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It all started in late April. I was working away on something on the computer (I don't recall what) when I got a message from my li'l sis Kelly: Find some dates you are free this summer. I am taking you and mom to see "Hamilton."
Now, in case you aren't familiar with musical theater, "Hamilton" is the buzziest musical since, well, I don't know when. The musical is about the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, and takes its inspiration from the biography on Hamilton written by Ron Chernow.
"Hamilton" was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, and received 11. The music, lyrics and book were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also played the title role until early July. It's best known for incorporating a multiracial cast and telling the story about Hamilton and several of the other Founding Fathers through modern-day music such as rap and hip-hop (although "Hamilton's" inspirations vary wildly, from "South Pacific," "1776" and "Pirates of Penzance" to Notorious B.I.G. and Destiny's Child.)
Kelly had already seen "Hamilton" in March with two other friends, and she embarked on a mission to get me hooked on the musical by sending me numerous clips of songs and news articles on the show.
Her mission was easily accomplished. It didn't take me long to fall in love with "Hamilton." The first two songs I heard were "My Shot" and "Cabinet Battle #1." Now, I absolutely loved the energy and lyrics for "My Shot" (and still do), but what really sold me was "Cabinet Battle #1," which is essentially the argument between Jefferson and Hamilton about establishing a centralized banking system and having the federal government assume the debts of the 13 states -- done in the style of a rap battle.
I was a bit surprised by Kelly's pronouncement, for I know that tickets to this show are tough to get. However, one thing I have learned is that once my li'l sis gets an idea, it's best to either help her out or get out of the way, because she is unstoppable. Long story short, I gave her some potential dates and she managed somehow to secure four tickets -- for her, her older brother Kyle, my mom and me -- and we both surprised mom that weekend (where I found out my mom had also become a huge fan of "Hamilton" through Kelly.)
The result was a quick but exhilarating weekend in New York, in Times Square, Aug. 19 through 21, as I got the chance to not only take in my first Broadway show, but was able to meet up with a longtime Internet friend face-to-face for the first time.
In preparation for seeing Hamilton, I got the soundtrack (which I have listened to countless times and am listening to now even as I write this), I read Chernow's amazing biography, I watched about every interview I could find with the main cast members, read numerous articles about the show and cast, and I read about two-thirds of Hamilton: The Revolution by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, which is all about (and I do mean all about) the show.
New York City
I haven't been to New York City since I was in grade school. I don't recall a lot about it, other than I loved going through the tunnel leading through Jersey City to New York. (Mom told me I've always loved tunnels), I vaguely remember seeing the Empire State Building, and I remember seeing the animated feature film The Secret of NIMH, which came out in 1982.
My impression of New York City: it is indeed, to borrow a line from the old Frank Sinatra song, "a city that doesn't sleep." My mom commented that New York was brighter at night than during the day. The streets are packed with vehicles, and the sidewalks are swarming with people. In Times Square, one can see a veritable petri dish of humanity.
It can be overwhelming, especially navigating the heavy traffic (thank goodness I didn't have to drive), although I found that while the sidewalks have heavy foot traffic at just about any time of day, walking around wasn't as bad as I feared. When you are only a shade over 4 feet tall, there's the constant fear of being squashed. However, I found the people there quite genial and was never more than gently bumped.
Also, there's just such a life and variety on the sidewalks of Times Square. Solo street musicians, art vendors, small groups of people putting on little shows, superhero cosplayers... you can find this and more.
I found a hotel, the Marriott Marquis (which Kelly dubbed the Marriott Marquis de Lafayette -- "Hamilton" joke), which is next to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where "Hamilton" is playing. The Marriott takes up much of a huge building (the hotel starts on the eighth floor). It's a lovely hotel, with a friendly, helpful staff and large, clean rooms.
One thing that felt positively space age was the elevators. Because it is such a large, multi-story structure (more than 40 floors), there are 14 elevators. The elevators do not have buttons inside, as I found out as I stepped into an open one, not knowing what I was doing. Thankfully, someone told me how they worked: you plug in the floor you want on a machine near the elevator hub, and the computer tells you which elevator to use (lettered A through N). The elevators reminded me of science fiction space pods and took a bit of getting used to. They were, however, fast and efficient.
Not only did Kelly manage to secure tickets, she found awesome seats: front row, balcony, enter right. Now, admittedly it challenged me because I have a bit of a fear of heights. OK, more than a bit. But once I was seated and could adjust, I was fine, and we had a phenomenal view of the stage.
I was a little afraid that I would feel a bit of a post-show letdown after reading and hearing so much about the show in advance; between the books, the articles and the video clips, I already knew about 90 percent of the show and had high expectations.
But the show we saw during the Aug. 20 matinee blew me away.
Several of the original cast members, including Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton) and Daveed Diggs (Marquis de Lafayette / Thomas Jefferson), departed in July. It would have been beyond cool to see the entire original cast, of couRse, but they left the show in capable hands.
