The biggest thing to hit Broadway since…. well, ever, is a musical about one of the founding fathers of America. It’s the hottest ticket in New York. The show is sold out for as far into the future as you can buy tickets. You can get scalped tickets in pairs for as low as $1000 for a partial view seat in the rear of the theatre. For a good seat you will pay $3500 on Ticketmaster. You might find cheaper tickets through Craigslist, but many (or most) are counterfeit. And the theater won’t check to see if yours are real or not until you actually try to walk in the door – so there is no way to be sure.
There are two other ways to get tickets.
Every day the show runs a lottery and hands out a handful of tickets to those lucky enough to win. Traditionally this is done live in front of the theatre, but it got so popular with Hamilton that they moved the process online. Online made it easier and now the rumor is there are over 50,000 people a day who enter the lottery. If you win the lottery you pay $10 for a front row ticket.
The second “cheap” way to get a ticket is to line up in the cancellation line. The name of the “cancellation line” dates back to when people would cancel their tickets for a night and the show would re-sell them in the cancelation line. That doesn’t happen anymore. When scalped tickets are selling for $3000, do you think people are cancelling their tickets and returning them to the theatre? Nope.
But the cancellation line still exists. Just before show time the theatre will release two sets of tickets. The first group are lottery tickets that went unclaimed. The second set are tickets in the tenth row of the theatre that the show holds back until the last minute. Tenth row seats are pretty amazing. Why would the theatre hold back those seats and not sell them? Two reasons: If Hilary Clinton shows up and wants to see the show, the theatre wants to make sure she can see the show. The PR from the visit is worth something to the production. So they need to hold back tickets just in case that might happen. The second reason is more common: There is a professional reason why someone needs to see the show. Maybe an actor she is up for a movie part and the director wants to see her in action? Maybe the set designer for the Chicago production of Hamilton wants to see the set “in action” to see if the changes he wants to make in Chicago will work in practice? For any number of reasons the show may need to make a seat available. So they hold back about twenty of the best seats in the theatre just in case – and then release them five to thirty minutes before the show starts.
The theater sells the cancelation line tickets for face value (which has been going up, but is still only $199 as of this writing). So if you are willing to invest your time instead of your dollars you can get a great seat for $199. How much time? In April you could be very confident you would get a ticket if you waited in line for twelve hours.
April was when my wife and I locked down plans to be in New York in late June. April was when I decided I wanted to see the show while the core cast was still together. April was when I started looking into options.
The cancelation line looked like the best option. I found a company that were professional line sitters (only in New York). They charged $20/hour to wait in line for you. So for $20 x 12 = $240 I could have someone wait 12 hours in line and get two tickets (each person in the cancelation line was allowed a ticket for themselves plus one guest). Since tickets at the time cost $177, it meant I had found a way to get two tickets for $240 + $177 x 2 = $594. I could see the show from one of the best seats in the house for under $300. Done.
Only it wasn’t done.
The first thing that happened was other people started figuring out the same solution. The cancelation line grew and line sitters needed to wait for up to 24 hours instead of 12 for a ticket. It was now $413/ticket. A lot more expensive but still much less than other options.
But we weren’t done yet.
The theatre changed the rules. They didn’t like that people were waiting in line for 20+ hours and then selling the tickets. The new rule was the person in the line had to go directly into the theatre (with their +1). So now if you wanted two tickets you needed to hire two line sitters – and pay for their tickets as well (I guess that was a nice new side benefit to the job?).
At the same time the theatre banned the use of folding chairs and tents for line sitters. They now had to brave the elements. This caused the willingness to wait to drop and the lines shrank in length. But only for a short time. It wasn’t long before they were back to 24-hour long waits.
But we weren’t done yet.
Hamilton won some Tonys. A lot of Tonys.
The lines got longer.
Then Lin-Manuel and the other two leads announced they would be leaving the show in early July. If you did not see the show before July 9th, you would never see the core cast perform what many were calling the greatest musical in Broadway history.
So the lines got a LOT longer.
By the end of June the expected wait was over 72-hours to see the show. If you paid a line sitter for 72 hours and bought their ticket, it was now going to cost you $1794 to see Hamilton. You might as well buy a scalped ticket at that price. The market had finally become “efficient”.
But I still wanted to see the show.
