This is not a political blog. The headline is not some clever ruse, attempting to obfuscate some complex liberal philosophizing. This is a very, very, very long blog (BY REQUEST FROM DEAR FRIENDS WHO DEMANDED “A NOVEL”) about the time I saw Hamilton. And it was friggin’ awesome, yo.
Be warned: Lo’ there be spoilers.
Anticipation and hype are dangerous things. Many a brilliant work of art has suffered mortal wounds from the blade of expectation, cut down not by internal shortcomings but external projections. I haven’t intentionally listened to a song that wasn’t on the Hamilton soundtrack thus far in 2016. Its lyrics have infiltrated my daily dialogue. This is a deep love, an all-the-way love, I’ve got here. That obsessed love shit. The kind of love where you understand freely and fully how repellent you are to the uninitiated and uninterested.
And this was to be my first time.
That is to say, musicals have not been my thing. Save the rare exception, it’s an art form that merited my respect but not my interest. Hamilton changed that. It hella changed that. The first time I listened to it, I wept. I didn’t say I cried. I wept. I wasn’t sad. I was awestruck. I wasn’t melancholy. I was confused. I couldn’t understand how deeply, profoundly affected I was. Dumbfounded, I pressed repeat. That was about 9 weeks ago, and the circular, tail-chasing arrow icon that signifies “run that shit back again” remains lit on my phone.
When I found out I’d be seeing Hamilton, an anvil of expectation was cranked into the air. A cartoon baby grand piano followed above me, increasing in size the nearer I got to the show. To love something as much as I already did meant seeing it live was actually a risk. There were the run-of-the-mill concerns: What if understudies take the lead roles the night I go? There were the unusual concerns: What if I eat bad food before the show starts and spend the whole time focusing on keeping my bowels well behaved? And then there was the biggest, unspeakable worry: What if it’s just okay? What if the way I’ve seen these characters move and dance, touch and glide in my mind eclipses what could ever be shown on stage.
I got to the Richard Rodgers Theater about an hour and a quarter before the show was scheduled because waiting any longer would have violated the Geneva conventions. I promptly stood in the wrong line. When panicked/excited in a strange place, I can and will stand in any line available, applicable or not. After hearing murmurs about “cancellations,” I politely asked the least threatening human in my vicinity what was up. Shortly thereafter, beneath the judgmental stare of the Church of Scientology positioned across the street from the theater, I found my way to the right line. I say “line,” but it was only me and one other young woman waiting there, beneath a mural of the Schuyler sisters. I honestly don’t remember if she or I spoke up first, but once we started, we both rambled like schoolgirls. Which she was, and I just acted like. She was a sweet kid from California, a high-school freshman whose experience with Broadway flattened our lives’ experiential inequity. “I’ve seen 52 different shows, but this is the one I’m most excited about! How many have you seen?” Briefly tempted to lie, because who wants to look totally inexperienced about anything, I copped to the truth. She laughed, and we talked about favorite tracks and characters and the moments we were most excited for. Until our conversation car-crash stopped.
Moving at a brisk clip, toting a bright yellow backpack, and looking cooler than I have or will on the coolest day I have or will ever approximate cool, Daveed Diggs came bounding past us. Not walking. Bounding. She and I froze. He was in a hurry, so we couldn’t accost him. Even if we could, she and I were clearly both the sort who would only feel guilty for having even momentarily interrupted this bad-ass’s “work commute.” But someone had to say something. I looked at her. She looked away. Dammit, kid. “Mr. Diggs, I think your work is amazing” is what I intended to say. I know some combination of those words came out. Which ones in which order is a matter of debate. “Thanks, man!” He nodded and waved, entering the theater. And that’s the story of how Daveed Diggs and I became best friends for the rest of our lives.
From a distance, my line buddy and I watched as the key players arrived (save Lin-Manuel). Too far away for conversation now and moving fast and stealthy, we couldn’t even snap photos fast enough. No matter. We saw them. They were there. The lead roles were all there (save Lin-Manuel…”oh God, what if he’s not there,” my intestines asked noisly). Within minutes, we were inside the theater. We stood before the merchandise, shook hands, wished each other well, and went to our respective seats.
The theater was as expected, which isn’t an insult but is to say all theaters seem to share some ancestral origin: It was beautiful in that obvious, ornate way. A chandelier dangled like an upside-down wineglass filled with spilling diamonds beneath a gold patterned ceiling. It was crowded, and quarters were tight. Stairwells like slaughterhouse walkways. Unlike almost every other New York service position, the ushers here were beaming and ecstatic, one could dare say “polite.” A man so old I would have thought him CGI if I saw him in a movie was aided to a precarious mid-aisle position effortlessly. Impressive.