Kelly had already been excited to see Javier Muoz, who had been the alternate Hamilton before Miranda stepped down, and her anticipation was justified. Muoz has a fine, lyrical voice, who handled the range of music styles and rapid-fire rap lyrics with ease.
Sydney James Harcourt played the role of Hamilton's friend turned nemesis Aaron Burr. Harcourt's demeanor reminded me of an elegant cat, subtle and smooth but powerful, capable of unleashing a good deal of emotion, particularly at the end during Burr and Hamilton's duel.
Nicholas Christopher performed an often understated, controlled George Washington, although he turned on a showhost-style charm during the two Cabinet battles. I really enjoyed his performance.
I also loved Lexi Lawson as Alexander's sweet but ultimately strong wife Eliza Hamilton (a fascinating historical character in her own right).
In addition, it was cool to catch Seth Stewart, who grew up in Kent, perform the difficult duel roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Personally, I consider this the most challenging part to pull off, but Stewart did a commendable job getting through the tricky, rapid-fire lyrics Lafayette has, including Guns and Ships, which has been said to be the fastest song on a Broadway musical. Stewart was excellent as the flamboyant Jefferson who serves as another foil to Hamilton (both in the play and historically; the two were polar opposites in their views and detested each other).
We did get to see three of the original main cast members -- Rene Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Anthony Ramos in the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, and Jasmine Cephas Jones in the dual roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. They were all excellent and a thrill to see.
The musical runs at about 2 hours, 45 minutes, but it is Non-Stop (sorry, had to say it). One song immediately flows into the next, so it was a fast three hours (including the 15-minute intermission, easily the slowest part of the afternoon).
As I mentioned earlier, it covers the life of Alexander Hamilton, and while some artistic liberties are taken, a good deal of the material is accurate. More importantly, the spirit of the story is spot-on.
The choreography is simply amazing, especially the battle scenes and the Fosse-inspired "Room Where It Happened." The lighting is spectacular, and the costuming well-done: efficient, practical and elegant.
The music is incredible. There's no bad or superfluous track. As I mentioned earlier, much of it is rap and hip-hop based, but the music style and the lyrics cover a broad range of music and theater. A lot of information is packed in many of the songs. The opening number, which is just under four minutes, encapsulates the first 19 years of Hamilton's life, with the rest of the play dealing with the Revolutionary War, his marriage, Hamilton's key role in building the new nation, his affair with Maria, the death of his oldest son, his own death in the ill-fated duel with Burr, and ends with a focus on Eliza and her efforts to continue his legacy.
The emotions run the gamut, from laughter at the antics of the younger Hamilton, Lafayette, Laurens and Hercules Mulligan (well played by Ephraim Sykes that afternoon), to cringing at Hamilton's affair with Reynolds, to tears. Mom, Kelly and I were in tears during both "It's Quiet Uptown," which deals with the aftermath of the death of Philip Hamilton, and the finale. The very end is so quiet, yet so powerful, and just so perfect.
All in all, "Hamilton" covers a powerful and colorful story about a fascinating man, largely unknown until this incredible musical.
Unmet friend, now met
Another highlight for me was the chance to meet face-to-face with Gina, a longtime friend I've known online through the Harry Potter fandom. To borrow a phrase from my colleague at the Record-Courier, executive editor Roger Di Paolo, it was so lovely finally meeting this "unmet friend."
My mom, Gina, her husband Taras and I had dinner at Carmine's the evening after the show, a family-style Italian restaurant close to the hotel. Gina and I had to think for a few minutes about how long we've known each other, and decided we first met in 2003, perhaps 2002. We're guesstimating this based on the fact that the third Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban, came out in 2004, and we had known each other for at least a year before that.
We enjoyed delicious ravioli and eggplant parmesan while we caught up on each other's lives and reminisced a bit. Mostly, we talked about the present and future. She recently received a promotion at her work, which assists the disabled homeless population, and it's obvious Gina is passionate about helping others; her face lit up when she talked about what she does.
Taras is a talented photographer who was kind enough to explain some photography terms and abbreviations I always wondered about.
Gina and I also shared our joy about another Harry Potter friend's recent addition to her family, a darling baby girl. All in all, it was the perfect ending to an amazing day.
Before our final departure
Before heading home, Kelly met up with a friend of hers, and we all went to brunch at Scottadito, a charming little Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. We actually arrived before the restaurant was open, which gave us an opportunity to look around a bit. Next door to the restaurant is the Fire Department, Squad Co. 1, which had a lovely and moving memorial to the firefighters to died during the terrorist attacks on September 11. It is called "Out of the Rubble," donated by sculptors Nyal Thomas Jr. and Rick Boswell.
The trip home was largely uneventful and ended like it began, with us talking about the musical, singing along to the soundtrack (and to other songs once the soundtrack ended) and just enjoying each other's company.