The first thing I noticed when I took my seat in the Upper West Side's Triad cabaret theater was Rachael Ray. She, her husband, and a group of friends were sitting at a table right up against the stage for a performance of Spamilton, Forbidden Broadway's parody of Hamilton (which was just extended for a second time, now through December 31). As I continued to scan the room, I heard the whispers of audience members seeing famous people — and looking over toward the bar tables to my left with "RESERVED" signs on top, I recognized theater agent John Buzzetti from my time in the agency world, then Hamilton director Thomas Kail, and then Lin-Manuel Miranda, with his newly 21st-century haircut. At that point, I knew: I wasn't just going to watch Spamilton. I was also going to watch Miranda watching Spamilton.
Created by Gerard Alessandrini, Forbidden Broadway has been parodying musicals since 1982. In 2008, Miranda's In the Heights was part of that year's edition, Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, but that wasn't Miranda's first run-in with the series — as he later told me, he remembers running out in 1996 to buy tickets to Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back, the compilation that included satirical takes on songs from Rent. Kail added that the Spamilton run had been circled on their calendars for a while. After years working on Hamilton and being caught up in the hype around it, watching their show get spoofed was going to be a relief.
This became crystal clear when Spamilton started. Unsurprisingly, Miranda, a cross between a theater, hip-hop, and comedy nerd, is a physical laugher. The first big laugh came simply from the sight of actor Nicholas Edwards in a cartoonishly large, yet undeniably accurate Daveed Diggs wig. It was when the jokes at Miranda's expense began, though, that I knew it was going to be a good night. The first two came during "His Shot," the show's version of "My Shot." (Though Spamilton includes many songs from Hamilton, they aren't in the same order as the original, and songs from other shows are also incorporated.) During a rap by the Lin-Manuel Miranda character (played by Dan Rosales) about how he's going to change Broadway, he explains that after In The Heights he's ready for something greater:
But experience was enough
I fin’ly reached my goal
And now I’m on a roll
Sometimes I screech notes unreachable
Real Miranda (from now on: Real Miranda is the guy who wrote Hamilton; Fake Miranda is the character in the show), whose laugh I could recognize from podcast interviews, laughed at this loud enough for at least Rachael Ray and I to hear. "Yeah, he made fun of my singing. That's all fair game," Real Miranda told me after the show. "If I can be okay with the praise, I better be okay with people making fun of my singing. If you can't take a joke, don't do this."
Real Miranda also took the next joke in stride — one about him and everyone's instant, cultish reception of Hamilton. As Fake Miranda rapped:
Oh, am I soundin’ too wise?
My verbage gets me excited
Run off at the mouth
I’ll tell you this is what I’ve waited for
I promise that I won’t compromise
To which a member of the cast responded, "Let's get this guy a Pulitzer Prize," mirroring the source material's line "Let's get this guy in front of a crowd." Miranda laughed with a big smile and shared a glance with Kail. A few songs later, Fake Miranda wrote a letter to Stephen Sondheim. The character sings (to the tune of "Dear Mr. Gable"):
True, I love Lynn Ahrens
And I'll ways thank Lynn
But to me you'll always be
Ben Sondheim Franklin
When actor Juwan Crawley walked out dressed as that mash-up of Sondheim and Franklin, the real Miranda's mouth dropped. His mouth stayed that way for the rest of Spamilton's Sondheim medley section.
When Fake Miranda sang (in the style of "Finishing the Hat"):
Finishing the rap
Look I made a rap
Where there never was a ... hat
Sondheim responded, "Rap? Hat? These are the rhymes that try men's souls," alluding to Miranda's use of slant rhymes, which may be common in hip-hop, but are traditionally a no-no in musicals. I looked at Miranda, covering his mouth he was laughing so hard. He remained in hysterics as Sondheim sang a parody of "Children Will Listen": "Children like rap today / But Children don't listen." Then actress Nora Schell came out, playing a singer tasked with the difficult feat of pulling off the vocal acrobatics of a Sondheim tune. She sang a version of Sondheim's "Another Hundred People," with lyrics like "Another hundred syllables came out of my mouth," mocking the composer's wordiness. Miranda moved his hands from his mouth to cover his eyes, as if to say, "I can't believe what I'm seeing."
A similarly fun reaction came at the end of "Book of No More," the song about how Hamilton affected Book of Mormon (a lyric: "Although we used to ’em in / We’re at the half-price booth"). Two of the actors were dressed like the show's iconic Mormons and held a sign that read “Book of Mormon — The Best Musical of the Century,” when Fake Miranda spray-painted over "of the century" and shouted, "Not anymore!" Real Miranda simply smiled and shook his head in an "Oh no, you didn't" sort of way.
A couple of songs later, after we'd heard "Book of No More," there was "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cries," a perfect parody of how Hamilton's closing number is such a cry-fest. An unquestionable highlight of Spamilton was in that song, when Schell, as Eliza Hamilton, sang, "Just when you think I can't wrench more tears out of you — I tell you about ...," to which the company responded as the company does in Hamilton: "The orphanage." And similar to how the company keeps singing "Time" to underline Eliza's words in the original, here the company sang throughout, "Cry." Real Miranda nodded along to each one, as if to say, "Yes, keep it coming." As he told me later, "Our finale is a relentless tearjerker, and they took it to the nth limit, so I laughed my ass off at that."
Still, that was nothing compared to what happened during Spamilton's penultimate number, a parody of "Room Where It Happens." Entitled "I Wanna Be in the Film When It Happens," the song features the Aaron Burr–Leslie Odom Jr. character singing about how he wants to be in the Hamilton movie, but knowing the producers will likely go with terrible movie stars instead. Brilliantly, the song built to a series of worst-case casting scenarios. With each, Real Miranda laughed harder and harder, bouncing with excitement:
LESLIE ODOM, JR.
Lady Gaga in
The film when it happens
Johnny Depp as Hamilton
LESLIE ODOM, JR.
What will they pay Lin
To get him to sell his performance down the river
Russell Crowe as Aaron Burr
Miranda exploded out of his seat, clapping and barking in laughter. It was a "Bernie Mac on Def Comedy Jam"–level audience reaction to that line. "I've seen Hollywood get it wrong so many times, so that was glorious to me," Miranda would tell me, describing that as his favorite song in the show. Then the tone and tune shifted for the finale, a take on "The Story of Tonight." Facing the audience, the actors sang, "Drink a Glass to Broadway."
Raise a glass to the best of us
Encouraging the rest of us
Search for your glory wrong or right
Write your own musical tonight
And that's the story of tonight
I looked over at Miranda. Jaw clenched, eyes glossy and wide, he looked like a kid. (The haircut helps). Through tear-blurry eyes, I could see clearly what this show meant to him and what shows in general meant to Hamilton. It's about finding a space in this community for you and your work. "'You're like me,' that's what this show is saying," Kail told me after the performance. "You were a kid who listened to these albums to get you through, so was I, so was Seth Rudetsky, so was Audra McDonald."
After the show, I asked Real Miranda if it was nice, after years of working on Hamilton, to be able to watch something that could give him an outside perspective on it. He responded with his smile, "It's nice to be able to watch anything, on any given night."