Fans are flocking to Hamilton's New York
By BECCA MILFELD | Special to The Washington Post | Published: July 21, 2016
As much as I really want to see the awe-inspiring, bayonet-bearing, knee-sock-wearing, hip-hop phenomenon that is the musical "Hamilton," I've been having trouble justifying the equally phenomenal price of tickets. So I created my own front-row Hamilton experience — which, unlike the play, involves almost no sitting. Instead, I spent a day and a half walking from one end of Manhattan to the other on what I've termed a Hamilthon. I was trying to catch a glimpse of perhaps the world's first consummate New Yorker: the real Alexander Hamilton, the one who doesn't sing.
And I was hardly alone.
From Hamilton's Harlem home to his grave in the Financial District, Alexander Hamilton's new, musical-induced fans are everywhere — many with tickets.
With the Tony-, Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning musical sold out through May of next year, it's hard to find tickets going for anything close to face value at secondary agencies such as Ticketmaster.
With delusions of paying far less, I signed up, fingers crossed, for the near-daily online lottery for $10 front-row seats. On average, more than 10,000 people enter for 21 tickets, but at the advice of "Hamilton," I was not throwing away my shot.
I started my tour of Hamilton's life in reverse order, at his grave-site, in Lower Manhattan. Nestled in the modern cityscape at Broadway and Wall Street is Trinity Church and its ancient graveyard, where the dead date to the 17th century and tombstones read like a who's who of "Hamilton" characters, on whose graves people now place rocks, coins and other mementos. A succulent houseplant was at the foot of Hamilton's grave on the April morning of my visit.
It's no wonder so many people love "Hamilton," which has won 11 Tony Awards and catapulted its creator and original star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to fame.
The musical tells the story of the $10 Founding Father, born illegitimately in the Caribbean and orphaned after his dad left and mom died. Despite his rough start, Hamilton would go on to become George Washington's right-hand man in the Revolutionary War, the first secretary of the Treasury (largely credited with creating the nation's financial system) and one of America's top Founding Fathers. The cast is multi-ethnic, and a portion of the plot, told via hip hop and other musical genres, centers on two women, Hamilton's wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, and her sister Angelica.
At Trinity, Eliza's grave is next to Hamilton's and Angelica is thought to be in a nearby vault belonging to the influential Livingston family. Hamilton's friend, the improbably named Hercules Mulligan, is several plots away.
"We don't have the official numbers, but we anecdotally know that there are more people that we see in the churchyard" since the musical opened, Trinity spokeswoman Lynn Goswick told me. Case in point: Our conversation was interrupted by a woman inquiring where Hamilton's son Philip is buried. (He died in a duel more than two years before his father. The church doesn't know whether he's in an unmarked grave or plot somewhere nearby.)
My logical next stop was the ancient dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey.
A quick Uber ride through the Lincoln Tunnel brought me to the cliff-top Hamilton Park, which stretches along the Hudson River and overlooks the bank where Hamilton was mortally wounded by Vice President Aaron Burr. The exact spot — approximately where Philip also was shot — is lost to history. But the picnic-perfect park reveals a phenomenal Manhattan skyline and a nearby bust of Hamilton marks the rough location where the statesman fell. Placed beside the bust is a rock that, according to legend, Hamilton leaned upon after being shot. People now throw pennies on it.
I asked a man who lives in the house directly opposite the bust whether he had witnessed the same Hamilton mania I had observed at the graveyard in Manhattan. No, he said, because New Yorkers think New Jersey is impossibly far away.
"Hamilton did not die in New Jersey, thank God. That is the worst thing that can happen to a New Yorker. They got him back into a boat. He did make it across to the West Village," said Jimmy Napoli, who leads Hamilton walking tours, including a "Hamilton's Wall Street" walk I went on. (For the record, I, too, took a boat back across the Hudson, in a ferry named "Alexander Hamilton.")
At $50, the walk is a fraction of the musical's price. And unlike Miranda, who gave his final performance as Hamilton on July 9 (the role is now played by his former understudy, Javier Muñoz), Napoli isn't going away anytime soon. In fact, he has been giving Hamilton tours for decades.
