By Anisha Dias Bandaranaike ’17. Art by Tina Wang ’19.
On Wednesday, March 30, I wait in line for fourteen hours, with no guarantee, to score tickets to Hamilton. My friend, Bee, and I wake up at 5:30am, silently moving around each other to perform our morning ablutions, too tired to put on any makeup. We take with us: a book each, our water bottles, and our phones. (It was not enough.) At almost 6am, our taxi drops us off on the corner of 46th and 8th Ave, and we proceed to walk in the wrong direction, led astray by Google Maps and confusion about how the streets of New York work. (A mistake that will cost us.) When we finally figure out that no, we should not have crossed the street, and yes, we were on 8th Av after all, there’s a girl with a sleeping bag walking fifteen feet ahead of us; she beats us there. When we finally get to the box office, in the cold darkness, lit only by the lights of the Church of Scientology across the street, there are an undetermined number of people asleep in tents and fold up chairs, along with five others who are awake and talking, seated on the steps of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The girl with the sleeping bag spreads it out on the ground and promptly falls asleep. “Why didn’t I think of that?” I wonder, filled with low-level regret.
Since it made its Off-Broadway debut in February 2015, Hamilton, written and directed by Lin Manuel Miranda, has become a phenomenon, drawing in thousands of fans from around the world, becoming synonymous with the changing face of theatre. Its cast album debuted and No. 12 on the Billboard top 200, the highest of any cast album since 1963. The album is how the fans have been pulled into the show. In August, it moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, and as of September, it has been sold out for most of its Broadway engagement, to the disappointment of those outside of the lucky or wealthy few. Tickets are impossible to get, unless you’re willing to pay upwards of $600 for the back mezzanine, or you’re one of the lucky twenty-one to get a front row ticket from the online lottery entered by thousands of people everyday. The cancellation line – the line we’re in – however, offers an opportunity to the brave of heart, to the stalwart and dedicated. For every performance, there’s a row of seats reserved for celebrities. So if Barack Obama decides at 7:50pm that he wanted to see the 8pm show, the seats are ready for him. If no one claims those tickets, they’re sold for $178 to the people in the cancellation line – each person allowed to purchase a maximum of two. (A steal, if you ask me – seats in that area usually go for six times that.)
We talk to someone named Richard; he was the first to arrive of the people who hadn’t slept over. He arrived at 3:30am, an hour so ungodly, it astounds me. Richard has seen the show seven times (maybe more) and knows how the system works, knows how long we’ll have to wait, knows how many people usually get in. On a bad day he’s seen three people get tickets; on a good day, he’s seen twenty. This is not comforting. We think he might be getting paid to do this, but it’s clear he also loves the show. He’s waiting for two tickets, one for himself, and one for an old professor friend (probably client) of his. He’s nice, friendly, and talks about the differences between seeing the actors perform and hearing the soundtrack, about the different people he’s seen waiting in line (a man flew in from China just to see the show.) We build camaraderie amongst us, not just with him, but with everyone in line, united by a passion for the show.
It’s 37 degrees when we get there, and the weather forecast on my phone claims that it’ll remain at that unpleasant low until at least 10am. Even Bee – who spent all of last winter in a thin, open, military jacket over cotton dresses – is uncomfortably cold. This means that I – with my body designed for the tropics, most comfortable in 80-degree humidity – can’t feel my feet. By 8am, I’m longing for the numbness to return, because now my extremities hurt. I go as far as to text our hosts in New York, to find out if they own a sleeping bag I can return to borrow, while Bee holds our place in line. (They don’t.)
Instead, I go into the pizza place across the street (next door to the Church of Scientology.) They have breakfast foods available, and more importantly, heat. They also have dozens of signed Broadway show posters on the walls, including one from Hamilton. When I ask the guy behind the counter how he got the poster, he says “I know the guy; he comes in here all the time.” I now have the knowledge that I have procured food from a place that Lin Manuel Miranda frequents. I am two degrees of separation from him. What a rush.
At 9am, Bee goes to the American Eagle that just opened down the street to purchase a sweater and some gloves (they’ve started selling their spring line, so we settle for socks on our hands instead.) At 9am, the sun finally rises over the tall buildings, providing patches of imperfect sunlight. At 9am, everyone enters the lottery, hoping that maybe this time they’ll luck out.
