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How Hamilton’s Free Preshow Performance Became the Best Thing on Broadway

Two-and-half hours before each performance patrons may enter their name outside the theater for a chance to buy up to two $10 front row tickets. Winners' names will be drawn two hours before show time. Entrants must present photo ID, and the winners must pay with cash at the box office.
Lin-Manuel Miranda leading the November 25 Ham4Ham perfor­mance. Photo: Mark Peterson/Reduxpictures

Usually, the call goes out on Twitter before lunch. On the feed from @lin_manuel — that is, of course, Lin-Manuel ­Miranda, creator-songwriter-star-certified-MacArthur-Genius behind the musical Hamilton — the message is sometimes coy, nearly cryptic. “A fellow composer on tonight’s #Ham4Ham show! singing a song with some army wives for backup,” read one a few months ago. Doesn’t matter how specific it is: By 5:55 outside the Richard Rodgers, a thousand people will have shown up. They’re ostensibly there to wait in line and drop a slip of paper into a bucket, because seats in the front row, at $10 each, are offered by lottery each day at 6 p.m. The rest of the house is effectively sold out till next summer.

At 5:55, the theater’s door pops open, and Miranda steps out. He’s not in 18th-century dress; nobody here is in costume. He grabs a mike and revs up the crowd, which, in fact, doesn’t need any revving up: After all, these are the truest fans, most of them young, scrappy, and hungry, the ones who’ll wait in the cold or the heat because they can’t spend $167 for a seat. They are dying to see this show, and most of them won’t get to. Of those thousand people, 979 will turn around and head home. The next ten minutes are, mostly, for them.

The Ham4Ham performance changes every time. One Saturday in October, it was three men — Andrew Rannells, Jonathan Groff, and Brian d’Arcy James, who have each played King George — lip-syncing “The Schuyler Sisters,” a song usually delivered by Hamilton’s three principal women. (One of those women, Renée Elise Goldsberry, did the song’s lone male part here.) On other evenings, Ham4Ham is a celebration of people behind the scenes: A September session was dedicated to the show’s stage manager, bringing him out of the booth to call his tech cues on a PA setup as the cast performed “Ten Duel Commandments.” Another night, one of show’s stage-door guys, Angelo, spit almost all of Slick Rick lyrics (pretty credibly) with Miranda. Someone almost always holds up a cell-phone video camera, and the whole thing ends up on Twitter or YouTube, sometimes within minutes.

This is, as far as anyone can remember, unique. Nobody else has tried to offer the equivalent of a DVD extra, live, on a Manhattan side street, twice a week. “I’ve been telling people,” says Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, “that Hamilton is very much a glimpse of what it’s like to be inside Lin’s brain. And Ham4Ham is in the part of his brain where the happy thoughts live. I’m about 20 feet from his dressing room, and he gets so genuinely excited — almost as excited to do Ham4Ham as he does for the show. It’s an unprecedented thing, and I’ve never seen a response like this.”

The old-school lottery for inexpensive last-minute tickets. Photo: Mark Peterson/Reduxpictures

Has anyone? The advent of Twitter turns out to have created the perfect conduit between Miranda’s happy place and that of a million drama-club kids. The crowd that loved Glee but can’t get to New York can watch the videos from 46th Street almost in real time. “I feel like Broadway is finding its voice in that medium,” suggests Jackson. “The emergence of social media in the Broadway fan’s life — it’s sort of a serendipitous thing for us and for a lot of shows. I always wonder what Rent would’ve felt like through that lens.” It’s true, I offer: Social media is great at uniting groups with deep shared enthusiasms who are geographically scattered. “Which is the Broadway experience! They’ve got the cast album, they’ve got videos, they’ve got B-roll footage — and then, if I’m willing to put it out there, me walking my dog! And if I can share something, there’s no reason someone in Australia can’t respond to that.”

Plus, for the fans who do get to the ­theater and wait outside, it means the trip is never in vain. Though in winter it may be a little more challenging: Both for the fans and especially the singers, “everything is tougher in the cold,” says Jackson. But Miranda says he’s going to keep it going as long as he can. Ham4Ham has become a destination in itself, attended by people who have already seen the show and don’t bother with the lottery. In (as the Schuyler sisters sing) the greatest city in the world.

*A version of article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

How Ham4Ham Became the Best Thing on Broadway