In “Wait For It,” one of the many knockout songs in Hamilton, the play’s tragic villain Aaron Burr suggests that his patience and unwillingness to commit to an action until he absolutely has to are what’s kept him alive and successful, even as he notes that his frenemy Alexander Hamilton has risen above him while refusing to wait for anything.
Ordinarily, when it comes to consuming entertainment, I’ve played the role of Burr, hanging back and avoiding exposure to a show or film or album until it’s time to consume the whole thing, because I want to know as little as possible about what I’m about to see or hear or read. But with Hamilton, I couldn’t wait for it. With affordable tickets to the Tony and Pulitzer-winning sensation almost impossible to come by, and with every friend whose taste I trust raving about it, I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of the show’s original cast recording a year ago and listening to it, over and over and over again — sometimes alone, often with my Hamilton-obsessed kids (particularly once I mastered the art of muting the volume right before certain Hercules Mulligan lyrics) — eventually memorizing the entire album.
So when I was lucky enough to finally be in the room where it happens at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Sunday (having snagged tickets six months earlier after a Twitter follower warned me the show had unexpectedly released a block of seats), it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before with a work of art.
Hamilton lived up to every bit of hype, every expectation I had for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop recounting of the life of Alexander Hamilton and the birth of America. It reduced me to a blubbering mess not only in traditionally weepy moments like the ones dealing with the fate of Hamilton’s eldest son Philip, but scenes like the climax of the Battle of Yorktown. It was spectacular.
And it was even better, I think, because I had so thoroughly spoiled myself before going in.
Since the cast recording contains over 99% of everything sung, rapped, or spoken throughout the show(*), listening to it over and over felt as close to experiencing the show as we could get without actually being in the theater. And even then, we could watch all or parts of several numbers thanks to performances at the Grammys and Tonys, plus PBS’ great Hamilton’s America documentary.
(*) The one exception: the brief “Tomorrow There’ll Be More of Us” (aka “Laurens Interlude”), which Miranda has said he left off the cast recording so people who experienced the show in the order in which I did would get one new thing when they finally got to the theater. Of course, the audio for it is on YouTube, and I listened to that a bunch, too. FOMO is a tough condition to shake, kids.
Even in my younger days, when I was less of a spoiler-phobe and gladly watched trailers for and read articles about movies and shows I intended to see, I never remotely pre-immersed myself in a work of art to the degree I did here. This wasn’t even like reading the book that a movie is based on ahead of seeing the movie, since there can be big changes in the shift from one medium to the other; this was like having attended a few hundred Hamilton performances with a blindfold on and then finally taking it off so I could actually see as well as hear what the cast was doing.
This isn’t an approach I would consider under any other circumstances, and had I known I’d be seeing the show within a year, maybe I would have waited.
And I probably would have been wrong to do so — for this show, at least.
Hamilton is incredibly dense — lyrically, thematically, and emotionally. The rhyme schemes are so complicated, and often presented with such speed, that I couldn’t decipher a lot of the songs on first listen, or even 10th. (I eventually had to have the show’s companion book open on my lap as I listened to “Guns and Ships” before I could have a prayer of keeping up with Lafayette’s verses.) And that was without all the spectacle happening on stage to distract me! Beyond that, there are so many layers to the relationships between Hamilton and Burr, Hamilton and Eliza, Jefferson and Washington, etc., not to mention all the parallels between the doubled roles being played by certain castmembers in act 1 versus act 2, that I fear I’d have missed a lot going into the theater cold.
I’d have still loved it, I’m sure, because the material and execution of it are both so remarkable. And maybe I could have then backfilled my memories of the show itself by listening to the album as obsessively as I did ahead of time. But experiencing the show in the order in which I did allowed me to get everything I possibly could have out of the actual live performance.
Knowing the music and lyrics by heart, I could focus more on the staging, appreciating the logistics of the rewind in time during “Satisfied” without missing any of the emotions that Angelica was struggling with as she sang it. Moments in songs frequently took on new meaning when I could see what the performers were doing during certain lines, like the way Madison is struggling to compose himself in the wake of tragedy as he echoes Jefferson’s plea to get back to politics at the start of “The Election of 1800,” or the comedy of seeing King George on stage a few times outside his three funny solo numbers. Every detail of the choreography (say, the obnoxious Muhammad Ali-style dancing Jefferson does whenever he feels he’s gotten one over on Hamilton), the performances, and the sheer beauty of it all became incredibly vivid because I already knew exactly what was happening, what was being said or sung, and why.
