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Dream of seeing last original 'Hamilton' cast performance becomes reality

NEW YORK

Our heels click through Times Square, brushing against floor-length gowns as we anxiously make our way toward the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The marquee is out of sight until we're right up on it, black letters and a familiar image set against a gold background: HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL.

I'm with my best friend, Cameron "Cammie" Gagne, potentially moments away from seeing the original Broadway cast of the decade's most heralded musical, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning phenomenon, perform their final show.

Ticket holders form two lines on a drizzly evening, one that snakes around the alley of the Marriott Marquis next to the theater and one that extends way down 46th.

To get here, we plotted for months. We paid more than we ever thought we would for tickets seven rows from the stage. We drove through eight states in two days.

But the journey has been full of hand-wringing, uncertainties, moments of longing and frustration. For all of our planning, we still don't know one thing: With so many fake tickets being sold, will ours be real?

And if we do get in, will it be worth it? That's the question we've been asking from the beginning, as a dream turned into a determination that at moments made us question our sanity.

To take part in one of the biggest cultural moments of the year, and to do it with your best friend of 20 years, how far would you go?

• • •

It started two months ago: mid-April, and Cammie was visiting the Tampa Bay area from Munich, Germany, where she lives. We were sitting on my back patio when she first said it.

"Shel, I'm going to see Hamilton this summer. You have to come with me."

I laughed, and shared a knowing look with my fiance. I can't do that. The woman with the mortgage and the newspaper job and a fear of planes?

By that point, I knew most of the words to the Broadway cast recording. I checked creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's Twitter account daily. But I never imagined seeing the show. Cammie has always been one to find possibility where I found fear or doubt. If this show existed in the world at this moment, she thought, and it was possible to see it, why wouldn't we try?

A few weeks later, we texted about what the details of such a trip would look like, thousands of miles apart now but relying on our borderline supernatural ability to be inside each other's heads at all times. That happens when you've known someone since first grade. Now we're 28. In the intervening decades, Cammie and I stayed close in a way we often marvel at. We have moved on parallel tracks in two different universes our whole lives. Our minds are intertwined in a way that we just recently realized must be because we helped raise each other.

Why the focus on this show?

We related to the spirit of young people rising up, of changing the world with a pen, of doing what you love while you can. And there was Miranda himself, the ultimate Theater Kid, a passionate, accessible artist who became a major part of the appeal.

It felt like this show came into our lives then for a particular reason. It found Cammie, a lifelong performer who had spent days after school in rehearsals for a show, in dance classes, in voice lessons, during a time in her life when she needed it. For me, it was stress relief. I started a new job last year, bought a house in January, am getting married in October. Whenever all of the adulting became too much, I thought about Hamilton. It provided both of us with a chance to do something really big, before we become more entrenched in our adult lives.

• • •

By the time Cammie and I decided that seeing Hamilton was a top life priority, the rest of the world was paying attention. Official Ticketmaster tickets had long been sold out. When we first looked for seats in April, Ticketmaster rerouted us to its official resale platform, which had hundreds of seats for sale, none less than $500.

It was here that we had to pause and decide exactly what seeing this show was worth.

We calculated how much money other people spend on other big-ticket items: $300 for a Kate Spade purse, $500 for a 55-inch TV, $1,200 for season tickets to Tampa Bay Buccaneers games. A friend at work tells me she spent $1,000 easily on makeup last year.

How much do you buy every week, every month, that you could do without? That doesn't mean anything to you a year later?

My fiance and I started referring to dollar amounts in terms of "Hamilton tickets." This many car payments. This portion of our mortgage payment. How many days of work.

"These kind of moments in life, these are the ones that allow you to kind of go beyond the mundane, to raise yourself to a higher level," said Jamie Goldenberg, a social psychologist for 10 years at the University of South Florida. Most of Goldenberg's research at USF deals with the existential perspective of life, and specifically how a fear of death can drive us to look for significance and to create meaning in life. That's exactly what she saw in our Hamilton quest.

"This is the hottest show on Broadway, and you'd get to see it. That's a successful moment for you as a cultural member of society."

• • •

Time to buy tickets. At this point, the market was extreme, with seats selling for four or five times what normal Broadway shows (which average around $100 to $200, depending where you sit) go for.

We scoured the thriving secondary market, sites like StubHub, Seat Geek and Vivid Seats, that supplies tickets at a lower cost than the Ticketmaster resaler.

We looked at dates, deciding that mid-July was best for a variety of factors. But I'm nervous about making a choice, because the day is paramount. Our goal is to see the original Broadway cast in the roles they created, especially Miranda but also the rest of the performers we've listened to countless times. At that point, there was no guarantee any of them would be there much longer.

After some hard-core Internet sleuthing, I realized the cast might be gone by mid-July: Previews for the show started at the Rodgers on July 13, 2015, and Broadway cast contracts typically last for one year.

We agreed that getting orchestra seats off to the side instead of head-on was the best option for the least amount of money. Even if we can’t see the full scope of the stage, we’ll be able to see Miranda’s sweat.

We settled on July 16. We found seats for about $700, a price that is higher than either of us has ever shelled out for entertainment, but still less than about half of the other ticket options. 

On April 28, I clicked “Purchase.”

By the middle of May, things escalated. I checked Twitter and reddit.com weekly for news of the main cast's departure, and the fear that the original players would be gone by the time we saw it — or that the tickets we purchased were fake — grew every day.