"I have great vision and foresight. Twenty years ago, when I became a tour guide, I said to myself, 'It's just a matter of time before somebody writes a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, and I'm going to be on the ground floor when that happens,' " Napoli told my tour group of seven with a laugh. He then went on to pull history from the pavement for three hours, explaining where critical events happened and the founding fathers once lived, spots now mostly covered by high-rise buildings.
With his fast-paced New York gusto, Napoli's could be the second best "Hamilton" show in town.
His favorite tour spot is Federal Hall, site of the First U.S. Congress, as well as the first Supreme Court and executive branch offices. But for me, the highlight was the room where it happens, the very location where Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Hamilton held a private meeting in which the two Virginians agreed to round up congressional support for Hamilton's plan for national assumption of state debts in return for Hamilton rounding up support to move the capital to Washington. The room, which was in Jefferson's house, no longer exists, built over by yet another office building.
My next stop would be a house with rooms where a lot of things happened: the only home Hamilton ever owned, his Grange estate. But not before saying goodbye to my tour at Fraunces Tavern, where the nascent Treasury Department once leased rooms and both Burr and Hamilton attended a meeting one week before their duel.
Over lunch, William Carter, a dad from Fredericksburg, Virginia, who brought his teenage daughter, Kayla, told us how at first he had doubts: "I said 'Rap and Hamilton? How dare you,' " but then was won over.
As Napoli put it, not only has Miranda "made Hamilton cool with the kids, I've got 80-year-old women from the South rapping in my face, which is really surreal."
With that, I headed uptown to the Grange, Hamilton's Federal-style house in Harlem in the shadows of what today is the City College of New York.
The house, originally located on approximately 32 acres, is named after the ancestral manse of Hamilton's Scottish father and was completed in 1802, back when Harlem was a rural community nine miles from today's Financial District. However, Hamilton was only able to enjoy the home for two years before he died. Since then, the Grange has been moved twice and now rests on a green hillside in St. Nicholas Park, not far from its original location.
A group of four women, three wearing "Hamilton" T-shirts, were on their way out as I arrived.
"Our visitation numbers have skyrocketed since the play came out and the demographics of the people have changed," said park guide Gregory Mance, who explained that history majors and school groups have given way to "everybody."
In the first half of last year almost 11,000 people visited, a number that nearly quadrupled to more than 40,000 in 2016, according to the National Park Service. The spike is no doubt due to "Hamilton," which opened off-Broadway in February 2015 and on Broadway in August of the same year.
Little is known about the home's interior, so only three rooms have been restored, including the dining room, where there's a replica of the four-bottle wine cooler that Washington sent as a token of friendship during the nation's first major political sex scandal — a torrid affair with Hamilton at its center.
After receiving an email notification that I did not win the "Hamilton" lottery, I stopped by the Richard Rodgers Theatre some 20 minutes before a show and took a spot in the cancellation line, where a lucky few might nab an affordable seat if the Founding Fathers were to smile down.
Standing towards the back, I didn't stand a chance. And I wasn't going to buy a ticket from the several questionable men hawking them at outrageous prices. For a moment, I even wondered after so many jogs to the beat of "Yorktown" and morning bus rides furtively jamming to "The Schuyler Sisters": What if the show wasn't . . . as good as I imagined?
"I was concerned when I saw it it wouldn't live up to the hype . . . and it blew away the hype," Napoli the tour guide, who has seen it twice, said.
Okay, so it apparently is awesome.
But with tickets selling in the high triple digits, as Burr would say, I was willing to wait for it.
Hamilton's New York tours
Take a walking tour of "Hamilton's Wall Street" or "Hamilton's Harlem," with the fast-paced Jimmy Napoli, who has been leading Hamilton-related tours for decades. His encyclopedic knowledge of the founding father and New York-style humor (expect a New Jersey joke or two) makes for a highly entertaining three-hour experience. Days and times vary. $50.