I've been blind-sided, blown away. Until June 29, 2019, sitting in the theatre, I had never heard the score of Hamilton. Okay, before everyone goes and judges me for calling myself a theatre fan and Broadway enthusiast but not listening to Hamilton, perhaps let me explain myself and my unique perspective. What is it like to go see the most-hyped show, possibly ever on Broadway...knowing nothing?
As someone who likes more traditional musicals and typically dislikes modern popular music (especially rap and hip hop), hearing about Hamilton and its rave reviews, obsessive audience, and the cultural phenomenon surrounding it, I was skeptical. When I hear that non-Broadway fans and those who usually don't seek out musical theatre suddenly have an interest in one musical – in this case Hamilton – I start to wonder what the big deal is. Nothing can be as good as the hype. Especially when these people usually know next to nothing about musical theatre as a genre. (Which is fine, we all start somewhere!) And then there are the Broadway fans who think that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the be all, end all of modern musical theatre. I certainly admire the man's work as a composer, lyricist, librettist, actor, and director – he does it all! But skeptical doesn't even cover it, to be honest. I admit this is one of those situations where I avoided something just because of its overwhelming popularity, unable to believe that something could be as good as they say.
My first exposure to Hamilton was back in 2016. I knew nothing of the hype, only that I wanted rush tickets to Finding Neverland. The guy at the box office told me to enter the Hamilton lottery, and if I lose, come back and they'd give me a discounted ticket to Finding Neverland. That made absolutely no sense to me. I said, “I don't want to enter a lottery for a show I don't want to see. What if I win?” Foolish.
I did enter the Hamilton lottery once, and I lost. Just to say I'd tried once.
I knew of Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking In the Heights, but never saw it or listened to it. I heard it was great, and my dad saw the tour and said it was great. (I was away at college and couldn't make it to the show.) But really my first exposure to Miranda's music was the Disney animated film Moana, which I thought was uniquely brilliant and beautiful. Then he really got my attention as the charming lamplighter Jack in Disney's Mary Poppins Returns, opposite Emily Blunt.
Meanwhile, loads of friends raved about the musical, proclaiming Hamilton “amazing” and a “work of genius”. We played the cast recording in the background once while sewing a cosplay for a convention, but I didn't pay attention. I remember not hating it but not feeling particularly impressed. At a party, friends played it and sang along and again, I was not impressed.
My dad and I are season subscribers to the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore and have been for over ten years. Subscribers had first dibs on Hamilton's tickets, and I insisted that whether or not my dad wanted to go (he didn't), I wasn't going to miss out on my only chance – skeptical as I was – to see this show. So, we got the tickets and the show was the last of the 2018-2019 season, capping off an excellent year with the most anticipated event the Hippodrome probably has ever seen.
I decided to take a friend who had wanted to see it for years and knew the music well, but never thought she'd have the chance to see it live. And then there was me – a regular Broadway theatre-goer. I knew all the inside jokes, from “I'm in the room where it happens!” and “I'm not throwing away my shot” to “young, scrappy, and hungry” and “work, work!”. I knew of the iconic Schuyler sisters’ pose. I didn't know the story or any of the songs – only song titles.
I went in blind and I was blind-sided. The energy in the Saturday matinee audience was electric. They knew it all too. The cast carried themselves like they know they're involved with something special. I sat back and let Hamilton happen to me.
I listened to each line, each rhyme, then suddenly found myself enjoying the rap, the rhythms, the internal rhymes that stayed true to the history of America, but made it modern and accessible to a current, young audience. I watched a group of incredibly talented people of color play the [old, white] men who founded our country and found that it told the story in a fresh way. But isn't that the idea? To make history more interesting, make it seem more impactful to modern, diverse audiences. This is what our population looks like now, with people of color and immigrants able to make history as much as the old white men in the history books.
This isn't just about rap music and history. There's a story here about a man who overcame the odds and the people he impacted, a heart-wrenching look at American history from a different perspective, while looking to the future with the new diverse generation that will lead us. The story wouldn't be told like this and wouldn't be as interesting and accessible without the modern score, without diverse casting. A traditional/classical-style musical about Alexander Hamilton sounds incredibly boring. It had to be done like this.
What I was worried about most was enjoying the music. Outside of the show, I knew I wasn't interested in just the score, and I needed to see it in context with the characters and the story to get the genius in the words and to get the emotional impact. It wasn't all rap. There are more traditional musical theatre songs there too, woven in. But whether the cast rapped or sang, the lyrics were good. The music was good. I didn't expect to be so moved by the life of a Founding Father, but it was probably the music and the way the story was told, and this beautiful, passionate cast.
I have revisited the music since seeing the show and it's still good, and I'm also glad I went in blind. Going in knowing nothing I think helped me enjoy it more. I honestly thought I wouldn't like the show, but I was told once that even if it's not my cup of tea, it's kind of hard to hate it. It's kind of hard not to be blown out of the water. My friends were right, it's not my all-time favorite musical, but it's also pretty incredible.
I don't think it's worth the resell value of the tickets, but I also can't imagine spending $200-$600 or however much tickets are going for these days. I also believe that fans who discover musical theatre through Hamilton should listen to more musicals and learn more about this genre.
So yes, Hamilton lives up to the hype. I may be the last, but I get it now.
A follow-up comment, several weeks later:
In listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording, I find I like the rap music a little less out of context of the story and the visuals. Some of the songs absolutely are wonderful, obviously. In fact, I honestly believe that every track that is traditionally sung is written better, sounds better, and is much more complex. The beauty of the show is in the complexity and blending of genres, not in the rap – I feel like the show is stronger there. Perhaps I will get used to the whole score, but right now I find myself listening to a few tracks on repeat: “Alexander Hamilton”, “The Schuyler Sisters”, “Helpless”, “Burn”, “It's Quiet Uptown”, and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. I know that I wouldn't have fallen for the show if I had just previously listened to the whole thing straight through. You need the visuals, the story, not just the music, not just music I find hard to follow and listen to out of context. Maybe this will change in time.
I still would 100% want to go see the show again and still recommend it. I just think I may be going in blind for more musicals, such as other hyped shows I have tickets to see soon, like Dear Evan Hansen and Hadestown.