At this point, Cammie and I were all in, buoyed by the show's many seize-the-day platitudes that we turned into cliche mantras:

I am not throwing away my shot.

Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Hamilton was the reason for the trip, but now it was also about our friendship, about experiencing something we'd remember forever. It was about having something beyond the monotony of everyday life.

"This kind of stuff does create meaning," Goldenberg said. "There are so many stupid things that people spend money on and spend time doing, and they are insignificant. Things that lift you to a higher level, or things that you will remember, that's what we seek."

• • •

The line outside the theater starts moving promptly at 7:30 p.m., and I fumble to get tickets from my purse, unfolding the two pieces of printer paper with shaky hands.

We approach the doors. They check our bags. One guy rolls his eyes and says it's this frenzied every night.

We're through the doors. I hand over the tickets to an usher, who scans them. Beep.

• • •

On the morning of June 2, the Hollywood Reporter published a story citing a rumor that Miranda would be leaving the show July 9. One week before Cammie and I are supposed to see it.

We decided within minutes that we had to do what it takes to get tickets for July 9. So hours after that story was published, we searched for new tickets, surprised that prices on the secondary market aren’t higher than they are in light of the news.

We find some for about $1,200 each — in the same row as our other tickets — and buy them immediately with credit cards, putting our tickets for July 16 on sale that very night. We are confident that since they’ve now nearly doubled in value since April we’ll be able to sell them on the same secondary market from which we bought them.

At this point, there is no turning back.

• • •

The Tonys aired on June 12, and Hamilton was the star of the evening. But there's still no official word about who's staying, who's leaving. With less than a month to go, I wondered if we made the right decision.

That night, one of our tickets for July 16 sold. Four days later, so did the other — at almost $1,200 each.

Weeks after rumors started trickling out, a news release made it official that Miranda was leaving July 9. Phillipa Soo, who played Eliza Hamilton, and Leslie Odom Jr., the show's co-lead Aaron Burr, also confirmed their departures.

Friends and family who knew I originally had tickets for July 16 were concerned about my well-being. One friend even called me on the phone to see how I was doing.

Cammie and I rarely texted or talked about the actual event except in small bursts of excitement, both afraid to admit that we feared this might not happen, that something would go awry. And we certainly didn't tell anyone else about it. But we knew we just bought tickets for what could be Miranda's final show. It's like we have a secret.

"It's something you remember and care about more because you're doing it with your best friend," Goldenberg said. "So much of life, we don't really know if we're connecting with people on that level," she says. "But this whole quest has been something that you guys did together. You're having this similar experiential situation and you're doing it together, and that makes it a unique closeness."

Cammie and I felt that every step of the way, but I don't think we are prepared for how much we feel it as we walk into the Richard Rodgers Theatre together, two of about 1,300 people poised to experience this night.

• • •

Twenty minutes until showtime, and Cammie and I are in. Our tickets were real. Our plan worked.

We take our seats, seven rows from the stage. Like most Broadway theaters in old buildings, the Rodgers is intimate to the point of being cramped. The stage is right there. We see celebrities in the audience: Aaron Paul, Jane Fonda. At 8 p.m., Secretary of State John Kerry walks into the theater, taking his seat to applause.

The house lights dim. Leslie Odom Jr. walks out to the opening chords of the show's first song, Alexander Hamilton. I gasp, grab Cammie's hand. A minute later, Miranda walks on stage to a 30-second standing ovation. When he starts to rap, I realize we can see the spit coming from his mouth.

Reality begins to sink in. I spend most of the evening in a state of wonder, the astonishment of what we're seeing overpowered by how engaging and entertaining the show is.

Cammie and I brace for moments we love on the soundtrack. We appreciate all the nuances of a live show, the things you can't know unless you're there in person: the stunning choreography, how the ensemble flips props upside down during Hurricane or how the entire set rewinds itself during Satisfied; a purple velvet-clad Daveed Diggs strutting down a set of stairs as Thomas Jefferson, the audience instantly putty in his hands.

Miranda's face telegraphs reactions that run the gamut of human emotion. Multiple times throughout the evening, he openly weeps. When he smiles, we smile. It’s hard to tell at any given moment whether he is acting, or just living with his soul split wide open. At the end, he takes a final solo bow, an endearing, humble gesture.

We can hardly walk as we leave the theater. My legs are shaking. There are no lingering questions of worth, just a warm feeling in my gut and a mushy feeling in my brain.

• • •

Outside, a crowd is cheering something happening overhead. Miranda is pacing an upstairs balcony in the rain for a moment or two. We cross the street to check it out, and miss him by a second. But we're right next to a pizza place, and starving.

I know from Twitter that Miranda loves this place, and the guys behind the counter aren't shy about telling us his order: chicken sandwich with lettuce and mayo. We order two slices of pizza, and perch outside under an awning.

Moments later, Miranda pops his head out of a window on the side of the theater, and the dense crowd starts up again.

He gazes wide-eyed at the crowd, at us, because we're there, we're part of the frenzy. We saw him perform his last show as Hamilton, and now he's hanging out of a window with his shirt undone, beckoning to the loud crowd on the street as if he were Evita.

A few seconds later, he's gone. But Cammie and I are still there, gazing toward the Rodgers, heels wedged between a sewer grate, together.

Cameron Gagne contributed to this reportContact Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.

Dream of seeing last original 'Hamilton' cast performance becomes reality 07/21/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2016 11:08am]
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