I searched for options on Craigslist. The problem with using Criagslist is that the site is terrible. Ticketmaster and Stubhub affiliate websites post advertisements constantly trying to stay in the top positions on Hamilton searches. If you use Craigslist the basic way you will never find individuals posting anything – just lots of digital marketer spam. Thankfully I already knew the solution. I had had the same problem looking for a condo to rent a few years ago. By writing and iterating on a simple macro I was able to weed out the digital marketers (who tended to re-post the same content over and over). I was left with a handful of posts by real humans.
Most of the posts were people trying to sell their individual tickets. Lin-Manuel himself has warned against buying from those people. It’s impossible to verify if their ticket is real – so selling fake Hamilton tickets has become a new target for scam artists in the city. But I looked anyway.
I found some guys who were traveling to New York. The three of them were going to make an adventure of it. They were going to line up on Monday and just wait until they got into a show. Maybe that would be Wednesday. Maybe Thursday. Maybe Friday. They would wait as long as it took. And since they were all waiting together they would each have a +1 available to sell. They proposed the deal on Craigslist: $999 a ticket. They found buyers. I was one of them.
But we weren’t done yet.
On Sunday June 26th a film crew descended on the theatre to film the show before the cast broke up. They would need to use all of the “cancelation seats” for the film crew, directors, etc. So they canceled the cancelation line from Sunday to Tuesday. The line would open again on Wednesday at 530pm. My three line sitters couldn’t get started waiting in line until Wednesday. But the rumor was that the first line on Wednesday would be a free-for all. The line would be created at 530pm “first come first serve”. Whatever that meant. Getting in line first at 530pm means you would wait in line for 2.5 hours to see the show. If the market prices did not change, 2.5 hours would be worth free ticket to Hamilton (selling for $3500) plus the ability to sell your second ticket for $800. $4300 in value in 2.5 hours, or about $1700 per hour. That’s pretty good money. Deciding who would be “first come” to get in line was going to be madness.
I changed my flight so I could be in NYC on Wednesday. I was at the theatre well before 530pm, ready to be one of the “first to come”. But it was not to be. The line handler just asked, “Who is first in line?” A woman raised her hand. Everyone around her agreed. “Who’s next?”, “I’m number two!”. And the line formed in a very orderly fashion based on earlier agreement among the experienced line sitters. The line sitters had self-organized away from the theatre and the theatre was honoring their self-organization. The three guys who were going to wait for me didn’t know the organization had been happening and were caught flat-footed. They waited until the line was formed. Then they sat down with a guy with a notebook. Notebook-guy was keeping track of the order of the line. The guys I had set up the deal with were now #72-#74 in line. Traditionally about ten people get in off the cancellation line each show. So if no one ahead of them dropped-out they would get to see a show in about a week. I didn’t have a week to wait.
I initiated Plan C. I talked to the people at the front of the line and asked them if they would be willing to sell their +1 ticket. They acted like I had asked them if I could buy their only child. The two women in positions #2 and #3 didn’t even have +1s but they thought it was offensive to sell the extra tickets they had earned by waiting in line. I didn’t let their judgement deter me. I continued down the line asking if anyone had a +1 they would be willing to sell me.
When I got about 15 people from the front a woman made eye contact with me and laughed. “Sure I’ll sell you my +1. For like a thousand dollars!”. I immediately responded, “Sure.” She was taken aback. She definitely was not expecting that answer.
But before she could respond, a woman in front of her said, “I’ll give you my +1 if you pay for my ticket.”
I said, “I’ll do better than that. I will buy both tickets and give you $400.” (That would be $800 total. Cheaper than the earlier deal I had arranged)
She said, “No. Just pay for my ticket. That would be fair.”
The women behind her in line spoke up, “You can’t do that. We are waiting. It means we will have to wait longer. It’s not fair.”
My +1 seller responded, “It’s fair. I was always going to have a +1. I was going to go with my sister and she was going to pay for my ticket. But now she can’t come. I can do it with someone else.”
The complaints stopped but I didn’t want this to be more of a scene than it already was. I traded phone numbers with the woman (we will call her Andrea. Let her keep her unanimity) and I got out of Dodge.