The lottery has been going since August, when the show opened. A bid for more accessibility on Broadway – $10 tickets, or #ham4ham. Until recently, the lottery was done on site, thousands of people lining up to steal a chance at seeing history being made, being remade, re-appropriated. Just before the draw, some of the actors would do a short performance, different everyday; to tell the people “We want to give you a show, even if you don’t get to see the show.” On January 5, the lottery went online. People cared too much, would do what it took; too many, too much, the street too crowded for cars. On the first day of the lottery, fifty thousand people crashed the site with their zeal.
The people right in front of us in line, or right in front of the sleeping bagged girl, a father and daughter from Delaware, are waiting for two tickets, total, not two each. They say they enter the lottery everyday, prepared to drop everything and drive the three hours if they get the tickets. In fact, they left Delaware at 2am that morning, precisely in order to line up; the chances of a cancellation ticket are higher because so few people care enough to brave the cold and exhaustion. She’s a teacher, and I never find out what he does, but her mother, his wife, thinks they’re crazy, crazy for being this invested in something. Maybe they are, but aren’t we all?
I had first heard of Hamilton in September, when I went to Elsie Fest, an outdoor festival for musical theatre nerds. I saw Leslie Odom Jr. perform “The Room Where It Happens,” and could not appreciate it for the genius it was, having no knowledge of the show except for that one actor and that one song. Months later, all my friends started to rave about this amazing show, urging me to listen to the soundtrack, a masterpiece of rap and history and social commentary. I stubbornly resisted, not because of any real unwillingness, but because I’m just not the kind of person to listen to music often, let alone rap. I’ve never really felt passionate about music; I’ll listen to anything if someone else plays it, but I never seek it out. I’ve never felt the profound impact others say it has on them. Over winter break, I finally gave in, listening to it while on the treadmill, as a distraction. I didn’t expect it to have the impact it did; I didn’t expect to end up crying while jogging.
I love theatre; I always have, and musical theatre has always been my favourite, but I had never listened to a soundtrack before seeing a show. The music was always secondary to the experience of the show. With Hamilton, I was drawn in by the first line, captivated till the end. As a non-American, I didn’t expect or ever want to feel patriotic for America; I didn’t expect to care so much about its history. Now, I’m invested. Hamilton made me invested in things I didn’t expect to care about – music and America.
When the people in the tents and on the chairs wake up, the undetermined total of those ahead of us is eleven, making us twelfth and thirteenth. Not great, but not completely hopeless. The problem is that each person in front of us could get up to two tickets, putting us anywhere between twelfth and twenty fourth. However, Wednesday is a two show day, doubling our chances. We’re confident that we will at least get tickets to the evening show, which is all we want. The person at the front of the line has been there since noon the previous day. Almost everyone who had been asleep is a line sitter, getting paid by the hour to procure a ticket. As it turns out, so is the sleeping bagged girl. We don’t build the same camaraderie with them – divided by a perceived lack of dedication to the art. Anyone can do it for the money; only few are willing to do it for the joy. The box office opens at 10am; at around 10:15, someone comes out to tell us that line swapping is no longer allowed. After some brief argument with the people at the front of the line, we get an addendum – effective tomorrow. This is not helpful to us.
The hours start to blur together. I have a long conversation with the man behind us in line (at this point, no one is really positioned in a line – we’re ordered by knowledge and trust.) His name is Paul, and he’s a puppeteer. He works for Sesame Street and he hands us each a business card with his YouTube channel on it. He’s waiting for two tickets, one for him, and one for his fiancée, who also happens to be a puppeteer. He’s also an actor. We talk about the New York puppeteering scene, and about accents. When I tell him that I’m studying linguistics, he has a lot of questions. He says he’s thinking about going back to school, maybe studying linguistics, and wants to know what it consists of, outside of the phonological aspects. When he’s not talking to anyone, he has his head bent over a script, a dictionary of British accents by his side. The patches of sun shift, shining through the tunnel created by the tall buildings that bracket the street.