With the stir of seating settled, my attention turned to the stage. Wooden rails, but little else, framed the back and sides, forming a walkway around 15 feet in the air. In the center, although colored with the same wooden grain, there were clearly three circular discs. It was obvious they would spin, sometimes together, sometimes in opposite directions. From above, with a squint, it became apparent: This was “the eye of the hurricane.”
The lights flickered so soon. I swear we had all just walked in, as a familiar voice came across the speakers. “This is your king.” Jonathon Groff, pompous clown, barked playful instructions about cell phones, seating, and distractions to others before his invocation: “And now, enjoy MY show.” The emphasis would prove to only be half-joke. The stage still lit, not with spotlight but fully bathed in light, the audience went dark as out he walked: Burr. Leslie Odom Jr. sauntered in. It wasn’t cocky or arrogant, just heavy. Determined. No build-up. No warning. No music. Just familiar words and a snap: “How does a bastard orphan…”
Figures slid in from left and right, some recognizable and some a “visual choir,” male and female dancers in white corsets who would later alternate between nonspeaking characters and inanimate props. The opening number flowed, enrapturing as expected, until the most anticipated declaration: “Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.” The crowd promptly LOST THEIR EVERLOVING SHIT. Now, I don’t pretend to know the etiquette of musical theater. But I am somewhat confident that lines of dialogue are not often met with full-throated cheers, the likes of which are more commonplace when baseballs leave ballparks and running backs find end zones. It was obvious: this was part rock show, part championship sporting match. These were not Broadway attendees, not mere patrons of the arts, these were rabid, passionate fanatics. These were my people.
The scaffolding that surrounded the center stage was modular, with pieces on wheels simulating the ship that brought Hamilton to New York. By the song’s end, the major players all announced the actions they were fated to play in the grand story ahead, illuminated overhead with soft light that made Xs of their silhouettes: a game of checkers played with lives set to the best music I’ve ever heard was about to unfold.
As the fanfare of the opening ended, faux lampposts slid out, simulating a New York side street. It was there “Aaron Burr, Sir” seamlessly fused with the first show-stopper: “My Shot.” If there was doubt about Lin-Manuel’s ability to match in person the voice that had infected my headphones for weeks, such doubt was dead on arrival. A bar table slid from the side, as (holy shit) Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens, and Lafayette took their place, pounding out the beat with beer mugs, spitting a baseline. And the energy grew.
Lit with bombastic bursts, props slid on and off stage, a fluid spinning assemblage, as that silent army of white-clad dancers populated the stage behind the major players. Hamilton took the fore, commanding a battalion long before the story would tell us he does. As the song reached its apex, the crowd quite simply couldn’t handle themselves. They had ceased remembering how to function in public. Luckily, I had never known in the first place.
The entire row in front of me, men and women of vastly varied ages, mouthed every word, fist-pumping, seat swaying. As the cast froze frame for the last note, I swear to God I thought there would be a standing ovation right there, just three songs in. Instead, the show smoothly transitioned into “The Story of Tonight,” which played shockingly and stunningly far more intimate and quietly moving visually than it did with audio alone. Something about seeing these men together, watching them clapping each other on the back, bracing each other’s shoulders, produced an authentic bond the lyrics and voices couldn’t.
Only Burr remained, as everyone else slinked both left and right into the wings. The spotlight crashed down, as a hazy light brought forth an urban setting seemingly out of thin air. And suddenly, there they were: the Schuyler sisters. Immediate, fierce, glorious, and sharply angled, Angelica cut to the front, flanked by her sisters. Eliza, the goddess, was the epitome of regal, cloaked in silken blue she wore like armor. If Angelica was fire, Eliza was ice. Both forces of nature and beautiful, so goddamn beautiful. Peggy was also present…
The women abandoned the street as Samuel Sebring slid in a soapbox, stepped upon it, and began “Farmer Refuted,” one of my low-key faves if just for the line “Don’t modulate the key then not debate with me.” Our heroes, huddled together just to Sebring’s right, began goading Hamilton to “tear this dude apart.” Burr backed him down with a condescending hand gesture (“Let him be”) but turned. Visually, his hubris is evident. He thought himself above Hamilton, as though an admonition and head nod of “nah, bruh” would hold Alexander back. At first opening, Hamilton ran right next to the soapbox and barked up towards Sebring, eventually demanding a portion of the soapbox for himself. As Sebring wobbled, nearly falling, Hamilton dared him to lose all balance with the sheer power of his voice.
