During the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, the prices for tulip bulbs, a recently introduced flower, reached extraordinarily high levels. In fact, in 1637, at the height of “tulip mania,” some single bulbs reportedly sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. And then, as often happens, the price suddenly collapsed.
Why am I thinking about tulip mania at the same time I am writing about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Hamilton”? You need only think back to the hysteria that gripped this city in June when the initial block of single tickets for performances to the sit-down Chicago production of the show went on sale at The PrivateBank Theatre box office and online.
Ticket-buyers began lining up 24 hours in advance, while thousands of others tried getting through to Ticketmaster, or by calling Broadway In Chicago’s toll-free ticket number. Online ticket resale prices reportedly reached $8,000 a piece — a far, far cry from the official posted prices of $65-$180 for the Chicago production (with a select number of “premium seats” available for all performances, and some increased pricing during the holidays). It should be noted, basic Chicago ticket prices fall well below those for the Broadway production, which officially start at $199 and reach $549 for premium seats.
As Hamilton, the brainy first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury would probably have observed, there is profit to be made from scarcity. (A second block of tickets, for performance beyond March 19, 2017, has yet to be released.)
The “Hamilton” mania began the moment the show opened at New York’s Public Theatre in Feb. 2015,where it received glowing reviews and enjoyed a sold-out engagement filled with a typically star-studded New York audience. And the fire only grew as the show transferred to Broadway in Aug. 2015, having racked up unprecedented advance box office sales. By the time President Obama arrived to catch a preview, Miranda was every bit as much of a rock star-like celebrity as the Commander-in-Chief.
On a hot, rainy Friday afternoon in late June — just a week before Miranda was to finally end his onstage tenure as the title character in the musical he created — I headed to the Richard Rodgers Theatre to check out the crowd before catching that evening’s performance.
Since the arrival of “Hamilton,” the theater’s stage door had turned into something of an outdoor stage itself, with hordes of hopefuls lining up for the special daily ticket lottery. (In Chicago, with a few exceptions, there will be a day-of-show drawing for forty-four $10 seats for all performances in the first two rows and boxes of the theater.) Many without tickets just showed up for the brief impromptu “mini-concerts” held on the steps of that entrance a few times a week. “The Ham4Ham Show,” as it was called, was frequently hosted by Miranda himself, and involved guest appearances by members of the casts of both “Hamilton,” other hit Broadway musicals, and additional personalities. This will not be easy to replicate in Chicago.
But the brilliant and seemingly tireless Miranda, now 36, also happens to be a master of social media, and without doubt this has helped him convert a generation that spends much of its time bent over a mobile phone into an audience that recognizes the glory of live musical theater. Like Hamilton himself (which, as the show’s opening song memorably describes as “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” who made his way from the Caribbean island of his birth to New York, where he became a young revolutionary, and then a Founding Father), the actor-composer-lyricist is very much a man of his moment. And his notion of creating a score that seamlessly combined hip-hop with seductively Broadway-style melodies — and that cast the Founding Fathers and their peers with African-American actors (with Hamilton played by Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican heritage) — fit neatly with the temper of our times, as well as the tenure of this country’s first African-American president.
My midday visit to the stage door in New York provided a fine window into the “Hamilton” phenomenon. To start with, there were three teenage girls — high school seniors who had made the nine-hour drive from Toront0, Canada, to New York to see if they might get lucky with the lottery. (They had considered Chicago as an option, but realized it would open here after their summer break.)
What was the show’s fascination for them?
“We studied American history in school, but it’s just so much better to see these cool guys playing the Founding Fathers, rather than statues,” said one of them. “And the score is so great. We sang along with it in the car the whole way from Toronto. And yes, we’ve done some acting; we were just in a production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ at school.” (The Rockefeller Foundation will provide $6 million in funding to make it possible for 100,000 inner city public school children across the country, including in Chicago, to attend the show with $10 tickets to a special matinee, but only after the Fall season.)
Later that night, on the long ticket-holders’ line, I encountered the members of an extended family who had converged on New York from California, Virginia and Ohio to celebrate their mother’s “significant birthday.” For two of them this would be the second visit to the show. They had managed to buy these tickets online several months before, and considered it a coup.
So it was not surprising to sit in the audience and hear people cheer as each character — already familiar to many who had listened to the CD and memorized the lyrics — made his or her entrance. It was an instant connection.
How will “Hamilton” fare in Chicago, where Miranda will only be a fleeting “visiting presence” at best as he moves on to many other projects?
To be sure, the Tweets will continue to fly. And timing is everything. With performances of the show beginning on Sept. 27 — about six weeks before what, by any reckoning, is an exceptionally tumultuous presidential election season — a musical about the people who helped shape our system of government might be just what the doctor ordered. As the show’s lyrics also remind us, the Revolutionary War period resulted in a world turned upside down, and while it is one thing to win a war it is quite another to govern a country.
Anecdotally, the Ethiopian taxi driver I spoke to on the day tickets went on sale in Chicago said his wife told him she wanted to see the show. A friend at work said his daughter, a teacher, had nabbed a pair of tickets online after spending almost a full day trying to get through. Many readers wrote to see if I had any inside information about securing tickets. And my own 92-year-old mother left me a phone message saying she hoped I planned to take her to see the show.
All this might just be enough to inspire a theatrical tea party rebellion (of Revolutionary War vintage) on Lake Michigan.