A very special room exists in New York City. It is the Room Where It Happens, where a musical about the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton has been radiating joy, frenzy and dolla dolla bills, y’all.
Hamilton, the $12.5 million musical, is on its path to rocketing past the billion-dollar revenue mark. In its wake, it has left a trail of delighted theatergoers, including Beyoncé, Jay Z, Barack and Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Dick Cheney – even Madonna, who texted the whole time – but, due to the theater’s 1,300 seats, its fan base far outsizes its ticket holders, causing confusion between the haves and have-nots.
As it dominates the Tony Awards (it’s nominated for a record-breaking 16 awards) this weekend, we’ve put together a guide to some basic Hamilton questions, not that anything about the show is basic.
Why do I keep hearing about Hamilton?
Because it keeps making news. It won a Grammy for best musical. And a Pulitzer. But it also got summoned to the White House to perform a few songs for the Obamas and guests (the First Lady has called it the greatest art she has ever seen). And because its star — who won a $500,000 no-strings-attached Genius grant — keeps pulling off amazing feats of rap derring-do with Stephen Colbert (about Button Gwinnett), James Corden, Jimmy Fallon (about Darth Vader), and John Oliver (about Puerto Rico). This weekend, it’s the centerpiece of the Tony Awards, where it scored a record-setting 16 nominations (even though it was cheated out of a 17th).
Isn’t it all about race?
In a Broadway season featuring Eclipsed, the first Broadway all-black, all-women play, and Shuffle Along, a history of the first jazz musical, Hamilton is doing the heavy lifting on an industry-wide conversation about race, with Puerto Rican Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role, black Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson, Dominican Christopher Jackson as George Washington and black Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr. But it’s not groundbreaking. Consider David Oyelowo as King Henry VI in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2001 production. Or the many people who played Bob Dylan — notably Cate Blanchett and Marcus Carl Franklin — in the 2007 film I’m Not There. Without sounding too grad school about it, Hamilton is more about otherness (there’s a line where John Adams derides Hamilton as a “creole bastard”). As the show expands into Chicago, London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, casting agents have considered women for the roles of Founding Fathers, as well as trans performers. If that sounds weird, enjoy how captivating it is to watch three young boys play Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters.
What is the best way (and day) to see it?
The show is infamously sold out, but is hard to see for another reason: There are so many versions of it. On Sundays, Hamilton is played by Javier Muñoz. In fact, I didn’t see the play as it was intended — that is, without understudies — until my fourth viewing. Breakout understudies include playful Andrew Chappelle, who has subbed for pretty much every male role, and sexy Sydney James Harcourt, whose performance as Burr was singled out in a New York Times shout-out. Miranda himself, while much-celebrated, can’t really sing or dance. Think of a Hamilton show as a sunset photo on Instagram. Yeah, you’ve seen sunsets before, but have you seen this one?
Aren’t tickets crazy expensive?
Yes and no and yes again. The show is perpetually sold out and has been since it appeared Off-Broadway last year, when tickets ran from $50 to $95. The best seats in the house for the Broadway production have jumped from the $230 range to $477 to now $849. Although Miranda, who is reportedly leaving the show in July, has decried the insane inflation of the re-sale market, where tickets for his upcoming final performance are going — at a recent check — for as much as $12,000 a pop (for a two-and-a-half-hour show, that’s $80 a minute). But there are also $10 front-row lottery tickets and $40 friends-and-family standing-room tickets. Or an insane cancellation line where hopefuls campout on the sidewalk for as long as 30 hours.
It’s all just rapping, right?
It gets discussed — but not officially billed — as a “hip-hop musical” or “rap musical” because it has actors rapping and so many references to, for example, the Notorious B.I.G. or DMX or Eminem or Mobb Deep. But there are also nods to the traditional musical theater canon, including 1776, HMS Pinafore and South Pacific. And many songs could fit comfortably into Chicago or Wicked. Overall, the show had 144-words-a-minute but the raps are hit a peak of 5.3 words a second — that compares an overall pace of 68 words a minute for Phantom of the Opera and 5.2 words a second in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which, spoiler alert, is not a rap musical. But the lyrics are so dense in Hamilton that if it ran at the pace of an average musical, like Phantom, it would run between five and six hours long.
Where did these actors come from?
Miranda descended on Times Square on a cloud carried by angels, obviously. But he does hail from uptown Manhattan, which inspired his breakout musical creation, In The Heights, which also won the Tony for Best Musical in 2009 (dude literally doesn’t know how to write a non-best musical). In The Heights also featured Christopher Jackson, who teams up again as Washington. Jackson and Miranda are party of an improvised hip-hop group called Freestyle Love Supreme, which shares a kinship with Daveed Diggs’ Oakland-based Clipping. Leslie Odom Jr. was best known for his role on Smash, NBC’s short-lived cult show about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical. Jonathan Groff burst onto the scene in Spring Awakening and then Glee. Renée Elise Goldsberry was recruited from the final production of Rent. Phillipa Soo made a Julliard-trained splash in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (which will be debuting on Broadway with Josh Groban this fall). And poor Anthony Ramos? Dude never knew what he was getting into. Much of the ensemble came from Green Day’s American Idiot musical.
Isn’t the hype a little out of control?
No. Nope. Nah. Nuh-uh. The proper response to that question, quoting Hamilton, is: “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” (which was the capstone to a longer song cut from the Broadway version). It’s perfectly normal for a musical to inspire a beer. And a Chicago zoo camel named Alexander Camelton. And Beyoncé’s new walk. You know how you know it’s huge? Kanye West and Kim Kardashian think it’s all about them.
After the Tonys, is that it for Hamilton?
Hamilton is about to expand into productions across the country this year and a national tour next year, as well as a London run. A movie version is inevitable. And, in the meantime, later this year Busta Rhymes, Regina Spektor, Sia, Usher and others are dropping an album, The Hamilton Mixtape, of covers and riffs of the original cast album, which itself went gold as a Billboard toppers on the rap charts. But hopefully that’ll be it for “room where it happens” jokes (even Mark Zuckerberg used that tired line).