Then, suddenly, the stage was bathed in bright red light. Those on stage fled to all sides, as from the back, slowly strut the king. If the audience lost their shit for Hamilton’s introduction, they lost twice amount of said shit for the king’s. Effortlessly belting out the playful tune, Groff paused and played with different words, coaxing humor from physical improvisation as much from staccato verbal stunting. When finished, he did not exist briskly; he slowly took his time, letting the next song begin and forcing the influx of dancers and players to move around him. He left when damn well ready, as a king does not rush.
Of all the songs that improved upon being seen, “Right Hand Man” ranked second for me. You’ll hear why it’s number two later. Washington was silhouetted in the back. Physically imposing, he was a leader in form as well as function; broad-shouldered and linebacker-swollen, the real George Washington would have needed a new pair of knickers and lied about the reason if confronted by Christopher Jackson, one of the kindest stars I’ve ever met (more on that later too). As Washington declared he was “Outgunned,” his saber produced and charging in, he frantically tried to coax order from farmers-turned-soldiers. Burr interrupted Washington at his desk, as the stage emptied save for the two of them. Enter Hamilton: Lin-Manuel and Odom give each other the “sup” head nod, as Washington dismisses Burr. It’s one thing to hear Burr’s humiliation at being told to go sit at the kids’ table, another to see his physical reaction to it. You can tell, that was where it started.
Once his sales pitch was executed, Hamilton ran to Washington’s desk. It was here that we saw the hint at a repeated bit of brilliant stagecraft. The desk was on one of the spinning circles. It seemed both to run to and away from Hamilton. He would chase it as it chased him. Writing was a circular pursuit, one he desired and was haunted by.
“A Winter’s Ball” briefly changed setting from wartime battlefronts to aristocratic courtship, as the musical shifted into a stunning one-two punch. Eliza fricking goddamn ripped into “Helpless” like a regal chainsaw, her voice so pure and sharp you wonder if she really needs that microphone. She and Hamilton proceeded to fall in love with letters. Voiceless dancers in white became the wind, passing message from him to her, from her to him, until they were both enamored. Well, actually, it’s clear he fell in love with her, attempting seduction with witticisms and poise; she simply chose him and that was that. Hamilton asked for her hand in the background, as Angelica encouraged the union with Eliza through clenched teeth in the fore. Her rigor, stiff smiles, and cold gestures embodied the emotional turmoil of “she who loves who she should not.” Ending with Eliza in a veil, wedding guests made of the white-adorned dancers and others surrounded Angelica at center stage about to toast. Then things suddenly spun backwards to the booming sound of a commanding “rewind.” Dancers painstakingly and precisely replicated their previous dance moves in reverse, the stage spinning the opposite direction, props sliding back to where they were, key players reversing into position. Hamilton and Angelica set about crossing their stars, pausing to be spotlit at key moments, none more heartbreaking than the pose she strikes when she realizes he is not, will not, cannot be hers. She is bathed in the coldest light, as sisterly love won out.
The brief reprise of “The Story of Tonight” was sparsely populated, with just Hamilton’s posse and Burr, who was soon enough left on stage for another breathtaking moment. Full confession: If forced at gunpoint to pick (and it would have to be only in that scenario I would admit it), “Wait for It” may be my favorite song in Hamilton. The tiny, hair-raising pause before the orchestra blasts the backdrop to his first declaration of his intentions is one of my favorite moments in life. I would live in that moment if I could Seeing it live broke me. I wouldn’t say tears “fell.” I didn’t “ugly cry.” But I’d say it suddenly got very cloudy in my eyeballs.
“Stay Alive” brought the first military skirmish, replete with Redcoats and guns taking aim against the ill-fated, ill-prepared Charles Lee. As the British marched in from stage left, Hamilton and Lafayette took orders from Washington on the railing above them. Cannon fire and gunshots were punctuated with precise, spotted, orange lighting. I felt those goddamn bullets, expressed as focused light and sound. I felt the cannons, bigger beams and louder base. But mostly, I felt the panic. With Lee’s defeat cemented, he fled up the scaffolding on stage left to bark out insults against Washington, firing “from a distance,” as physically far from him as he could get. The record scratched again, as the center stage circles began to spin frantically in opposite directions. John Laurens vowed to seek revenge for Washington on Hamilton’s behalf, and was promptly bathed in blood red light. “The Ten Duel Commandments” was all circles and spinning; it was “the center cannot hold” shit. It was foreshadowing endings and underlining themes. It was the hurricane unfurling. The different allied pairs (the duelists and their seconds) stood on opposite circles, stepping from one rotating disc to the other, orbiting and chasing each other as the rules were explained. Burr and Hamilton never took their eyes from one another. Make no mistake: This was actually their first duel. The ill-fated duo stared and spun until they took their leave, letting Laurens and Lee square off.
