Standing on the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, after a quiet Sunday matinee of Hamilton, I looked out into the gilded, empty house, and thought, “What would Hamilton think of ALL THIS?” As a self-proclaimed history lover (my friends and I picked presidential boyfriends in the 10th grade, because we were that serious about American history,) I wondered how this influential, almost-forgotten founding father would feel about his city today, and his long-awaited legacy turned fame.
On a week-long pilgrimage to Manhattan to catch up with friends and theatre, Hamilton was as prevalent in real life conversation as it is on my daily Facebook feed—people snapchatting themselves lip-synching to the soundtrack, others drinking Hamilton-branded wine, or posting choirs covering “My Shot.” The obsession is real, and it’s spreading like bubonic plague.
As an industry professional who has chosen a life in non-profit theatre because I don’t believe we’re all in this game to meet the bottom line, I can’t quite wrap my head around the the fact that people are now wearing snap brim hats that read A.HAM not ironically. My first night in town I waited at the stage door to ride the train home with a friend in the cast. I thought to myself, “Why is there a fifty year old man standing in a planter box waiting for a glimpse of these people he doesn’t even know? Why are people screaming SO loudly? WHY CAN’T I JUST WALK ON THE SIDEWALK!?” I’d never seen a stage door so reminiscent of a Hollywood red carpet. And they’re all here to watch a play. I’m dumbfounded.
If you didn’t catch Hamilton when it was downtown, or you don’t have a connection or several hundred dollars, you probably won’t see this “game changing” piece of theater for another year or two — capitalism and social hierarchy rule Broadway. Consider the $1000 A. Ham paid to keep his affair a secret — that’s about half of what an actor will make for an entire Off-Broadway run at a theatre just a few streets over from the Richard Rogers. It’s our industry’s manifestation of the capitalist economic structure that Alexander Hamilton built!
The wild success of Hamilton has left most producers too scared to move their shows to Broadway until after Hamilton sweeps the Tony’s. While Lin-Manuel Miranda and his cast are in the midst of taking “Their Shot,” plenty of Broadway bound shows, actors, stage managers and designers are in limbo: waiting for work, waiting for their show’s shot at success in the commercial sector. “Every action has its equal opposite reaction,” and this Hamilton fever hits home for a lot of us—and most of us can’t even see the cultural phenomena that’s changing our industry!
A musical for a new generation of School House Rock fans, the show touches on major plot points in American History in a magically lyrical poeticism Alexander would appreciate. The mashups of beat boxing, R&B melodies, and traditional Broadway underscoring, elegantly mirror Hamilton’s own poetry, and beliefs. Hamilton introduces us to a hopefully romantic man who wrote eloquent verse about hurricanes, but spoke his mind, no matter the consequences to his career. Luckily for Miranda, this is one of the best plots a writer can ask for: an immigrant orphan with a fierce drive to succeed moves up in the ranks, builds a country almost overnight and then to ruins himself with infidelity and die in a duel to a rival of fifteen years. In love with two different women who happen to be sisters? Even better. And thanks to this new hip (hop) version of history told in a contemporary American voice by people that look like all of us, maybe some of the high schoolers flying from all over the country for a three hour musical history lesson will go home an look up the Federalist Papers, and have a better understanding democracy.
A few days before watching the show, I took my friend to the Trinity Church graveyard to see Hamilton’s grave. He and his family are buried across the street from a discount shoe store, just five miles from his hit musical biography — capitalism at its finest. My friend looked at the monument and said “Wow, I had no idea he was so young.” And I scoffed, “Yeah, he was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr.” And in that moment, I realized Hamilton wasn’t written for me — I wanted more Revolutionary War grit and gore than the Broadway glitz and glam of backup dancers in tight pants and endless color scrollers. Hamilton was written to inspire new generations of history lovers and theater goers (two things I can get behind). Not only is it a tribute to the man, (and more importantly his wife who spent fifty tireless years preserving her late husband’s memory and repairing his reputation, only to die before his biography was published) – it’s a love letter to New York and to the birth of our country.
Eventually, the show will tour, but the sentiment “How lucky we are to be alive right now, in the greatest city in the world,” won’t be quite as potent outside of Manhattan. Because in those moments of the show you realize you’re not the first person who’s hoped that “in New York you can be a new man”, and when the city inevitably devours you, you know you weren’t the first, and won’t be the last. We all want to be “in the room where IT happens,” because –
like Alexander Hamilton – we were born with the American Dream — we will work harder, do better, achieve more, and (fingers crossed) be remembered. That is part of the phenomenon —everyone wants the underdog to win, and most of us identify with A. Ham on some level, and we just want to change the world.