Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Megafans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s megahit musical — and I admit to being one — are fond of hashtags. #Hamiltunes is a sing-along, #Hamiltome is the book of lyrics, #Hamildoc is the PBS special.
So when I headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Friday to catch a flight that took off two hours late, in the snow, I decided that my perilous travel plans deserved a hashtag. I had a ticket to see “Hamilton” in Chicago Friday night, dammit!
By the time I dragged my carry-on from O’Hare to downtown via the Blue Line, there were less than 30 minutes before curtain. Thankfully, I had booked a room at a Hampton Inn adjacent to the PrivateBank Theatre. Like, you-don’t-even-have-to-go-outside adjacent. I threw on a skirt, hung up my voluminous puffer coat and ran to the shared lobbies.
I saw the original cast of “Hamilton” in New York in the fall of 2015, but no Midwestern inferiority complex is necessary to view Chicago’s “Hamilton” favorably. It’s excellent. I actually prefer Joshua Henry’s hungry-eyed Aaron Burr over original cast member Leslie Odom Jr.’s less affecting portrayal. Karen Olivo, a Tony winner from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” nearly had me bawling when she sang “Rewind,” her admission of love for the handsome founding father she passes off to her younger sister, Eliza. Chicago’s Hamilton, Miguel Cervantes, has a more traditionally tuneful singing voice than Miranda, but lacks the composer/lyricist’s semi-autobiographical earnestness.
Alexander Gemignani, as King George, draws laughs by merely curling his lips into a sneer, while Chris De’Sean Lee and Wallace Smith as Lafayette/Jefferson and Mulligan/Madison may actually have better goofball chemistry than their original Broadway counterparts.
Had I only seen Friday’s performance, I would have reported that Chicago’s Eliza is very much subpar to Phillipa Soo. That’s because on Friday night, I saw a sweet-voiced but slightly insipid understudy in the role. Thankfully, when I went back to the theater Saturday, Ari Afsar was back onstage.
Yes. I saw “Hamilton” twice in 24 hours. Please don’t hate me, internet.
Here’s what happened: Saturday the Midwest “Hamilton” held its first live drawing for 30 $10 tickets. (Since the show opened in October, those seats have been distributed daily via an online lottery.) Giving that the high stakes game of chance took place right outside my hotel, and that the drawing was accompanied by Chicago’s first #Ham4Ham show, I popped downstairs and put my name into the giant plastic bucket, then joined the masses posting away on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
At 11:55 a.m., the lead actors rumbled out onto a makeshift stage and hollered their names through a megaphone, then delivered a tough-to-hear glee club rendition of “Hamilton’s” opening number “My Shot,” followed by a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells.” And then came the drawing. And then came my name.
I lined up with 14 other lucky winners, all in various states of shock. There was a woman in a Santa hat, holly bracelets and torn fur coat, a mother who had brought her daughter in a wheelchair, and various other Chicagoans who claimed to never win anything.
With numb fingers (God, I need new gloves for Christmas) I texted my friend Jonah, who lives in the Chicago suburbs. “Get your ass down here,” I typed. “I just won the ‘Hamilton’ lottery.”
When it was my turn at the box office window, a theater staffer asked if he could be my plus-one. I don’t think he was joking.
“No. Sorry. I’m taking my friend with Stage 4 colon cancer,” I said.
His grin morphed into a deep chagrin. “I’m jealous,” he said, hastening to add, “That your friend gets to see the show, not that he has Stage 4 cancer.”
Jonah, as it turns out, was at Northwestern Hospital, finishing up a CT scan. “Hamilton” might be the only musical in the world worth watching with a stomach full of Barium — how’s that for an endorsement blurb? — but Jonah made it through. We were accidentally spat upon by King George, winked at by Jefferson and flashed by Angelica Schuyler.
It was so, so much fun.
As a theater critic, I’m often asked if “Hamilton” is really as good as people say it is, and I’ve always responded yes, but here’s the thing: It’s hard to say that having only seen the show once, when I was too in awe of the big picture.
The hip-hop history thing is brilliant, but seeing the show again I was able to appreciate details that make “Hamilton” such a finely crafted piece of theater. Details like how the inlaid turntable surrounding center stage rotates, and how hard the ensemble members work to always be at the right place and at the right time, and make it look like an effortless coincidence that they can pluck a feather quill from a lead actor’s hand, or slip a letter into another’s palm. And BTW, all those handbills and letters and Reynolds pamphlets used on stage? They’re typed out in a letterpress-like font. I saw them from just a few feet away.
“Hamilton: An American Musical” is the title printed on the two tickets I’ve saved from my #Hamiltrip, and will probably save forever. I kept pulling them out of my purse all weekend, just to confirm that I was really in the room where it happens, twice. And I was reminded that no matter how many clever hashtags those of us in “Hamilton” fandom come up with, the very best tagline is a slight inversion of the full title:
“Hamilton: The American Musical.”