A gunshot pop announced “Meet Me Inside,” which has one of my favorite singular moments in the play. Washington, proud pseudo-father turned disappointed replacement dad, tells the orphaned Hamilton, standing on a dark and sparse stage broken only by intimate spotlight on the two of them, that he must not be so rash. The performers were on the very front edge of the stage, nearly teetering atop the orchestra pit. Hamilton surged forward, inches from Washington’s face: “Call me son one more time!” The inflection was different than in the recoding in the most authentic, organic way. He wasn’t performing it for a microphone: Hamilton was saying it to his makeshift dad. Washington flinched as if slapped. His shoulders slumped in disappointment, not rage. Hamilton’s face drew sullen, his body language a surrender. When told to leave, he knew why, and knew he should.
It wasn’t clear until seeing it live all of the work that the song “That Would Be Enough” is tasked with doing. Not only must it establish Eliza as a character with agency, it must demonstrate the bond between her and Hamilton with considerable economy, especially difficult given how often Angelica’s affections are underlined. The intimate scene was just the couple, intertwining and separating physically, pulling apart and fusing together amid virtually no props. What was evident in the choreography was Hamilton’s deference to Eliza. That is to say, in literally every other scene (save one), the man does not back down or insinuate inferiority to any other character. In the previous scene, he had just told the defacto “King of America” to stuff it. But here, every action, every note was a demonstration of weakness and submission. Eliza held him like a child at times, lovingly but clearly superiorly. By the way, falling in love with Phillipa Soo isn’t an option, it’s a commandment.
Holy shit. Then… Holy shit. Then it happened… HOLY SHIT! “Guns and Ships!” The audience to a person sat up, leaning forward. Every inch of shrunken space mattered. Bouncing kinetically, Burr screamed “Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” as Lafayette entered and climbed the scaffolding, just so he could leap from it while mid-verse. I wouldn’t have believed it, but they had to have slowed Diggs down on the recording. They had to have. He’s faster lyrically in person. His flow so clean and crisp, so goddamn fast it’s like mainlining lyrics. Lafayette pounded on Washington’s desk, Diggs so full of energy, Jackson’s performance spiked to mach him. Extoling him, as the dancers swirled around, Washington conceded “I need my right hand man back.” And so the dancers once again became messengers, carrying the General’s missive to Hamilton into the arms of Eliza. Hearing the news, knowing what it meant, that he couldn’t and wouldn’t refuse, put his military jacket on him. She may not have been thrilled, but Queen Eliza has his back. The stage swirled as the bastard immigrant was face to face with the Virginian legend.
If you didn’t know the father-son dynamic prior to “History Has Its Eyes on You,” you couldn’t have misread it during that sequence. Washington is sullen as he offers a sabre of command to Hamilton. This is a father passing a legacy on to his son, even if it comes with warning. Hamilton didn’t hesitate, grabbing the blade and sliding it into the scabbard with a declarative clank. Washington exited as Lafeyette entered, and the biggest applause line of the night was uttered: “Immigrants, we get the job done.” The orchestra seemed prepared, pausing the cue until the roar subsided. The friends promised to see each other “on the other side” and the war exploded at “Yorktown.”
With a small number of players, the chaos was still communicated. Hamilton paced among soldiers in conflict, barking orders, as the dancers crissed and crossed around him. Until a cannonball of rhyme dropped in. Hercules Mulligan was everything I envisioned. Stocking-cap clad and throwing gestures like lightning bolts, when he declared “When I get knocked down, I get the f**k back up again,” I was pleasantly surprised to see the 70-year-old grandmother in my row mouthing the words. Then, finally, in the upper right of the stage, the white flag unfurled. The war was over, and the world turned upside down.
The stage emptied fast, as the royal red light bathed the stage again. With the same slow cadence, the King took lower stage left. As he declared “I’m so blue,” he struck his scepter against the ground, as the lighting changed to the blue color demanded. The quick song still demonstrated Groff’s unspeakable charisma and ability to elevate the briefest of moments into memorable gut laughs. A fitting contrast for “Dear Theodosia,” which saw Burr stage left, and Hamilton stage left. Burr seated at first in a chair seemingly rocking his newborn daughter, as Hamilton was peering down from behind a chair, as if looking into a crib. Simplistic mirroring to great effect.
