Forty-three years ago on Independence Day, I made my one and only appearance on a theater stage, playing a minor role in the musical “1776.”
Thanks to an otherwise talented cast of local actors and singers, we packed the DeKalb High School auditorium for three nights with the story of the nation’s founding.
It was a fun show, and obviously popular, but it doesn’t compare to the phenomenal “Hamilton” that hit the stage four years ago and keeps on filling seats with the story of the American Revolution and the early days of our nation.
By this spring, after waiting patiently for the right opportunity, I thought Betsy and I might be the last “Hamilton” fanatics who still hadn’t seen it live.
Turns out there were plenty of others like us, when Hamilton rolled into East Lansing, Michigan, around Memorial Day.
Betsy and I had listened to the soundtrack of “Hamilton” dozens of times, practically memorizing the lyrics — and there are a lot of words in the show, at its record-setting pace of 144 per minute.
Within a year after it came out, our grandchildren could sing along to “Hamilton” from the back seat of our car without missing a beat. They were lucky enough to see it in person a couple of years before us.
So what was keeping us? For starters, check the ticket prices online. Then imagine fighting through traffic to downtown Chicago and paying a fortune to park, or else taking a slow train from Waterloo or South Bend. It would be too late to head home after the show, so count on triple digits for a hotel room.
This spring the perfect opportunity arrived when “Hamilton” brought its road show to Michigan State University. It’s only a 90-minute trip up Interstate 69. Traffic jams are nonexistent. I knew exactly where I was going without need of a map.
The price remained an obstacle — but with the objections trimmed down to a single category, it was time to check “Hamilton” off our overflowing bucket list.
Everything went smoothly except for a blinding rainstorm somewhere around Marshall. The sun was shining again by the time we arrived, and parking was free in a garage two blocks from the theater.
The university’s splendid, new auditorium seats 2,500, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. We know, because on our budget, we were four rows from the top.
Even viewed from such a distance, “Hamilton” put on a show that was everything we could have wanted.
The road production obviously does not feature the original cast members, who made themselves famous and moved on with their careers. They’re not even the cream of the replacement performers, because those get permanent gigs in major cities. Still, they put on a fabulous show. The creative staging and lighting stood out as much as the actors.
I paid as much or more as I’ve ever shelled out for a sports or entertainment event, and “Hamilton” was worth every penny. I’m still searching my memory banks to think of a better spectator experience.
Most people in the theater paid even more than me, but I’m astounded by the show’s ability to pull in the crowds as it approaches four years old. The Lansing area is smaller than Fort Wayne, but the production drew some 30,000 people over a two-week stay.
I remember when I first heard about “Hamilton” — described as a “hip-hop” and rap musical about America’s Founding Fathers with African-Americans and Hispanics playing many of the leading roles. Like that’s going to work, I scoffed.
Then I — and the rest of the world — heard the music and the under-appreciated story of Alexander Hamilton’s improbable life. After a glorious run as a young man, he meets a tragic ending. A sitting vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, kills the former secretary of the treasury, Hamilton, in a duel. Earlier, Hamilton had ensnared himself in a scandalous extramarital affair that torched his political career.
Imagine what cable news could have done with that set of facts.
We didn’t learn the story in history books, and rightfully so, because the composer bent a few facts to make the story even more compelling.
Walking out of the theater, you’re left with the thought that if a brand-new America could survive that juicy, crazy chain of events, our mature nation should be able to endure whatever problems we’re facing now.