I texted her from across the street and we worked out the details. When she got to the front of the line, I would enter as her +1. I would pay for both of our tickets and we would enter the theatre together. I asked if there was anything else I could get for her, but she said she didn’t need anything. Apparently she had been waiting in the “fake line” since Tuesday morning.
Since, on average, ten people would get in off the cancelation line per show, we thought the likeliest scenario was we would get into the Thursday show. Which was perfect since I needed to be at the wedding rehearsal dinner on Friday. I went to see Fun Home that night two blocks away. If she got lucky and got in that night I would have time to run back (and abandon my Fun Home seat). I didn’t need to run. Only 3 people from the cancelation line got in that night.
The “ten people per show” was the average, but this was not an average week. There were no cancelation seats the previous two shows. And there were only a dozen shows left before the cast broke up. The cancelation seats were being used, so there were a lot less tickets available for the people in the cancelation line.
One person in front of her dropped out of line. That put her in the 8th position on Thursday. I crossed my fingers.
On Thursday the show sat five people from the line. I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (fantastic play). Two people in front of her dropped out (Which is amazing by itself. These people had been waiting since Tuesday morning. They just missed getting into the Thursday show, and they had to leave NYC, so they left without any payoff). She was in first position for the Friday show.
I called my wife. My amazing, supportive wife said it was okay that I miss the wedding rehearsal dinner to see Hamilton (but I better not miss the train to Long Island on Saturday morning. I was quizzed on what time the wedding was scheduled to start).
Friday night. It was going to happen.
I got to the theatre an hour before show time. Andrea and I stayed in touch with text. I was ready to join her when she was called into theatre. This was really going to happen. Ten minutes before the show was scheduled to start she sent me another text from Andrea:
“I’ve already seen the show twice from the 10th row. I really want to see it from the front row – a cancelled lottery ticket. If they don’t have any lottery tickets tonight I decided I will pass and just hold my spot in line for tomorrow. Don’t worry. They always have at least one lottery ticket. And I’m first in line so I get first choice.”
My heart dropped. There was still something that could go wrong.
I told her there was no way I could miss the wedding on Saturday. She said we should just cross our fingers and hope for the best. I crossed.
Five-minutes before show time they called her up. I cut across the line to join her (the line guard said something to me. I inarticulately said something about being a +1 and just kept going).
She was already at the ticket gate when I got there having a discussion with the seller. There were no lottery tickets. He asked her, “Do you want these?”
“Yes. I will take them.”
“Thank you” I said.
I paid for the tickets. They were in the dead center of the tenth row. Arguably the best seats in the house.
We walked into the theatre and I took a picture of the stage. I couldn’t believe it all worked out. Wow.
We made small talk before the show. She explained how the cancellation line worked. The line-waiters had created their own set of rules. You were allowed multiple breaks during the day for about ten minutes at a time to get food or go to the bathroom or whatever else you needed to do. You were also allowed one two-hour break a day if you wanted to go somewhere and shower (or whatever else you wanted to do for those two hours).
This was the third time she had waited in line. The first two times she had taken her parents (one to each show). The first two times she waited she was very prepared. She had a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, toiletries, and everything she needed to make sleeping on the streets of New York as comfortable as possible. This time she wasn’t so prepared. She was walking by the theatre trying to get some signatures from the cast when she saw the line forming. On impulse she joined the line.
“How did you sleep at night?”
“I knew someone else waiting in the line. She let me share her sleeping pad and blankets.”
Wow. That was dedication.
So how was the show?
To say it was the greatest theatrical experience I have ever had would not be doing the show justice. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had. My wedding was better. Finding out my wife pregnant had a healthy baby inside her was better. The baby’s birth was better. The time Evi climbed up on the couch all on her own and then turned the couch into a slide was better. Seeing gorillas in the wild in Rwanda was better. Successfully coaching a high school improv comedy team to the national championships was better. I think seeing Hamilton comes next.
A close friend who had seen the show in April told me (after I saw the show): “It was not only the best theatre I have ever seen; I think it might be the best theatre experience I will ever see.”
I hope that’s not true, but I have a feeling it is.
The first half of the show pulls you in. Between the cast breaking up and the audience knowing how exclusive the tickets are, everyone was loving every moment. When Lin-Manuel said his first line, “My name is Hamilton”, the audience broke into applause for twenty seconds. The music had to stop while we waited for people to calm down.
