Last week I indulged in an almost unthinkable, and perhaps almost unforgivable luxury—I traveled to New York to see Hamilton, the Broadway phenomenon that has swept the nation, in creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s last performance (also the last performance of three other cast members, but more on that later). Most of my friends and acquaintances assumed I had either pulled some strings (and man, do I wish my connections were that good) or shelled out close to five figures to buy the tickets (and man, do I wish I had the disposable income for that). The truth is, when a relatively solid rumor emerged that July 9 would be Lin’s last show, I rushed to buy two of the cheapest tickets, knowing that there were literally no bad seats in the Richard Rodgers Theater. I ended up paying a total of $2600 for the pair (thanks to an impossibly understanding and patient wife), and my college roommate and fellow Paste Movies Editor Michael Burgin ponied up half that price and made plans to join me. Within 48 hours those tickets had doubled in price, and rose even more in the ensuing weeks. So we were lucky—and vigilant, but mostly just lucky.
I had longstanding plans to do my best to catch Miranda’s last show, but my reasoning was only partially clear to me at the time. My most straightforward motivation was that I wanted to see as many of the original cast as possible—I’d be especially heartbroken if I missed the insanely intricate wordplay of Daveed Diggs as Lafayette/Jefferson or the inspirational, ennobling presence of Christopher Jackson as Washington. And I had a vague idea of how much it would mean to me to see, in person, the performances that had come to mean so much to me on the soundtrack. But with a couple of exceptions, what stirred me most about Hamilton was the writing, not the performances.
Once I had those tickets in my hand, though, I realized that that night was going to mean a lot more to me than I realized. First, the presence of my near-lifelong friend made me realize just to what extent this show has been an experience I’ve shared with those closest to me. I was introduced to Hamilton by a man I’ve been best friends with for nearly half a century, since we were three years old. I immediately brought my wife into the circle of Hamilton fandom, and she’s not always an easy sell on Broadway musicals. I spread the virus to my Paste editor-in-chief and another of its founders (two more of my best friends), to old theater nerd buddies, to political science geeks from my days in academic publishing, to old hip hop-head friends. Even my children became obsessed—it’s all they want to listen to in the car.
That sense of community went even further than people I actually know “IRL,” as the kids say. Because Hamilton is such a cultural phenomenon, and because it’s so completely different than anything we’ve seen on Broadway before, and because its stakes are so high, the online community of the show’s fervent admirers feels real. When you see someone posting about their fan drawings of the battle of Yorktown, or about their pride in seeing African-American and Latino actors play the founding fathers, or about a new connection they’ve found in the lyrics of two different songs, or about how the hints of a non-platonic love between Hamilton and Laurens make them feel not quite so alone in their bisexuality, it’s not an academic exercise. It feels like a real family sharing their love for an amazing gift we’ve all been given.
And of course, considering the gift encourages one to consider the giver. America has fallen in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man so richly deserving of that love. A man who, in racially incendiary times such as ours, has created a show that simultaneously celebrates America’s commitment to freedom and its fight to achieve it, challenges it to live up to its promise, and actually enacts part of that justice by elevating minority Americans to roles of stature previously reserved for one race. For those of us struggling to find ways to promote racial reconciliation, that’s a godsend. A man who, at every turn, has paid homage not only to his forbears on Broadway and in hip hop, but who ceaselessly turns the spotlight away from himself and to his costars and even to his ensemble. For the cast’s appearance on the Grammys, he chose the show’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” in which, despite the song’s title, Miranda barely sings. For the Tonys appearance, he chose “Yorktown,” whose real star is the choreographer. He’s done everything in his power to bring the show to disadvantaged kids; he gives away the first two rows of every show to New Yorkers at $10 per seat; he literally spends each chapter of his book talking about a different collaborator and why they’re so fantastic.
Oh yes, and he wrote both the music and lyrics to the greatest show in modern musical theater history.
It was Miranda himself, I realized, who was the biggest reason I wanted to be there that night. This show has affected me so profoundly, and it was so completely his vision and creation. I had to thank him. I wanted to be part of that standing ovation. It was my tiny way of paying homage to him, and thanking him for all he’s given me.