The quiet humanity was quickly dissipated into the close of act one: “Non-Stop.” The spinning center stage circles had much work to do here, as this was easily the scene with the most diverse set of players and props. Hamilton argued a court case with Burr behind a table in the lower stage left before ascending to center stage where he declared his intention to seek public office atop a table. Jumping off and moving forward, he was surrounded by players seated in chairs, a simulation of the Constitutional Convention. The desk is there, representing the writing, chasing him from afar. The stage was emptied as Hamilton asked Burr surrounded in darkness broken by spotlight to defend the constitution. As Burr declined, you could see the physical frustration and irritation in Lin-Manuel’s body language. This was the second major dispute. Angelica and Eliza took their places on the spinning discs, the former explaining her choices and gaining distance from Hamilton physically on stage (incidentally getting a huge laugh on “he’s not a lot of fun” for some reason). The latter pleads her case sliding towards Hamilton as he moves away. Then the triumphant explanation of the Federalist Papers, as Burr can’t help himself in showing his admiration at Hamilton “writing the other 51!” It built to a frenzy of sound and people rushing on and off stage before emptying and leaving Hamilton center stage front, staring up at Washington atop the stage left railing. Another of my favorite tiny moments, Hamilton proudly declared “Lezgo” to Washington’s appointment to Treasury, as the key players all flood back on stage. Each offering their signature words of wisdom (“History has its eyes on you”), warning (“You will never be satisfied”), or opposition (“Wait for it.”) They all spiraled and circled, coming to a complete stop with Hamilton in front, the rest of the players spread out behind like a chessboard mid game, as the song rose to “I am not throwing away my shot!” Smash cut to black. The audience gasped. I peed a little. Nobody left their seat for intermission, although much selfie-ing and texting was had.
And now we’ve come to the song that was most improved upon seeing it. “What’d I Miss?” Holy. Shit. Daveed. GODDAMN. Diggs. His Jefferson was a force of nature. To see still images is to get only the barest of glimpses into this performance. He was boundless energy, with knees like springs, bouncing with every step he took like gravity was an option, like he was moonbound and everyone else was stuck here on this boring-ass planet. Hair no longer pulled tight but exploding around his megawatt smile, he was Prince in his prime, sex and power and energy that honestly can’t be accurately enough described. Dressed in royal purple, he swung his cane with purpose, surrounded on all sides by a swelling church choir, praising him. Okieriete Onaodowan, the nuclear Hercules Mulligan, shifted into the subdued, charcoal-voiced James Madison and joined his partner in crime on stage, as the choir fled.
A handful of chairs were placed in a semi-circle, with Washington at the top center. This was the first cabinet battle, and the crowd reacted as if they’d been attending rap battles their whole lives. Jefferson flanked by Madison in front of Washington, standing face-to-face with Hamilton, dressed in bright green. Diggs bit in hard, his physical reactions and facial expressions serving as his own hype more than the soft-spoken Madison, who was at least there to catch Jefferson’s mic when he dropped it at the end of his verse. But Lin-Manuel is no slouch, and the crowd “oohed” and “aahed” and “DAMNed” as he dispatched his opponent. The supporting players whisked the chairs away, leaving Washington and Hamilton conversing in lower stage left, as Madison and Jefferson waited to taunt Hamilton about his lack of votes from inside the circle at center stage. It’s worth noting even Jefferson’s jaunty exit got the crowd giddy.
The writing desk once more chasing and being chased, “Take a Break” gave us our first glimpse of Phillip, which admittedly brought laughs. A grown man playing a 9 year old will do that. It was still endearing, as the Hamilton family picture came into focus. When Angelica arrived from stage right, Eliza shrieked like a sorority sister. As they ran to each other, Hamilton softly and proudly declared them “The Schuyler sisters.” Peggy was not also present. The remainder of the scene relied heavily on the sisters chasing down and trying to convince Hamilton to not do the dumb thing he was about to do. But the desk, the writing, was lurking, circling him, demanding him. And as the sisters left, Burr entered, and things got icky.
“Say No to This” is always a hard listen to me because anyone who would cheat on a Schuyler sister should receive heavy blows about the head and face. It was harder still to see. Maria Reynolds, cloaked in tempting red, cleavage visibly throbbing from balcony seats, stumbles onto Hamilton behind his desk. The streetlight props came out (insert “streetwalking” joke), as Maria and Hamilton engaged in far too much necking for enraged folks like me at the front of the stage. It was short lived, as Mr. Reynolds strolled on to demand his ransom. The spinning discs, the hurricane, leapt into motion again, as Hamilton spiraled out of control. Maria on the ground pled her case, as Hamilton lamented his eventual ruin.
