All pilgrims can recount the story of their journeys to the holy land.
For the guy standing behind us in line with his daughter, that story began on a plane in Phoenix, and culminated in their arrival on West 46th Street where they had beaten the bots and won the lottery for $10 front row tickets. For the man standing behind him, the story involved paying $1,800 on StubHub for a pair of seats for him and his wife. Huddled on the wet sidewalk in hooded plastic ponchos, a group of high school students, giggling with nervous anticipation, told stories of their harrowing trip over the George Washington Bridge that led them to the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Inside, as the theater filled up, the mood was already celebratory. A man in the rear of the orchestra section high-fived every single member of what seemed to be his extended family and stood grinning with the self-satisfied smile of a man on a 1970’s Lowenbrau commercial (“Dolan, you’re a genius”). The faithful hightailed it to the front of the theater seeking relics from their pilgrimage — in this case, selfies with playbills. In the lobby, as lights flicked on and off, some pilgrims directly quoted Lin Manuel Miranda’s scripture (“And when our children tell our story/They’ll tell the story of tonight”); others revised that scripture to conform to their own personal situation — “How do you pee/ when you’re running out of time,” sang a woman waiting to use the restroom.
Every religion has its origin story, and “Hamilton” is no exception:
By now, we’ve all heard the story of the copy of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography that Lin-Manuel Miranda bought in an airport bookstore; of the first songs he wrote; of the workshop at Vassar College; of the early performances at The Public Theater; of the ascent to Broadway; of the Pulitzer Prize; of the 16 Tony nominations; of the record-breaking ticket price for prime seats; of the cast album’s debut at #1 on the Billboard charts.
The confluence of critical praise and public acclaim via word of mouth and social media, have made “Hamilton” a truly unprecedented phenomenon. “A Chorus Line,” “Angels in America” and “Rent” may have been game-changers in terms of both subject matter and structure, but nobody was paying the 1976, 1993 or 1996 equivalents of $849 to see them. Three years ago, the kids who can now quote every line from “Hamilton” were singing every song from “Frozen.” But that movie — though it’s pretty terrific — cannot approach the historical and political significance of “Hamilton.” The Super Bowl equals, actually exceeds, ticket prices for “Hamilton,” but that’s a onetime event. And besides, who really cares — it’s sports.
Maybe the closest parallel is “Bozo’s Circus,” a Chicago TV show, which aired from 1960 to 2001 on Channel 9. “Bozo” was the original impossible-to-get ticket. When kids were born, parents got on the waiting list so those kids could see the show when they were six. But “Bozo” was no “Hamilton.” When the lights go down in the Richard Rodgers Theater and the dum-duh-duh-duh-dum drumroll starts and a teenage girl, tears in her eyes, throws her hands in the air and screams, you understand what seeing the Beatles might have been like. But the sound system on West 46th Street is light years ahead of whatever they had at Shea Stadium back in 1964 and anyway, as Joe Strummer would have gladly told you, “Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.”
Every religious movement has its doubting Thomases who rail against false prophets. “Hamilton” does too.
Until I actually attended the show, I counted myself among those skeptics. Taken out of context while streamed on Spotify, the songs can suggest amped-up versions of “Epic Rap Battles” and “Schoolhouse Rock.” The fulsome praise reached its seemingly absurd apex when First Lady Michelle Obama called the show “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Take that, Bill Shakespeare.
I’d been hearing rumblings that suggested “Hamilton” could not, and in fact did not, equal its hype. Musical theater professionals interviewed on NPR talk shows have lately been offering faint, patronizing praise. Waiting in line to drop one of my kids off at school, I heard a parent mutter that he “didn’t want to see a rap musical,” — I guess he’s probably not crazy about “The Music Man,” Gilbert and Sullivan and “Into the Woods” either. In an interview in The Atlantic, a grumpy Laurie Anderson who claimed to “love all music except musicals” said she hated the show. “It’s history lite, and musical lite, and it’s… horrible.”
And, well, if you haven’t seen the show, you may ask yourself, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean become the subject of what will probably become the highest grossing show in Broadway history?”
But then, the show begins.
And at that point all cynicism vanishes — in a flash, not bit by bit. The main characters take turns in the spotlight, “Sweeney Todd” style, to tell the history of their musical’s subject, and they are each greeted with the sort of electric applause that usually accompanies announcements of starting lineups for the NBA playoffs. What follows is a show that is, as just about every critic has said, one of the most intense and inspiring shows that musical theater has ever produced, one that not only retells American history but reclaims it for those left out of the textbooks. I liked “1776” fine, but to quote from “Pulp Fiction” on a different topic, “this ain’t in the same league; it ain’t even the same sport.”
You’ve no doubt read about the devastating wordplay and the flawless performances; about Leslie Odom Jr., Philippa Soo and Daveed Diggs; about the seamless direction and orchestration; about the nonstop references that sample everything from “South Pacific” and “Pirates of Penzance” to Jay-Z and Grandmaster Flash.
But what elevates “Hamilton” above its competition is not only its script, score and cast; it’s the audience itself — those faithful pilgrims who have entered their names in the online lottery, who have organized their school’s trips to 46th Street, who have paid ungodly sums of money for a chance to not only see a story being told but to become a part of that story. The show’s final song teaches them that they can help to both create and retell history, and that seems to be exactly what they’re doing. Like sports teams who call their fans “the sixth man,” “Hamilton” owes a good deal of its success to the people flocking to see it.
During this cynical presidential season, where discourse seems to plummet to a new nadir every day, the communion happening onstage at the Richard Rodgers Theater between actor and audience, between performer and congregation, offers something that’s all too rare — hope. You might not call the experience religious, but it certainly seems spiritual. For three hours onstage, everything outside seems to disappear and you get the feeling that, if these people onstage and in the crowd represent the future, maybe everything will turn out ok.
In one of my favorite plays, Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing,” the character of Henry speaks of a tribe that worshipped Charlie Chaplin. “It worked just as well as any other theology,” Henry says. “They loved Charlie Chaplin.” Substitute “Hamilton” for “Charlie Chaplin” and you can get a sense of what’s happening here.
Every religious movement has its converts. “Hamilton” is no exception.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s culture editor. Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives in New York. He has written plays, films, criticism and a memoir, but most of the time, he writes novels.
He is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.”