The second half of the show tears at your heart. We all know the ending, but it didn’t matter. I cried multiple times in the second half. I was still crying during my walk back to my friend’s apartment. The show was as perfect as a piece of theatre could be.
Now that the three leads have retired, is it still worth it?
I’ll bet the answer is yes.
Lin-Manuel, the wunderkind who created the show is excellent as the lead. But his genius is not in performance. It is in creation. While it is amazing to see the creator on stage, I am sure his understudy’s actual performance will be no worse. You may enjoy seeing Lin more, but only in the same way you might enjoy a really expensive bottle of wine more. If you didn’t know it was more expensive you likely would not notice much difference.
Leslie Odom Jr is the other male lead. He plays Aaron Burr and he is incredible. He won the Tony (beating Lin), and deservedly so. He humanizes Burr so much that it is hard to even see him as the villain. He was my favorite performer in the show. I would go and see anything he was in. But is he irreplaceable? I don’t think so. He made the point himself that African American Broadway performers are under-valued. That’s terrible for the performers (and for what it says about society). But it also means that there are fantastic African American performers that are “waiting in the wings” to take on the Aaron Burr role. His first replacement will be a multiple Tony award winner. I expect he will be fantastic.
Phillipa Soo is the female lead that plays Eliza – Hamilton’s love interest and wife. She also won a Tony and is also incredible. She is leaving to star in Amelie. Is she irreplaceable? I don’t think so. I am sure they will find other amazing accesses to take on the part.
So far the rest of the cast is still sticking around.
And that is important.
The rest of the cast is outstanding. Christopher Jackson plays George Washington (He was also nominated for a Tony). Renee Elise Goldberry plays Angelica and I think is even stronger than Phillipa. They are great performers, but the show will find other great performers to replace them in the other shows in Chicago, London and Los Angeles (even if they aren’t AS great).
But two cast members will be a lot harder to replace.
Okeriete Onaodowan plays Hercules Mulligan in the first half of the show and Madison in the second half. Okeriete is not a Broadway performer. He is a rapper. He has a deep voice and a compelling presence on stage – in the same way Dr Dre is commanding when he performs. It will be difficult to find someone interested in Broadway that has his unique abilities.
But it will be possible. By fishing in a completely different pool, casting agents will be able to find rappers with something approaching Okeriete’s presence. I am very curious to see who will be playing Madison in the Chicago show.
But while it will be difficult to replace Okeriete, it will be practically impossible to replace Daveed Diggs.
Daveed raps in French with a French accent in the first half of the show playing the Marquis de Lafayette. He opens the second half as Thomas Jefferson, rapping with a Southern twang. Both roles have fast, difficult songs. For the same reasons as the Madison role, it will be difficult to replace Diggs. But while Okeriete is primarily a stationary presence, Diggs bounces across the stage. He dances. He performs. He sings.
To replace Leslie they need to find a top notch Broadway performer (hard, but done all the time).
To replace Okeriete they need to find a top notch rapper (hard, but possible with new search strategies)
But to replace Daveed they need to find a top notch rapper who is also a top notch Broadway performer. I am sure they will find someone, but I imagine compromises will have to be made.
Which means my recommendation is: Even though the show has lost three of their lead performers, the place to go and see the show is still New York City. I am sure the show will be great in Chicago and London and LA. But you will still have a premium experience seeing it with what is left of the original cast in New York.
Frankly watching Daveed Diggs alone is worth the price of a $3000 ticket.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you have missed your chance with the original. But the show in New York is the next best thing. If you have the money, buy a ticket to New York and a scalped ticket and see the show. If you don’t have the money, mortgage your house and see the show. If you don’t have a house, hitchhike to New York and get in the cancellation line. My bet is the line will drop down to a 24-48 hour wait.
It’s cheaper than going to Rwanda to hike with gorillas.
The three guys who I originally contracted with who ended up #72 in line? They kept waiting. They finally got to the front of the line in the #1 position on Saturday July 9th: Lin-Manuel, Leslie and Phillipa’s last show. They found buyers for their +1s. Instead of the $1000 I was ready to pay, they found buyers at $1400. And they got a chance to see the final performance. Scalpers on Ticketmaster were asking as much as $20,000 for that show. I expect they thought the ten-day wait in line was worth it.