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Sweltering summer heat won’t stop hundreds from flocking to the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where a massive crowd has convened each day since mid-July with hopes of nabbing a front-row seat to Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s new musical that recounts the 18th century American history around Alexander Hamilton with hip-hop beats and pop balladry.
Yet as the buzzy off-Broadway import continues to sell out for the months ahead — and is attended by the likes of Robert De Niro, Paul McCartney, Judd Apatow, Anna Wintour and President Barack Obama — those vying for the 21 coveted, last-minute tickets (at $10 apiece, as Hamilton is on the bill) are rewarded daily with #Ham4Ham, a five-minute appearance by Miranda that’s different each day and has quickly become a Broadway event in itself.
“Thanks to you, we’re probably going to be here [on Broadway] awhile, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t win today,” the show’s creator and star, who made a splash with 2008’s In the Heights, shouted to a crowd of over 700 hopefuls outside the theater on the first day of previews. “I love you very much.”
“It was unreal — I couldn’t believe he was right there, I was just in awe,” said Alex Grant, a Dallas college student interning in New York City for the summer who was entering the lottery for her third time on Thursday. “To see him in person and only be 20 feet away from him, I never thought that would ever happen to me, and now it’s happened twice.”
Just as Hamilton puts a new spin on the traditional Broadway musical sound, #Ham4Ham refreshes the lottery experience and keeps entrants coming back to try again. The same-day discount ticket offer pioneered long ago by lead producer Jeffrey Seller can sometimes be a discouraging experience when demand for a show is so high.
But when not previewing the show’s material (by having fellow actors switch parts or beatbox into a megaphone), Miranda — casually dressed in his man-bun, T-shirt and jeans — is answering questions by only quoting Les Miserables lyrics, reviving In the Heights favorites with musical director Alex Lacamoire (and a melodica), rapping alongside repeat collaborator Jonathan Groff, and conducting as co-star Okieriete Onaodowan sings a Wicked hit — in a Mickey Mouse voice. Fridays are reserved for freestyle rap battles, and each unconventional performance is usually teased on Twitter beforehand – and shared vastly afterward.
“Even if you lose, it does make it worth it to come out and see a little show every time,” said Matthew Watson, a musician who’s entered the lottery nearly every day, despite his half-hour commute from Greenpoint. Approximately 500 people gather daily for #Ham4Ham. Said Rafael Ortiz, the show’s seasoned porter, “They’re all over the sidewalk and they spill into the street. It’s crazy! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The daily scene outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the ‘Hamilton’ lottery and #Ham4Ham preshow. Photo credit: Ashley Lee
Actor Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington in Hamilton, emceed the preshow ritual for Manuel on Thursday, introducing co-star Phillipa Soo as she covered Beyonce‘s “Halo” and strummed a ukulele. “Any night at the theater, you’ve shared a unique experience that will never exist again, so to do that for the 500 or however many people outside — and there’s a single-digit chance they’ll win a 10-dollar ticket — for me, completes the cycle,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re still in rehearsals, so our outside time is really short. But Broadway really only exists in one place, and these people are so vital to what we do. Their enthusiasm is palpable — it’s a lot of fun.”
Since the box office at Hamilton is already running hot on word of mouth, with no need for an extra push to stimulate ticket sales, then why invest so much energy in the lottery?
“Lin is very connected to the public and very aware of the social media connections in today’s world,” explained company manager Brig Berney, who runs the lottery with three office assistants. “I think it’s to get people excited.”
Rutgers University student Chris Corbo, who saw Hamilton during its record-breaking run at The Public Theatre, added, “Those front-row seats could go for top dollar, but it’s not about money at all. It’s about getting people in to see it, and getting people seeing the people seeing the show. It’s brilliant.”
There’s no word on whether the lottery entertainment will continue beyond Hamilton’s Aug. 6 opening, but if it does, Watson won’t be entering: He won a pair of tickets on Thursday — his 10th try. However, Grant, who left empty-handed, vowed, “I will be here trying to win until I physically move away.”
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