I ruin things for myself.
That’s why I was scared when my wife and I lucked into some tickets to Hamilton on Broadway last month.
I had been listening to the studio version of the soundtrack for at least a year—upon first listen I had a reaction that I often have when listening to anything new, something like, “This is fine, but I don’t get what the hype is.”
I know myself as a listener well enough to know that my first reaction is often (almost always) not accurate. This has never been as true for me as it was with Hamilton. After that first listen, I didn’t listen again for months, until my wife and I were on a long car trip and we figured the 46-track Hamilton soundtrack might be a good way to pass the time.
Even on the second listen my reaction went from “This is fine,” to “This is pretty good.” But then I woke up with “Helpless” stuck in my head. So, I listened to that track over and over again, eventually just letting the album play on from that point up through the track, “Wait For It.”
My lukewarm initial reaction turned into obsession fairly quickly. The soundtrack became the only thing I listened to. I spent my commutes on the Garden State Parkway singing falsetto harmonies to the Schuyler sisters, trying to nail every note of Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rendition of “Dear Theodosia,” and learning how to roll my Rs like Jonathan Groff as King George III.
More than once I would be listening to “Burn” or “It’s Quiet Uptown” on my way to work and would be moved to tears, laughing at myself and wondering what the hell had happened that turned me into such a sap.
By the time, two Sundays ago, that my wife and I walked into the box office at Richard Rodgers Theatre and asked, on a whim, when the next tickets were available, and when they said they had two people cancel for the 8 p.m. performance on Wednesday, May 31, and when we ended up with third row seats for the base price as opposed to the astronomical values on Stubhub, I had pretty much every word, harmony, and melody burned permanently into my brain.
So, we went. But for the few days between the day we procured tickets and the day of the show, I stopped listening to the soundtrack. I was afraid. I didn’t want to ruin the experience—I had to remember, the songs I loved were studio recordings. The performers had, presumably, many chances to sing those tracks and to perfect them. They sang them while standing still in a studio, not while dancing around a Broadway stage. The songs were edited, mixed, mastered to perfection. And they were recorded by the original Broadway cast. The show we would be seeing included only one of the original members of the cast—Jonathan Groff.
I’ve been to about 20 Broadway shows, most of them musicals. Of all the shows I’ve seen, Hamilton was, by far, my favorite. It was my favorite before entering the theater and, I’m happy to report, it remains my favorite after leaving the theater. Even after digesting what I saw and heard for a week, I realize that, more than anything, I want to go back. The studio recording of the soundtrack is truly incredible, but seeing it performed live was pretty much the closest thing to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had.
Halfway through the first song, I knew that:
All my stupid anxiety about whether I’d ruined the show for myself was unfounded.
Hamilton might go down as one of the greatest works of art, in any medium, produced in the 21st century.
The rest of the show was easy—I just sat there in awe. Was every note perfect? Hell no. Nor could it ever be—these were real live people acting, singing, dancing—they could never be as perfect as the people on the studio recordings. But that’s a good thing. Because the people they were portraying were also far from perfect. They were more real. This was more real.
I’m a slow learner. It took me two years to become obsessed with something that many theater-lovers and critics raved about back in 2015.
The show truly has everything—it is an epic tragedy on par with the greatest works of all time, the music is woven together so tightly that the entire performance can be seen as one long piece, there are eternal truths that echo throughout history and have far too many contemporary parallels, and it does all of this while being immensely fun.
If you get a chance to go, just go. There are tons of pop culture phenomenons that do not live up to their hype. Hamilton is not one of them.