Let's get this out of the way: Hamilton, which opens in San Francisco this week, is way more than a musical at this point.
The Hamilton that barreled into town last night at the Orpheum Theatre for a four-month touring run is a cultural phenomenon, a juggernaut, an 18-wheeler of theater. Ticket sales in San Francisco caused the largest stampede of people willing to part with their hard-earned money for a musical in my lifetime. If you're not the one percent or the very, very lucky, your only hope of seeing the show that dominated both the Tonys and the President is the resale market, with single tickets averaging a whopping $350 for nosebleeds and over $1,000 for premium seats.
For you, the reader hoping to see the show, there's really only one question hanging over this whole business: Is Hamilton really worth several hundred dollars?
I saw the Hamilton’s star-studded opening preview at the Orpheum last night, and I'll be straight with you: it's great, and far exceeded my expectations. Whether or not it's worth a sizable chunk of your paycheck depends on a few factors -- not the least of which is the total size of your paycheck. (More on that later.)
Let's run down some pros and cons.
Yes, You Should Pay $600 to See 'Hamilton' in San Francisco If:
1. You genuinely love the soundtrack. This is obvious, but it addresses a major problem. Many people who see this show are going just to say they saw Hamilton. (Don't do this.) If you truly love the soundtrack, go for it. You'll be able to sing along with King George III's soft-rock comedy, scream with the rest of the fans at the introductory shut-off-your-cell-phones announcement (yes, people cheered for it Thursday night), and whoop it up to every major character's grand entrance. If you're a diehard, it's a communal celebration.
2. History is your jam and you don't sweat the details. If you're one of those people who can't see a historical epic without raising a finger and saying, "Yes, but..." -- look elsewhere. There's a lot to love in Hamilton, but if you're an American history buff, you'll inevitably call a few things out as exaggerated or glossed over. If you're happy to be taken for a ride and fact-check the plot afterward, you're good.
3. You can be patient for a show to get going. Honestly, for the first handful of songs, Hamilton is just plain silly. Really. Guys in 18th-century getups shouting "Layyyydies!" and quoting Grandmaster Flash in the same breath as Gilbert & Sullivan? Songs that seem like lectures from your professor? Yeah. Hang in there until the Schuyler Sisters come on stage. If you get to "Satisfied" or "Wait For It" and you're not invested in Hamilton's possibilities -- he's got an important job with George Washington, he's married, he has his whole life ahead of him -- you've probably picked the wrong show.
4. You like Pentatonix. Bear with me, but I swear that everything lovable and cute about Hamilton springs from the same seed that birthed cheeky, clever, inventive a capella groups. (See also: Waldorf schools, putting celery in jello, singing at campouts, driving a Subaru wagon.)
5. You think interesting women are important. For as much turmoil as Hamilton, Madison, Washington and Jefferson deal with in the show, there's not a lot of emotional complexity to their characters. The women appear much more multidimensional than the men, who show the most heart when under the women's spell. Cast-wise, Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica and Solea Pfeiffer as Eliza are both incredible, and the closing number gives additional depth to their roles.
6. You love a good dramatic climax. You know the scene you're waiting for in Hamilton? The part you learned in eighth grade U.S. History class? The thing that should only take a split second? It's a masterful display of set design, choreography, writing, blocking, lighting -- I can't stop thinking about it.
7. You just plain have a lot of money. Why not, right? Heck, Alexander Hamilton did helm the first Treasury Department, after all. (But here's my request: if you're in a position to do so, also donate tickets to some low-income high-school drama program for students who know every line of "Ten Duel Commandments" but can't afford to go.)
That about sums up the pros. And now...
You Should Not Pay $600 to See 'Hamilton' in San Francisco If:
1. You are a hardcore rap fan. I can't stress this enough. Hamilton's songs are the Disney version of rap music. They're simple, with uninteresting beats, and though the lyrical wordplay is clever, the meter and flow don't change up much because it was all written by the same person. This, along with its crystal-clear enunciation, could be a function of the theater context. But so much of the art of rapping is developing one's own personal style, and in Hamilton, everyone has the same style. (If you're looking for the sonic and lexical explorations by rap music's recent innovators like Young Thug, Future and Migos, you won't find them.) Even if your love of rap music is limited to the 1990s, this will basically still feel like rap music for people who don't like rap music.
2. You fall asleep in the second act easily. OK, OK. I know you saw the big ol' reprise-every-song-in-medley-form-and-bring-out-the-whole-cast finale of Act I coming from a mile away. But my friend! The second act is where it's at! The first act starts to get going about 2/3 of the way in, but everything the first act lacks -- emotional resonance, complex characters, edge-of-your-seat drama -- comes in the second act. During "Cabinet Battle #2" I saw a man asleep on his wife's shoulder and was like, How could anyone be sleeping through this?!
3. You're a stickler about cultural appropriation. Most of the show's laughs come from interjecting overt hip-hop slang, phrases, and dances into the "formal" script. The juxtaposition of the two is low-hanging fruit, but it's not offensive -- unless if you're protective of black culture being co-opted for a white man's history lesson on Broadway, and well, that's basically this whole show.
4. You're looking for a political message. Most of the night's biggest cheers came from social-commentary one-liners. "Immigrants -- we get the job done" is a famous one, but it only occurs once. Another line about women needing to be written into the constitution gets applause. But for all the chatter about the Broadway cast's speech to Mike Pence, and what the show "says" about America, I was not moved to patriotism, or dissent, or to really think about politics much at all. There's also nothing that overtly speaks to Trump's America. (Unless you count the line: "Winning was easy, young man -- governing's hard.")
5. You can be patient. Look, a show like Hamilton’s not going anywhere in the long term. Wait a few years and it'll be back in a revival or tour. The way things are going, by that time, a theatrical EDM/dubstep adaptation of the Louisiana Purchase will be all the rage and Hamilton will cost $60.
6. You really love Daveed Diggs. As Alexander Hamilton, lead actor Michael Luwoye is excellent and workmanlike in filling Lin-Manuel Miranda's humongous shoes. Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr? Isaiah Johnson as George Washington? All fine. But Jordan Donica plays Thomas Jefferson in a juvenile, clownish fashion, as if director Thomas Kail explicitly asked him to make Jefferson look uncool. (This is exemplified in the way Donica delivers a Notorious B.I.G. line in the cabinet battle, with a seemingly intentional lack of style.) I'm not arguing that the real-life Jefferson was a cool dude, but the portrayal here doesn't fit.
7. You're a set/costume/design nerd. The set for Hamilton is essentially static -- a balcony on the perimeter, a rotating turntable on stage, and intermittent lighting and props to mix it up. The costumes are perfectly executed but nothing groundbreaking. The cast does a lot with this mostly unchanging landscape, but it's not going to blow anyone away.
So there you have it. Still want to join the wave and be part of theatre history? You're now armed with all the knowledge you need. The show's only in town 'til August, so don't throw away your sh... oh, you know how it goes by now.
'Hamilton' runs through Aug. 5, 2017, at SHN Orpheum Theatre. For full details, see here.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.