things Really Changed? [AP]
- Lin-Manuel Miranda and others from ‘Hamilton’ Talk History [New York Times]
Essential Info: If you want to see Hamilton, it’s not easy. Shows are sold out into 2017. If you want to see the show, you’ll need to pay up for secondary market tickets (I got mine on StubHub, but StubHub is not 100% guaranteed).
Otherwise, take your chances with the daily online lottery. The lottery runs from 9:00 AM-4:00 PM and 21 front row tickets are given out at the price of $10 each (Ham4Ham, Hamilton for a Hamilton). The number of lottery seats will be raised to 46 next year.
The soundtrack is available streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.
All show images courtesy of the production by photographer Joan Marcus.