I had to be, as everyone with a ticket no doubt said over and over, in “The Room Where it Happens.”
After seven months of virtually total immersion in the world of Hamilton and falling ever more in love with the man and the show, it would be nearly impossible for the experience to live up to the heavy weight of expectation when I finally saw the show, especially on a night of such import. But it not only lived up to those expectations, it blew them all away. Here are 14 things that I wasn’t prepared for in seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s final night of Hamilton:
It was the end of a week in which, yet again, two African-American civilians were killed by police in high-profile cases, and the nation was arguing about what that meant. And then five Dallas police officers were massacred, and police in five other states were attacked as well. It had been over 40 years since the country seemed so on the verge of being literally torn apart by racial issues. We were, all of us, grieving for our country, and feeling helpless and confused.
Eventually Hamilton’s story took over and we temporarily forgot the horrors outside the Richard Rodgers, but for those first couple of songs it was hard not to hear many of those songs as directly addressing the struggles the nation faced in the 21st century, not the 18th. And we were obviously not the only ones; Miranda had an intensity and an urgency about his performance, especially on lines that seemed especially pertinent. His voice audibly cracked when he sang, in the showstopper “My Shot”: “Or will the blood we shed begin an endless/Cycle of vengeance and death with no Defendants?” And when, a few lines, later, he sang “I’m past patiently waitin’,” the frustration was palpable. One of the hallmarks of great art is how it speaks differently to different times, and Hamilton felt essential to the moment on this night.
Of course, Lin-Manuel wasn’t the only actor set to depart the show after this Saturday night performance. Fellow Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr., whose Burr is both antagonist and narrator, “my first friend, my enemy,” as Miranda’s Hamilton sings late in the show, was also giving his last performance. Anyone who’s heard the record knows what a gifted vocalist Odom is, but I was completely unprepared for how firmly he’d hold my gaze whenever he was onstage. His facial acting, especially, is completely enthralling (even for audience members who, like myself, were sitting in the rear balcony). And he uses his body brilliantly too, especially in “The Room Where it Happens,” which earned him a huge standing ovation mid-show.
This would be near the top of the list for me, as far as surprises go. Not only was the choreography outstanding (I expected that), this was possibly the best choreographed show I’ve ever seen in my life. The ensemble was truly that, an ensemble, creating these incredible stage pictures and movements and reflecting, refracting, and embodying what was being sung. It was rapturous. Before that night, Andy Blankenbuehler was a name I’d only ever known through Miranda’s book. Now I’ll be seeking out every musical he ever choreographs (and next up for him is a new Broadway production of Cats, so his profile is likely to remain high for a while).
I had expected I’d be a little moist-eyed at the beginning, due to the sheer emotion, and of course at the heavier parts of the show and at the end. Nope. THE WHOLE DAMNED TIME. My eyes never dried.
Dear Lord. Similar to my reaction to Odom’s performance, I knew from the record that Goldsberry was a great singer, but it’s in the actual room that her pipes really are given full rein to emerge. It was Whitney-esque at times. Angelica is nearly an impossible role to cast—beautiful and witty and charismatic and strong and steadfast and honorable. Goldsberry was all that and more onstage. And if her Tony acceptance speech is any indication, in real life she has a lot in common with the oldest Schuyler sister.
As I’ve written before, the final song of Hamilton reveals Eliza to be as heroic as anyone in the story. But it’s not until you watch the show in person that you realize how much she’s affecting Alexander the entire time. Most of their exchanges are just between the two of them, alone onstage—a detail you don’t always catch on the album. Nor do you realize how much she physically touches and guides Alexander during the course of his life. Alexander’s entire body language changes when he’s with Eliza, so strong is their bond. And it’s obvious the bond is strong between Miranda and the luminous Philippa Soo, as well (who also left the cast after this performance).