I follow some sun and sit next to two more people ahead of us in line, another father-daughter pair, Brent and Abby from North Carolina. They’re waiting for two tickets each, for them and Brent’s other two daughters. They had tried the line the previous Saturday, but had arrived too late, at 10am, to have any chance. Abby is fifteen, but seems older, the middle child of divorced parents. The previous night, she had waited outside the stage door with her sisters at the end of the night to meet the actors as they left. Abby’s eyes light up as she describes her interactions with the actors, as she conveys how kind and accommodating they had been. We bond over how much we hate the cold, and seeing the socks on my hands inspires her to pull out an extra pair and do the same. I learn that this trip to New York is one in a series of vacations in the last year. Abby’s dad hadn’t taken them on too many vacations before that, but once he realized that he hadn’t, he decided to make up for it with multiple vacations. When I ask Brent whether he actually wanted to wait in line or whether his daughter roped him into it, he says, “If doing this small thing makes my daughter happy, then I want to do it; I want to see the show, I want her to see the show.”
At around 12:30, we get asked to move to the side of the theatre and away from the steps. As we wait, one of the line sitters offers us his folding chair. I warm up to him a little. As we wait, the couple the girl with the sleeping bag was sitting for shows up and they switch out. One of them has already seen the show once, and I resent them a little. As we wait, people start to line up to get into the theatre, hundreds of high school students. As part of an educational program, schools have been given subsidized tickets to certain matinees so high schoolers can all experience this show that will change how they view history. It is unfortunate that it happens to be the day we’re waiting to get in. There are hardly any cancellations, and only five tickets are given out.
We are no longer confident in our chances, even for the evening show. Richard procures a single ticket, gives it to his friend, and leaves, wishing us luck as he does it. Paul the Puppeteer, and his fiancée (I want to call her Penny, Penny the Puppeteer) who joins him just before the matinee, decide their chances are too low and leave. I’m sad to see them go. We are no longer hopeful, uncertain of what we should do. Having spoken to the people in front of us, we establish that we are waiting for tickets #13 and #14. Should we give up? It’s been eight hours; we’re exhausted. It’s been eight hours; what are six more? We do not want to throw away our shot.
We get to know the people behind us. At 4pm, I go to procure us lunch, while Bee keeps our place. If we still want to quit after food, we will. We eat in sullen silence, and end up staying. Over the next few hours, people leave and come back; some of them don’t even bother to leave an anchor, just assuming that the communal knowledge that their pair was there at some point is enough for them to come back to it. We let it happen, but Bee and I are not happy about it, resentful that we didn’t get to do it, that if we didn’t allow them to come back we would be #9 and #10. We think about quitting, but when you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game. At 6pm, James the line sitter who gave us a chair gets his tickets. We all cheer for him, despite our jealousy, because he deserves those tickets after twenty-two hours. We think about quitting again. At 6:30pm, two more people get theirs – a girl and her mother, a girl whose father had held their place in line overnight but wasn’t going to see the show. We cheer again, but my cheers are empty.
As time passes, nothing happens; we sit there, more hopeless every second, as the sidewalk fills with people waiting to get in. I’m convinced we’re not getting tickets, only there to wait it out, no point giving up now. At 7:30, a guy walks by, and pauses to ask if we’re in the cancellation line. When we respond affirmatively, he tells us that he did it on Saturday, and that it was worth it. He says that he was tenth in line and that six people behind him also got in. He says that his seat was amazing, and that Joss Whedon was seated behind him. This last detail draws out a gasp from some of the listening group. It’s like he was brought to us, specifically to keep us from giving up. He’s like an angel of hope, and theatre, and God. We are united, we hope for each other.
At 7:55, people start to get called in, two at a time, until suddenly, we’re at the front of the line. It’s 8:03, and the show is supposed to start at 8pm, but we know it won’t until at least 8:05, and then suddenly, it happens, everything moving so quickly, and we’re inside. I walk in, having missed the first twenty seconds of the show, heart pounding, still in disbelief. I watch the first act, still in shock that I’m inside at all, and it’s phenomenal. At intermission, I see the others who went in before us, and I smile. I may not know their last names, I may never speak to them again, but we made it, and that’s enough.