The stage emptied as Burr sauntered over to Hamilton to discuss legacy. Hamilton cut him off, as Burr slid downstage, and Hamilton slid up, joined by Jefferson and Madison. Their backs to Burr, as if ignoring him, we watch as the future duelist finds his final motivation. Visually, this was one of the more busy and gorgeous numbers, with key players standing atop props, sliding on and off stage, zigging and zagging into and out of each other’s paths. It was messy, like politics. It was ostracizing for Burr. It was optically frustrating to amplify Burr’s frustration. It was easily one of the top 5 songs of the night.
The brisk “Schuyler Defeated” was little more than another parry-and-thrust foreshadowing what was to come. The visuals of the play rely so heavily on swirling and circling, which was no different here. The Cabinet chairs slid back out, as round two between Hamilton and Jefferson began. Same set up, same results, with Hamilton hilariously mocking Jefferson’s physical theatrics as he uttered “Do whatever you want I’m SUPER dead.” Again, the delivery was different than expected and felt far more improvised on a line many (like me) get stuck in their head quite often.
“Washington on Your Side” was killer because it finally established what was hard to really envision by just listening. The scheming against Hamilton by Burr, Jefferson, and Madison seemed all that more nefarious to see than hear. Jefferson, was clearly the ringleader, framed center stage. But Madison was the brains, as he got a laugh by declaring himself the author of the Bill of Rights. Burr, set off far stage left, drifted closer and closer to the duo. He is Judas being swayed by the promise of a silver key to access “The Room Where It Happens.” Also worth noting, the elderly woman in my row was just as excited to hear “Southern MOTHERF**KING DEMOCRATIC REPUBLICANS” and silently sing along as I was. Oh, and on that line, I was half convinced Diggs was going to bounce so high he may never come back down again.
Lately, “One Last Time” has taken to hurting me a bit more. Maybe it’s that I almost lost my Dad last year. Maybe it’s just the poetry of Washington’s words is so haunting. Maybe it’s that I simply feel so bad for Hamilton losing the only person to ever keep him from succumbing to the worst parts of himself, since Eliza wasn’t entrusted to these moments. I keep repeating it, but this is another “intimate” scene. It began with Hamilton at Washington’s deskside, hilariously blaming Jefferson for “starting it.” But by the time it was apparent this is the General’s goodbye, everyone’s posture and body language changed. Dancers swirled around proclaiming “George Washington’s going home,” as Hamilton stone faced and shrunken read the proclamation at center stage front. Washington, once again fading into silhouette, eased back to the open ladder in the back of the center stage. The ascension here clearly made it feel more like death than resignation, something only hinted at in the song’s lyrics.
But let’s get back to fun shit. Groff CRUSHED “I Know Him” in an almost impossibly perfect way. A pause can produce as much comedy as a line. After declaring no one able to follow Washington’s lead, The King is told by a staffer that John Adams is now president. He repeated the word “John Adams,” and then he stood there for a beat. And then another. And then another. And then the audience erupted with laughter. It was like Groff was going to wait until we exploded before continuing. If you think “Jesus Christ this will be fun” is a great declaration on the track, you should see Groff skip and prance after singing that. His giggle at the end isn’t just amusing, it’s tear-inducingly funny. And here’s the best part: The King Stays. He sits in the corner, observing the beginning of “Adams Administration” while clapping and dancing in his seat. The best moment in that number being Hamilton’s declaration “Sit down John, you fat MOTHERF**KER!” He delivered it from atop the railing in center stage, dropping a stack of newspapers. When it hit the ground, a concussive thud was heard as the stage exploded in red light. That explosion sent everyone scattering.
At his desk, Hamilton was startled by the imposition of Madison, Burr, and Jefferson, who strait up STRUTS over to accuse the immigrant in “We Know.” As Hamilton produces the documents that defend himself, we got our first Jeffersonian “Whaaaaaaa,” which I still want as my ringtone. As Madison and Jefferson exit up stage right, Hamilton chases Burr to center stage, asking him to protect his secret. When Burr clearly said “Nah,” Hamilton is left in the center of the spinning discs. It is finally time for the “Hurricane.” One of the most gracefully blocked sequences, the dancers simulate the wind. They picked up objects and slowly, gracefully, moved them as if they were carried by the wind. Hamilton in the center, stood tall, as the discs spun the dancers in slow motion, controlling their every movement with insane precision. Until Hamilton declared his own undoing. From offstage came the warnings “Wait for it” and “History has its eyes on you,” but the desk chases Hamilton down on the spinning circle and catches him. He sat. Penned the “Reynolds Pamphlet” and undid his marriage and my goddamn heart.
