This blog post chronicles my
infatuation obsession love for the Broadway musical, Hamilton, an affection which sprung directly from a rarefied experience of connected presence–one of ANIMA’s primary themes. Here’s hoping this story can help you find such an experience in your world.
At first, I played hard to get. I stayed aloof. The Broadway smash Hamilton seemed an out-of-reach bit of cultural whip-up. Sure, everyone who saw it raved. But I was never going to get to New York City. And even if I did, I couldn’t afford $800 tickets. Leave it to the elite hobnobbers. I’d catch the show when it came to video.
A couple influences started to turn the tide. My nephews got to see the original cast and came back entranced by the rhythms, lyrics, and overall production. When we drove out to Christmas dinner with the family, I humored elder nephew Andrew by letting him put the soundtrack CD he’d just received as a gift in the car stereo. “My Shot” stood out as an ear-grabbing track. The rest? Meh. But I could sense Andrew’s passion—and I respect him greatly. Then I connected with a buddy of mine in San Francisco who had started Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv rap group, with Hamilton’s writer and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. He got me to watch some of their shows and, dag, I had to admit that Miranda could amaze and astonish.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
When the Hamilton touring company came to San Francisco, my defenses weakened even further. Bunches of friends started reporting on their experience and every single one sang the show’s praises. $200+ still seemed outrageous for any ticket—how could a musical be that good?—but I bit the bullet when another colleague pointed out that the Box Office had opened up some decent orchestra seats at that price.
I still hadn’t drunk Potion #9 though. As the date grew closer, I kept spinning out money-making scenarios in my mind. If I could sell these tickets for $800 each, I thought, that means I could clear $1200 for the two of them. I wouldn’t pay $1200 to see the show, so why would I refuse that money for not seeing it? I opened the question up to friends on Facebook and generated some heated debate. And gathered some economic references as well (check out “loss aversion” and “prospect theory” on Wikipedia).
Ultimately, two recommendations sealed the deal. My friend, Ana, one of the most astute observers I know, chimed in: “My one-word review: underrated.” Whoa. Another friend, Paul, said “I was in the shower two weeks after having seen the production and, when one of the songs came to mind, it brought tears to my eyes.”
OK, that was enough. I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Holy Hamilton, Batman!
Once I gave in to Hamilton, I fell hard.
I felt a full-force adrenaline rush from the start of the show. Heart-pounding music. Full-presence acting. Muscular choreography. Clever wordplay. Stunning voices soaring to pointed climaxes. Actors of color. Daring and provocative lighting choices. A simple set, used to perfection. Seamless and surprising costume changes, each of which served the story. Ample humor. And even with the Founding Fathers and the nerdy subject of national financial arrangements—a compelling storyline with waves of emotion: ambition, caution, power, love, lust, abandonment, brotherhood, sisterhood, parenthood, promise, betrayal, and forgiveness. Hamilton had it all. I knew by intermission that I wanted to return. And the second act only upped the intensity.
My new interest didn’t take long to convert to obsession. When my podcast buddy, Lisa, scored a ticket later that week, I found a “reasonably-priced” single seat in the center mezzanine so I could share the experience with her. The next week, I bought a batch of tickets and sold them to friends at slight profit, enough to cover the cost of my ticket. I went to Craig’s List. I plucked some profit-makers through American Express. I researched when the box office would drop prices so others could snag me seats.
To my enflamed heart, the addiction made reasonable sense: each subsequent trip showed me something new. From the mezzanine, I could take in the whole stage, including the rotating rings in the floor that allowed for some of the show’s most dramatic visual effects. From the 12th-row center, I could see, hear and feel the raw power of the show’s emotional arc. From the 2nd row, I could make out the sweat, tone and craft of each actor and dancer, each one athletic and focused.
I fell in love with individual actors as well. Joshua Henry–ah, Joshua Henry!–fueled Aaron Burr in a dignified, slow-boil build to the story’s tragic end. Solea Pfeiffer’s nuanced and emotive vocals gave Eliza Hamilton the whimsy, rage, and intelligence her character deserved. Isaiah Johnson commanded the stage with every entrance, just as I imagine George Washington would have. Michael Luwoye blazed with intensity as Alexander Hamilton, enough so I could believe the Founding Father’s genius and folly. Ruben Carbajal conveyed John Lauren’s brashness and emotional connection to Hamilton with fiery passion. Jordan Donica played with the intricate humor of Thomas Jefferson’s fop. Amber Iman converted from Peggy Schuyler’s goofy humor to Maria Reynolds’ sultry seduction with authority. Mathenee Treco’s precision care with James Madison’s handkerchief made every movement matter. Each actor and dancer set up shop in my heart.
Nothing, it seemed, could quench my thirst for more. Every morning, I woke up with songs from the show in my head—and every day, I obliged those choruses with another soundtrack listen. I ordered Lin-Manuel’s painstaking libretto complete with song lyrics, artwork and backstories for each track. I watched the PBS documentary and scoured YouTube for information about each actor. I sent a congratulatory note to Solea Pfeiffer—and felt like a Beatles-era schoolgirl when she tweeted back her thanks.
