The Time I Saw Hamilton on Broadway (Only Spoils Stuff From the Soundtrack Edition)

This is not a political blog. The headline is not some clever ruse, attempting to obfuscate some complex liberal philosophizing. This is a slightly shorter blog about the time I saw Hamilton. And it was friggin’ awesome, yo.

I have tried my hardest to remove every “spoiler.” That is to say, things you could only know from SEEING the musical, for those friends who are still planning on going. I know I cut all the set descriptions and surprises, the most that may be below is my reaction TO one of the cool things. You should be safe, I swear!

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.

The lights flickered so soon. I swear we had all just walked in, the audience went dark as out he walked: Burr. Leslie Odom Jr. sauntered in. 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.

As the fanfare of the opening ended, “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. The energy grew. 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.

Suddenly, there they were: the Schuyler sisters. Immediate, fierce, glorious, and sharply angled, Angelica; Eliza, the goddess. Peggy was also present… “Farmer Refuted” kicked in, one of my low-key faves if just for the line “Don’t modulate the key then not debate with me.” Before long came “You’ll Be Back.” 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.

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. “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.

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.

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 that he must not be so rash. Then: “Call me son one more time!”

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.

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.

Before long, 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. Hercules Mulligan was everything I envisioned. 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.

Another of my favorite tiny moments, Hamilton proudly declared “Lezgo” to Washington’s appointment to Treasury. “I am not throwing away my shot!” took us to Intermission. 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.

“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.

“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. 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.

But let’s get back to fun shit. Groff CRUSHED “I Know Him” in an almost impossibly perfect way. His giggle at the end isn’t just amusing, it’s tear-inducingly funny. Moments later, As Hamilton produces the documents that defend himself, we got our first Jeffersonian “Whaaaaaaa,” which I still want as my ringtone.

The rest of my recap here would be way too spoilery, so let’s cut to the end. 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.


One thought on “The Time I Saw Hamilton on Broadway (Only Spoils Stuff From the Soundtrack Edition)

  1. I. Read. Every. Word. Of. This. I’d have been the not-quite-70-year-old grandma mouthing the words. My first and only Broadway musical was “Wicked,” and I felt the same way — sitting in the center of the 6th row, Oh My God. I would LOVE to see “Hamilton.”

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