Visually, “The Reynolds Pamphlet” is a keeper too. Why? Because THE KING IS IN IT! Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and THE KING dance and primp around Hamilton, bathed in embarrassing red light. They threw copies of the paper at him like confetti, with the King foppishly spinning gleefully around as Jefferson “made it rain” copies of the document down on Hamilton in utter shame. The white-clad dancers again swirled the papers up and emptied the stage for heartbreak.
Eliza, on a darkened stage, walked from upper stage left to front stage right, sitting on a bench with only a lantern and a bucket in front of her. In a moment I will never forget, Soo’s voice softly filled the room with sorrow, as her blue dress seemed to shimmer from regal ice to tear-stained. As she listed Hamilton’s crimes, she literally set papers on fire, tossing them into the bucket in front of her. She was more illuminated by that fire than by the spotlight. I will never, ever, ever forget her hoarse, throaty condemnation “how they perceive you…YOU, YOU, YOU.” She exits in silence, the bench sliding off behind her, as Philip strolls in from above. “Blow Us All Away” is visually busy as well, with Hamilton’s son strolling to chat with street folks before finding George Eacker at the “play.” They illustrated this with a clever bit of work. Two actors dropped candle lights in a semi-circle in the middle of the stage and then collapsed, recreating some tragic work, as Philip was lower stage left looking up at the scaffolding where Eacker sat, telling him to “piss off.” As expected, Phillip explaining the duel specifics brought a huge ovation for “Everything is legal in New Jersey,” a line I’m betting hits FAR HARDER when watching the musical in New York. The second duel of the night happened just like the first, with the participants walking in opposite directions on the spinning circles until Philip was lower center stage and struck with the bullet that would make everyone who has ever heard this musical very sad.
In the reprise of “Stay Alive,” the key action all took place with Philip laid out on a table, and his father by his side until Eliza arrived. I was ready for a lot of emotion in these songs. I was not ready for Eliza’s blood-curdling shriek when her son passed. I don’t think the hairs on my neck have laid down since. And just like that, we were in the brutal “It’s Quiet Uptown.” This one did, in fact, bring me to tears. Because, you know, I’m a human being with human feelings and emotions. Here’s what did me in: Most of this is just Angelica off to the side narrating as Hamilton and Eliza, cloaked now in mournful black, stand near each other. Eliza barely moved. Sullen, stiff, she conveyed the shellshock so hauntingly. But when they got to the most emotional moment for me, “Forgiveness, could you imagine,” what I saw was what broke me. Angelica told us “She takes his hand.” And Eliza does. Coldly in a way. She simply lowers hers and puts her hand inside his. That’s not the moment. A few beats later, after the swelling “could you imagine,” Eliza seems to finally break and rests her head on Hamilton’s shoulder. Done. I was done.
Hence why the whole crowed erupted at “Can we get back to politics? PLEASE!” “The Election of 1800” was another very busy scene. Burr flitted around, handing papers to the white-clad dancers, now representing voters. His exchange with Hamilton was even more ominous in person. “I learned it from you” looked like the threat it was always meant to be, as Hamilton in black was surrounded by the white-corseted dancers. As Madison tried to convince Jefferson to procure Hamilton’s support, the stage was full of movement and motion, with Hamilton using the opportunity to drift to the top level center scaffolding. Madison declared “it’s a tie,” Burr moved down to the lip of stage right. On “it’s up to the delegates,” Jefferson was positioned opposite on the lip of stage left. Both were bathed in the same reddish light. “It’s up to Hamilton,” hit our hero with a spotlight on the upper stage scaffolding. Burr and Jefferson never looked back at him, just at us. So we could see the moment that Burr decided to give in to the hate, as Hamilton proclaimed his vote for Jefferson, who looked pleasantly amused, pleased to walk over and taunt Burr as the latter tried to make a cordial concession.
The stage emptied. Burr strolled, dazed, mumbling about his frustration. The desk that had chased Hamilton now found its way to Burr. The two would engage in letter writing duels, as “Your Obedient Servant,” saw the desk on the spinning circle and the dancers once again as the wind passing the letters back and forth. It’s a quick song, but a great one. And by the end, the two were side by side, ready for their fate. The very brief “Best of Wives and Best of Women” was little more than Hamilton in a chair calling out after Eliza. I still got all weepy. I love Eliza. I knew what was about to happen to her.
