The excitement was palpable. People stood in lines waiting to get into the theater, craning their necks, standing against the black silhouettes of the Schuyler sisters. Stressed staff members directed the crowd into the theater in long, twisting lines. The lobby was packed, teeming with audience members buying pre-show cocktails and merchandise and braving the line for the bathroom.
Near the front of the theater, I had a good view of the stage and of the rest of the audience awaiting the moment when the show would begin. The house was full, unsurprisingly, save for the two seats to my left. Their occupants showed up mere seconds before the lights dimmed, clutching drinks in plastic Hamilton cups and a bag of pretzels. They sat, unsmiling, and both immediately took out their phones. When the taped recording of King George politely asked the audience to turn off their phones, I proceeded to do so and waited for the couple next to me to do the same. They didn’t.
There is a very specific form of etiquette inside the theater that is generally followed and accepted. As theater is a live production, the audience is expected to participate with their attention and enthusiasm. And generally, they do. Theater, in this case the New York Broadway scene (pun not intended), is an interest that attracts a diverse audience every night, including everyone from tourists to purists. Theater performances require respect that the couple next to me—at one of the most accomplished and coveted shows of all time—utterly lacked.
Hamilton, as everyone knows by now, is utterly transformational. Thanks to a brilliant stroke of luck, I sat rapt, a mere six rows back from the stage, watching the actors sing and rap and dance their hearts out, faces shining with sweat, eyes alive with the narrative. I won’t go into detail about the astounding amount of creativity, intelligence, and diversity that went into its conception, although it is breathtaking, because the show itself is not under scrutiny. When Brandon Victor Dixon as Aaron Burr stood alone on stage during “Wait For It”, I watched, enthralled. Suddenly, a blue light flashed as the man to my left took out his phone, on full brightness, and casually answered a text. I stared at him with incredulity for a moment before turning back to the stage, only to be distracted again by the light as he checked his email. The cold blue reflected off of his face, clearly visible from the stage and to the actors. I half hoped they would call him out in the vein of Patti Lupone. Instead, oblivious to his tactlessness, the man continued to use his phone. I debated telling him to put it away, to focus on the show that he’d paid at least hundreds of dollars to see, but attempted to ignore him the best I could instead, unwilling to interrupt the magic of the moment.
During intermission, I caught snippets of conversations in the lobby, as one does.
“I think this time is better than the last time. Like, Hamilton is so good.”
“The other Eliza was way better. Like, way better.”
“When’re we seeing it again? February?”
Cursory research reveals that tickets to Hamilton, as most people are aware, sit at astronomical prices. Orchestra seats, the best seats in the house, run for nearly $1,000 per seat, while sold-out rear mezzanine seats resell for $900. From May 2017 to November 2017 on Sunday matinees—typically the easiest performance time to find tickets—these prices remain stationary. Although the creators of Hamilton have endeavored to make the musical available to public schools and young audiences—which is an exemplary effort—for this article I’m discussing the tickets available to the general public that don’t include the $10 lottery. If you’re paying $850 for a front orchestra ticket, and the show is 150 minutes minus intermission, it’s about $6 a minute to see Hamilton. That’s not a fee to scoff at, no matter how wealthy someone is. Why would someone elect to waste that experience and money texting and emailing, especially while attending the most coveted show on Broadway, maybe even the world? Because it’s not about the show.
I realized something as I walked back to my seat. Seeing this musical—a piece lauded by critics and catapulted into the theatrical hall of fame, a cultural phenomenon and coveted obsession—had become just that: an idea of status and privilege. Absent were the rapt expressions of audience members seeing the greatest show of their lifetime. Gone was the appreciation for and the support of a cast comprised mainly of minorities singing about immigrants who shaped our country’s founding. Instead, gum chewing audience members texted while the show unfurled, clacking bracelets and rings just so they could say that they’d seen Hamilton. The conversations I’d heard earlier solidified this hypothesis. Instead of exclaiming over the talent and cultural gravity, spectators lucky enough to have seen it multiple times critiqued and heckled it.
I’m sure there were people like me who were stunned at their fortune, but it frustrated me that, for the most part, the audience felt that the show was a given: that the musical that’s become a universal phenomenon became simply another way to spend one’s time, which is an assumption gilded with privilege. This mindset has reduced a story celebrating the diversity of humankind which has inspired dialogues around the nation from a learning tool to a flashy accessory. I wonder when this shifted. When did people decide that this show was to become a marker of status rather than, keeping with Hamilton’s theme of inclusivity, remaining easily available to everyone?
As a lover of musical theater myself, the elite fetishizing of Hamilton that I experienced disappoints me. When I go to a show, I want to be surrounded by an audience awestruck by originality and beauty, one that appreciates the cultural value of what they’re seeing. Hamilton is not just a show with universal appeal, but one crafted with a unique imagination and intelligence—Lin Manuel-Miranda is a stunning creator who imbibed his brainchild with nonstop energy and information. It seems painfully ironic that although Hamilton celebrates openness and ingenuity, its message has been limited to the elite, who, in turn, choose to spend this precious experience on their cell phones.