Only two original castmembers remain, and I saw it in a performance with a pair of alternates (Michael Luwoye as Hamilton and Jevon McFerrin as Lafayette and Jefferson) to the second generation stars. While I’d have loved to see the original cast perform live, I was also intimately acquainted with their vocals and had at least seen snippets of them in character on TV, so it became a secondary treat to compare the new people to the (audio) performances I knew so well. Luwoye, for instance, is a stronger singer than Lin-Manuel Miranda, which helps on songs like “Hurricane,” though he doesn’t do all of the hip-hop homages (there’s no trace of Ja Rule in his take on “Helpless”), while Brandon Dixon offers a drier spin than Leslie Odom Jr. on a lot of Burr’s dialogue.
The context of the show has, of course, changed beyond the actors appearing in it. Lines like Lafayette and Hamilton’s exchange at the start of “The Battle of Yorktown” — “Immigrants.” “We get the job done.” — takes on much more power after the wave of anti-immigration rhetoric we’ve all been exposed to in this election cycle, just as Washington’s wise, eloquent, and dignified retirement announcement in “One Last Time” feels achingly in contrast to much about the modern state of U.S. politics, where getting and holding onto power at all costs motivates far too many.
All that was there, and so much more, and I never felt like any of it was sailing over my head or outside of my frame of reference, because I had boned up ahead of time. It was an incredible afternoon, and one enhanced enormously, I felt, by having gone in so thoroughly spoiled about all I was about to see.
I am, again, a pretty devout spoiler phobe, having gone so far as to establish concrete and strict rules for my commenters about what constitutes a spoiler — including things other people might consider non-offensive, like commercials for upcoming episodes — and is thus not allowed on my site. I’m perpetually annoyed when I learn about something big before I get to see it, whether the nature and timing of a death on Game of Thrones or if the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices now have a second floor(*). And for the most part, I’ve been glad to take that approach. Surprise certainly isn’t everything in entertainment, but it can still be a big part of it, and I like being surprised when it happens, and can be annoyed when I learn about a surprise long before a show or movie is going to reveal it.
(*) Okay, only Matthew Weiner cares about that. But you get my point.
But this weekend really tested my anti-spoiler beliefs, even before I got to see Hamilton.
On Saturday, I went to see Arrival, about which I had been warned by several people to go in knowing as little as possible beyond “Amy Adams talks to aliens.” Even the fact that I knew there would be a twist made me uncomfortable, because I have a tendency to spot twists before they’re revealed if I know they’re coming. But those were the only two details I knew before I watched the movie, which I found to be technically impressive, and with a great Adams performance, but a bit cold, distant and underwhelming, relative to the hype, until I began to realize what the twist was a few scenes before the movie itself explained it…
… and I quickly found myself wishing I had known the twist the whole time.
I won’t tell you what it is — you can read this Vulture story if you want to know — but I will say that it significantly changes the meaning of a lot of what comes before, and in one case transforms what felt like a particularly creaky trope into the entire tragic, beautiful point of the movie. The filmmakers lay clues for what’s happening, but mostly want to leave it as a surprise so we can understand it at the same moment Adams’ character does, but I think knowing from the start would have kept me more emotionally engaged, and would have made those scenes that felt like a drag hit much, much harder. My colleague Mike Ryan spoiled himself on the twist before watching, and wound up feeling like he enjoyed it more than he would have had he not known, while other friends have said that the movie plays very differently on second viewing (though not all agree that it’s inherently better that time).
Of course, I finished off my weekend with the Westworld season finale, where many of the surprises came pre-spoiled by fans who had crowd sourced the show’s various mysteries (or simply guessed the solutions on their own, as I did a couple of times), and I imagine I’d have enjoyed that season more had I watched it in an information vacuum. (Though it would have still had many flaws.) So I haven’t done any kind of full pro-spoiler turn.
But those three hours I spent at the Richard Rodgers, seeing a show for the first time even though I knew it so well that I could have sung along (badly) with nearly every number (if not all of “Guns and Ships” or “Washington on Your Side”), and loving every minute of it not in spite of that advance knowledge, but in part because of it, at least has me wondering if I want to be so militant going forward. Not every work of art is great enough, or complicated enough, to require the insane preparation I ultimately ended up doing for Hamilton. But the tsunami of emotion I experienced on Sunday was a reminder that, with the right material, knowing exactly what’s coming won’t make it hit any less hard, and can in fact make it hit more.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org