The duel began like the other two, circling on the spinning discs. Hamilton in his glasses did look older. His determination seemed less like the murderous rage Burr claimed and more like the resignation of a man who doesn’t know what he’s living for any more. And now, I get to tell you about my favorite single moment in theatrical history. “The World Was Wide Enough” crescendos to the gunshot we were all allegedly prepared for, a lone dance in white stands next to Burr at the top of the center stage. The circles stopped spinning, as the players all froze. Except her. She became the bullet. Slowly, her hand tracks the path of the deadly slug, inching toward Hamilton. In that frozen moment in space, he flashed his life before his own eyes, staring up at the scaffolding (now heaven) to glimpse Washington, Laurens, Philip, his mother. As the bullet got closer, more and more dancers came out to give it more weight. They passed the original dancer who represented the bullet over above their own bodies, carrying her as if simulating the speed behind it growing stronger and stronger. Hamilton made his peace, said his last, aimed at the sky, and the bullet struck. The dancers disappeared, letting the sound of bulleted echoes do their work. I have never, and will never, see anything so gripping on stage. Burr ended his lament, his body humbled, his voice fragile, his shame palpable. The first beats of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” feel like Burr’s struggling heartbeat.
The characters who died shrouded now in heavenly white advanced onto the stage. Washington and company begin the eulogy. Jefferson from the top of the scaffolding on stage right, cocky until the end, leaning on the beam praised his financial system to audience laughter. Madison from across the stage declared his admiration. Angelica advanced, center stage, stepping aside to answer the question asked in the theme of the work: Eliza. Eliza tells the story. “I put myself back in the narrative” broke me. She mentioned the revolutionaries, who sang their thanks under spotlight. She clasped Angelica’s hands before releasing her to her passing. The song built again, Eliza in front of Washington mentions his monument, as he belted loud and strong “She tells my story.” And there, by the lip of the stage, she told us of the orphanage, as chests around me began heaving, my own eyelids burst their dams, and the crowd melted.
With one more surprise: As Eliza declared she couldn’t wait to see Alexander again “It’s only a matter of time,” Hamilton walked out garbed in black to take her hand again. Standing next to her inside the spiraling circles, he turned forward to us as the rest of the cast filled out around him, hitting the final somber note. Slightly in front of Eliza, Hamilton doesn’t bow. He steps to the side, and Eliza takes that first bow. The crowd lost their mind, sprang to their feet, and everyone caught their breath for a good 10-15 minutes.
I took longer.
I finally made my way to the restrooms and then outside, one of the last to leave. I knew I was holding on to it. But whatever.
I stumbled out into the wrong side of the stage door, now lined with throngs of fans, squealing with cameras ready. I wasn’t close enough to get into the throng for autographs or selfies, but I just happened to be in the right spot to see them very close as they first took steps out, close enough to talk to them. Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica), as beautiful on a New York side street as on stage, was the first to stir the crowd. Then came Daveed Diggs. For the second time in our young best friendship, I told him how spectacular he was, as he grinned and posed with swooning young people. He shook hand after hand, took picture after picture, all the way down the entire row. Then, suddenly, the crowd went mental. There he was, adorably tiny but powerful, stocking-cap clad and grinning, Lin-Manuel. The throng pushed closer, edging me back a bit, but I was still close enough to click eyes with him as I told him he had made me love a musical for the first time. I’m bad at talking and taking photos, but I got the moment right after, as he smiled and looked down. The crowd followed Lin-Manuel, pacing behind the barrier as he walked down like coaches run down a football sideline during a big run. So nobody really noticed when Christopher Jackson stepped out. It was just me and him, face to face. Daveed is a scene-stealing golden God, but if I had to pick one person to shake hands with (besides Lin-Manuel, obviously), it was him. So I did. We actually know someone in common, a wonderful woman I met through local politics. I mentioned her to him, and he smiled broadly. “Oh yeah! She mentioned you were coming!” I told him how I admired his performance, but more than that, how all of my friends in Omaha were crazy obsessed and jealous. I told him how lucky I felt to be the one person of our “Hamiltrash” squad to get to see this in person. He said “Well, give my love to Omaha,” and shook my hand again, asking if I wanted an autograph. Which, duh, I did, but hadn’t actually asked for. So, yeah, that playbill is getting framed. My first one, maybe my only one (who knows), but it is dear to me.
I understand maybe 2-3 people are likely to read all these words. Honestly, this was as much a diary for me before forgetting what I saw as it was an attempt to give those I know TRULY, DEEPLY wish they could experience vicariously the feelings I did. It is a singular, amazing, religious experience. It defies hype, explodes expectations, and will forever be held as one of my favorite nights I’ve ever had.
Ok. I’m done now.