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Hamilton: The latest case of tulip mania?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning, box-office-breaking musical sells out the (smallish) house.


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Yes," wrote Ben Brantley, "it really is that good."

The New York Times theater critic was referring to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about the first U.S. treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The Broadway production had only just opened, but Brantley felt obliged to address expectations swarming around it. In fact, he spent three paragraphs of his August 6, 2015, review expressing his weariness over the show's "worshipful press" before going into detail on how utterly marvelous it is.

Hamilton had already been a phenomenon for seven months by then—ever since February, when the original staging opened at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan. And, as you certainly know since you're bothering to read this, the phenomenon went on to get even bigger. The stats are as impressive as they are well publicized. Hamilton received a record 16 Tony nominations, of which 11 were converted to wins. Miranda's script won a Pulitzer and Miranda himself a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Speaking to a bunch of high school students at the White House, Michelle Obama called Hamilton the "best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life."

You read that right: the best ever.

Tracking the price of a seat became a pastime in itself. Noting that the average face value for a ticket to the Broadway Hamilton is $189, another Times story reported: "For most of May [2016], the median price of a ticket on the secondary market was around $850. Between the Tonys and the July 9 performances, it pushed toward $1,600. Before Mr. Miranda's announcement of his departure [from the show's title role], ticket holders were offering a seat for the July 9 performance at an average of $2,700. With the news of his exit, the average asking price quickly climbed to $10,900 a seat." You read that right too: $10,900.

This sort of thing isn't entirely unprecedented, of course. Something similar happened five years ago, when a tulip-mania-style frenzy blew up around The Book of Mormon. The response to Hamilton is of a different order, though, and not merely because of the $11,000 scalping.

The Book of Mormon is gleefully vicious: an attack on the absurdities of evangelism with the Latter Day Saints as exhibit A. I haven't seen Hamilton yet, but I've had endless opportunity to listen to online excerpts and study descriptions, and from all I've heard and read and been told Miranda's show is only gleeful in its pure-hearted affirmation of national continuity. Black and Latino founding fathers and mothers use hip-hop idioms to draw a direct line from the revolutionary past to our diverse present. A signature anthem, "The World Turned Upside Down" (recounting the 1781 victory of the combined American and French armies at the Siege of Yorktown), famously starts with the Marquis de Lafayette and the Caribbean-born Hamilton agreeing that immigrants "get the job done."

There's a lot wrong with that line, starting with the fact that the leader of the American forces, George Washington, was a fourth-generation Virginia patrician and stretching through the likely objections of Native Americans. Still, it feeds sweetly into a cherished narrative—the same one that all but ensured that every combat unit in Hollywood World War II movies featured a country boy, an Italian, an Irishman, and a Jew from the Bronx.

In the face of wild uncertainties about the character, even the definition, of a nation where everybody seems to feel like an embattled minority—where candidates advance on promises of exclusion, "whiteness" is an increasingly desperate construct, and the proposition that black lives matter is somehow less than self-evident—Hamilton offers us the reassurance that what we're going through isn't new. Or catastrophic. Indeed, it's as old as these states. Only the skin tones are darker this time around, and the beats are better.

As the box office numbers indicate, that's a great consolation. We all get a role, both in the past and in the future, and what may look superficially like chaos is exposed as a movement toward freedom. A friend of mine—a gay white man from Arkansas—saw it and told me it made him "proud to be an American."

But then there may be plain showbiz smarts involved too. Of the nine Nederlander theaters in New York, Hamilton is in residence at the third smallest, the 1,319-seat Richard Rodgers, making seats just that much scarcer. When Chicago's resident production begins performances on September 27, it'll be housed in PrivateBank Theatre—at 1,800 seats, by far the smallest of Broadway in Chicago's four Loop properties.  v


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