Of course, the other great love story in the show is between Hamilton and Washington. Hamilton can scarcely believe he’s being brought into such an intimate relationship with such a larger-than-life figure. Washington sees in Hamilton a younger version of himself. Washington’s success and failures in mentoring Hamilton are, stealthily, one of the most recurring themes in the entire show. So it was a great move by Miranda to cast Christopher Jackson, one of his best friends, as the father of our nation (it doesn’t hurt that Jackson has as much gravitas as I’ve ever seen onstage). There’s one part in the show where Washington gives Hamilton an order, and the younger man slowly salutes him before leaving. On this night, as Miranda raised his hand to salute, Jackson raised his hand as well, mirroring the gesture, offering a tribute to the man who created it all. We weren’t the only ones crying—Miranda himself couldn’t finish the line he was singing. And at the close of “One Last Time,” it was impossible to tell how much we were applauding Jackson, and how much Washington himself.
Normally I’m vehemently opposed to audience participation in shows—I came to hear the cast singing, not the guy next to me. But time after time, the cast implored the crowd to join them in various choruses, and to their great delight, we did. Rory Gallagher (King George III) later tweeted that the crowd joining him on the “Da-Da-Da-Da-DA” parts of “You’ll Be Back” was one of his greatest moments on stage.
I’ve got a pretty decent sound system at home. Nothing—NOTHING—prepared me for being in the Rodgers “when the British cannons go boom.” You FEEL it.
You have to understand, I’ve been a hip hop head longer than many of my friends have been alive. So Daveed Diggs’ impossibly quick (and quick-witted) wordplay as Lafayette is one of my favorite parts of the entire show. But when Paste editor-in-chief Josh Jackson came back from seeing the show, he shocked me by claiming that Diggs’ performance as Jefferson was even better than his as Lafayette. Impossible, I scoffed. “Just wait until you see ‘What’d I Miss,’” he said.
Now, “What’d I Miss” was one of my least favorite songs on the cast recording (meaning, maybe an 8 out of 10). Plus, after intermission, I wasn’t quite sure how the company would get the audience back to the fever-pitch level of excitement it had sustained throughout the whole of Act One. The answer was that Josh was absolutely right—Diggs’ Prince-meets-Cat-in-the-Hat-meets-Fosse-meets-Morris Day persona as Jefferson is utterly mesmerizing. And Diggs would be the most charismatic guy in the room even if he never rapped a word. I didn’t think my man-crush could get any stronger, but I was so, so wrong.
Hamilton is such a profound show, such an emotional show, such a stirring show, such an important show, that you kinda forget that it’s also a very funny show. The little moments of humor continually caught me off-guard. From Philippa Soo’s beatboxing to Alexander imitating Burr’s “Talk less—smile more” to Jefferson’s question “Can we get back to politics” soliciting Madison’s desperately plaintive “Pleeeease?”, you laugh a lot more often, and a lot more heartily, than you’d expect. At one point, Rory Gallagher, as King George, did the dab and made Leslie Odom laugh and miss a line. Good stuff.
I don’t know when one word has ever had so strong an impact in a musical. I can’t even talk about it.
Everyone from John Kerry to Jennifer Lopez to Jane Fonda to Spike Lee was there. Which was great, as a marker for the import of the evening, but ended but being beside the point because…
I’m not sure why I didn’t figure this out until I got into the room, but I didn’t. I’m pretty sure that no one in that room was experiencing Hamilton for the first time. Why would you drop that kind of money on a ticket to a show you didn’t know if you’d like? This wasn’t another performance in the company’s crusade to spread the show throughout the world—this was more like “one more for the fans.” You know how your favorite band plays a little bit differently in their hometown? That’s what this felt like. It was like a celebration, a commemoration of all that we’ve all gone through together in the past year.
And that’s maybe what’s most special about Miranda. He has a way of bringing people together, in a time when we desperately need to be brought together. When the time came for his final bows, he had to be literally pushed to the front of the stage by Jackson. And just as he had with the original ovation we gave him during the first number, he cut off the applause far, far earlier than we wanted. They were two of the loudest ovations I’ve ever heard, but they were short-lived. That’s the way he wanted it. The focus is on the show, not on him. He taught us how to say goodbye last Saturday night. Now I’m counting the days until he says hello again. Whatever he does next, I’ll be first in line.