If I went more than a week without seeing the show, I felt an ache in my heart. Blinded with eagerness, I actually fell for a scam on Craig’s List (and just barely got my money back). And I backed out of another deal before getting scammed again. In total, I ended up seeing the San Francisco cast seven times in two months.
Ultimately, I realized that I was most enamored with the ensemble presence. From top to bottom and start to finish, the cast, orchestra, and stage crew made an exquisite team. Joshua Henry strode on stage grounded in his breath and body with an acute attention to detail that never subsided. All the other players locked in as well. I never once saw a character slip out of character, even as they waited in the wings to reenter. The dance crew stayed equally invested in their ephemeral moments in focus or in the background. And the same remained true even when understudies took over. These Hamilton San Francisco cast members weren’t playing roles, they were living them. Along with the musicians and stagehands, they all created an exquisite experience that brought us in the audience along with them. Ultimately, I think this is what we go to theater for, to come into the present moment so we can feel fully alive. Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
When I came to Manhattan for a month-long training with UK-based voice, acting, and presence coach Patsy Rodenburg (she of Second Circle) in July, I kept a sideways eye out for opportunities to catch the Broadway cast. I knew it wouldn’t be the original gang from the soundtrack or my San Francisco familiars, but I figured they’d be superlative—this was Broadway after all! I entered the lottery each day—no luck. One day when we got let out early from class, I scouted out the Richard Rodgers Theater and learned about the c
ancellation line. The last Sunday before my course ended, I decided to get up at the crack of dawn and take my chances. I was not throwing away my shot.
I absolutely loved the adventure of waiting seven-plus hours for that ticket—packing food and reading material, meeting great people in line, and riding the roller coaster of our odds—and I was able to score an amazing ticket almost for free. Unfortunately—and for sure, surprisingly—I actually left the show feeling deflated. Some might have blamed it on a Sunday matinee show, but this was Hamilton! on Broadway. Some could have pointed to Alexander Hamilton’s role being played by an understudy, but Donald Webber turned out to be the most charismatic performer on stage. There was no single reason, but many small ones.
The music from the orchestra did not sound as loud or as insistent, so I couldn’t feel the expected impact in my chest. The group dancers weren’t as sharp or committed and so didn’t command my attention. Eliza Hamilton’s timing and inflection lacked embodiment so I never felt moved. Other actors missed choreographic beats too: Angelica Schuyler circled the catwalk too quickly during “Take a Break” and had to stay in place on the stairs for longer than usual; one dancer among Burr, Jefferson, and Madison omitted an angry (and climactic) emphasis that normally provided shock value; and I never got the sense that James Madison was sick, an important character trait. More often than not, it seemed key performers were saying their lines and going through their motions, but were doing so from the outside—playing the part but not being the character.
Shockingly, I noticed this especially with Brandon Victor Dixon, a Tony-nominated veteran who had gotten rave reviews for his Aaron Burr. His voice seemed much thinner and his movements not as smooth as Joshua Henry’s. He often dropped the full presence of his character when he wasn’t in the spotlight. And he played to the audience for laughs a few times rather than letting the humor emerge from the dialogue or drama itself. Three moments in particular indicated a missing presence:
- At the show’s start, he didn’t offer a clear gesture when advising Alexander Hamilton to “talk less…smile more”—a crucial distinction that sets up the central tension of the whole show and has got to be nailed.
- At the show’s climax after Burr has killed Hamilton (no spoiler alert needed, you hear that news in the show’s opening number!), Burr sings “Alexander…may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it,” and “Now I’m the villain in your history/I was too young and blind to see/I should have known…the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.” In Joshua Henry’s rendition, the first line sounded like the vulnerable suffering of a repentant survivor and the second as a humble, but tender recognition of Burr’s fatal error. In Brandon Victor Dixon’s portrayal, the first line fell into tears and the second trailed off without emotional commitment, making the lyrics feel like self-pitying self-promotion. I left the song liking Burr less at a moment when I should have been liking him more.
- When the cast took their bows to a standing ovation, Dixon did not look to the audience. Instead, he turned to his castmates as he walked on, lifting his eyes to the ceiling as their arms went up and to the floor as they bowed down, returning to his neighbors as they exited. The disconnect was palpable—it felt like he was glad to get away from us.
I don’t usually like to throw shade at others’ efforts. And I know that every single person on that stage, including Brandon Victor Dixon, could sing and dance circles around me. They work their asses off to make that show happen. Maybe it was that I was tired from having gotten up so early to get in line. Maybe it was that this was my eighth show or that I simply wanted the San Francisco cast that I had grown so attached to. The girls next to me were giggling with delight through most of the show. My neighbors on the other side of me loved it.
Whatever the reason, there was no question in my mind: the show was definitely missing that magical, overwhelming presence. I left feeing entertained but nowhere near blown away. Nor particularly uplifted. This was not a production that I would drag friends to see. Or that I would scramble to see again. As I left the Richard Rodgers that day, I noticed that I felt sad to admit my disappointment, even a bit heartbroken. The spell had been broken.
