For the first, and potentially only time, in my life, I have seen a Tony nominee actually on Broadway.
Two weeks ago I flew to New York specifically to see Hamilton (though seeing a few college compadres was an invaluable bonus). My friend and I bought our tickets in November after deciding to take the show up on its key lyric, “I am not throwing away my shot.”
So after scouring resale ticket sites and finally finding decent seats for what would turn out to be an extremely decent price, we parked it in the Richard Rogers Theatre’s mezzanine to watch recent Pulitzer-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original principal cast perform the album we’d been listening to on repeat for since NPR’s “Free Listen” week in September 2015. We laughed; we cried; I swooned at Daveed Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson swagger; and we left the theater knowing we had witnessed greatness.
We definitely did not throw away our shot.
But I’ve started to wonder whether it was really us who needed that shot.
Before the show started I observed our fellow audience members. On the end of our row there was an older woman who couldn’t stop complaining about her view, knees and lack of knowledge about the show (she must have gotten the tickets through a package deal). A few young couples sat in front of us sipping on $10 half-glasses of wine from the concession stand. Half the audience on the main floor below us turned and started chattering as actor Ethan Hawke took his seat while the other half wondered where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sat earlier at the matinee. Most of the audience members were people like us: Middle-class or higher; in love with a show we had heard about on NPR, The Tonight Show or social media; and privileged enough to be able to get tickets and travel to the Big Apple to see it.
How very unlike Alexander Hamilton, who left his hurricane-torn Caribbean home for New York using crowdsourced money.
The show’s protagonist is an underdog who takes every opportunity before and during the Revolutionary War to rise to the top. Maybe that’s the origin story of some of the people in the theater — there could very well have been a “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” dropped in the middle of a theater in New York who worked hard enough to see the show. But were they even the right audience?
I wrote a rebuttal blog post for Workforce Magazine, my old digs, after reading a piece from its legal blogger on how the show defied hiring practice law by advertising its interest in non-white actors.
I still stand by my statements that the show has every right to declare its interest — for the full argument, actually read the article — but I wish there were a way for that specific casting call to be made for the audience, too.
Wanted: Minorities who have been discriminated against, politically siloed, economically sabotaged and overall have lost hope at becoming more than how society sees them (bums, welfare queens, baby mamas, baby daddies, druggies, drug dealers, violent criminals, manual laborers, etc.). Rapping capability optional.
Unfortunately, the people who really need exposure to Hamilton’s minority-filled portrayal of overcoming the odds are the ones who never will. They’re the young children in Chicago neighborhoods that gave the Windy City’s edges the moniker “Chiraq.” They’re the students sent to the chorus line because whoever heard of a black Maria in Sound of Music? They’re the teenagers ousted by coffee shop management because they appear to be loitering or waiting for a drug buy, when really they’re just trying to concentrate on schoolwork, and home is too distracting.
And maybe that’s why the show’s operatic structure is the real stroke of Manuel’s artistry. I wrote on this blog in October about the brilliance of the show’s writing, character development and storytelling in getting me to love my country (a tough feat in these political times). But after seeing the show, I recognize the the real genius is that the stage is unnecessary to understanding the show’s themes. The ability to listen and experience the musical over and over again through just music alone is what takes Hamilton from being more than a pop cultural moment, but a cross-cultural movement.
Don’t get me wrong — I have no regrets seeing it in “the greatest city in the world” — but the fact that Hamilton is an opera opens it up to those who will never sit in the theater in New York or Chicago this fall. That extra bit of work on Manuel’s part extends the show’s reach to those who crave the encouragement to take their shot, work non-stop and blow us all away.
After all, the world is wide enough for anything they want to be.