As is true with any recent break-up, I’m still trying to make sense of my lost enchantment. I still enjoy the soundtrack but I’m not as compelled to play it. I wake up with Hamilton songs in my head about half of my mornings now rather than every morning. And I’m well aware that the San Francisco cast has moved on to Los Angeles. (Maybe I’ll see them one more time when I drive back home through LA, maybe I won’t.) Regardless, I will move forward in my life having had the joy of these intoxicating and intense few months—however fleeting—and will look for a similar quality of presence wherever I can find it. I’ve tasted a vitality and I want more. Lin-Manuel Miranda and the SF crew gave me an incredible gift this spring. I thank them for bringing me into the narrative.
[UPDATE: I actually did get to see the show in LA…and it was superlative. Ryan Vasquez, an understudy for Michael Luwoye’s Hamilton, shone particularly strong. And Joshua Henry…well, what more can I say?]
For tickets to Hamilton in LA, Chicago, or New York City, head to the official website.
You can also check out the new Hamilton! app that came out this week.
 When I heard Dear Mr. Hamilton, your fellow federalists would like to know how you’ll be voting upon waking, I realized I was in deep.
 Through all the wheeling and dealing, I got seats for more than twenty friends and covered my costs for all but two of my tickets.
 Everyone I went with said the same thing at the intermission and after the show: “I don’t want it to end” and “I want to come back.”
 The full story as I relayed it on Facebook, for those who want the gory details:
It’s a bit of a long story, but, sometimes, stuff just works out fine.
I’ve been in NYC for three weeks now and, not surprisingly for those who have followed my posts over the last three months, have been itching to see Hamilton here on Broadway. Seats on most resale sites are $800 and far above–not do-able on my budget.
So this morning, I got up before dawn to head down to the Richard Rodgers Theater to get in the cancellation line for $230 tix for the 3pm matinee. (I was 6th in line when I arrived.) Snacks, books, and cribbage board in my backpack, I set myself up well for the long haul wait until the box office opened at noon. As the sun began to emerge, I connected easily with Ryan from Calgary in front of me and Ana and Muria from Barcelona behind me–good conversation in English and Spanish.
We got good camaraderie off the bat, but there’s no guarantee of tickets in this line. If folks don’t purchase their lottery tickets, the box office will sell those. If they have premium tickets unused, they’ll offer those for sale to anyone in line who wants to pay premium prices. (If no one wants them at premium prices, they wait til closer to show time and drop them to regular prices.) If the actors arrive and haven’t given out their comps, those go in the pool. You might get 3 or 4 tickets come free in total. You might get 20.
Around 8:30 or so, somewhat confident about my place in line, I posted an ad on Craig’s List Manhattan saying I might have a ticket–and I listed it for $450, hoping to recover most of the cost of the tickets I would be buying if they came free. A guy from NJ wrote me almost immediately and said he was interested. I told him I’d let him know if I got tix but I didn’t get my hopes up–Craig’s List is notorious for folks backing out of purchases. His was the only response I got.
As it turned out, 3 women in front of me got seats at 12:30, snagging all the available lottery seats. Still no certainty. All twenty folks in line had passed on the seats at premium prices so, 45 minutes later, we were thinking there must be some seats open! We felt good, that was, until a family of five came in and plunked down $4000-plus to take a big chunk of tickets off the market. Oof. So Much for confidence.
With tensions rising, I got a note from Chad from NJ telling me he was still interested and had made it across to he city. (Ok, good.) In fact…Chad had made his way to the theater–and was waiting in line! (Literal LOL.) I texted him back to say I was now third in line and went over to introduce myself. He offered to pay me $50 above my cost for the ticket (rather than the $230 I was asking for) but I held my ground in negotiations, trusting I could walk over to Times Square and get what I was asking if the tix came through. He agreed to the possible sale at $450 and went off to get cash in case. (At his spot in line, he wasn’t likely to get in. I still couldn’t tell.)
Eventually, at 1:30, after the butterflies had started to swirl even more intently…the box office finally let us in. Ryan and his wife who had come to NYC for a medical procedure got their tickets. I got two seats–for me and Chad–in the tenth row center. And Ana and Muria got seats right next us.
Praise Buddha/Jesus/life/love: I’m seeing Hamilton on Broadway today, basically for free!
Life is good.
 In fairness, I thought Anthony Lee Medina as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton and James Monroe Inglehart as Lafayette/Jefferson were also great—strong voices, great comedic timing, full commitment.
 Southern mother-fu*%ing Democratic Republicans during “Washington on Your Side.”
 Even Chad, the newbie next to me, recognized it: “That was good, but other than Hamilton and Laurens, a lot of those folks seemed to be mailing it in.”
 If you get the chance to see the LA show, do it soon. At some point, Joshua Henry will leave the cast to head to Broadway for a lead role in a Carousel remake!
Ted DesMaisons is the founder and principal of Anima Learning, a collaborative consultancy that develops connected presence and response-ability in conscious leaders, learners and presenters. He also serves as the US Partner for the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project.