There is an entire store in Chicago devoted to Crocs. I can honestly say that this is something that would never have occurred to me as a retail opportunity, but there it was.
You walk in and you’re surrounded by hundreds of pairs of resolutely, defiantly uncool footware, each formed out of a substance that clearly was developed by mad scientists concerned about a possible Swiss cheese shortage and looking for a non-perishable substitute that could be dyed colors that occur nowhere in nature. For what it is worth, they may have succeeded. There’s also a helpful sales clerk who is probably wondering what you’re doing there, which is a fair question.
Because we had more interesting places to be on Thursday night than a shoe store.
A couple of Octobers ago my friend Joshua introduced me to the cast recording of Hamilton. I’d heard of it before – you can’t be a historian specializing in the Founding Fathers and not get early wind of a hip-hop retelling of the life of Alexander Hamilton – but actually listening to the music was a revelation. As someone who spent more than three decades backstage at one level or another and who sang in more than his share of choirs, I was hooked. And I loved the fact that, within the tolerances of a Broadway musical, it was more or less historically accurate. I have since played a few of the songs for various classes I’ve taught, in fact. My students were usually surprised to discover that such a thing existed.
This was before Hamilton became a national phenomenon, but not much before. I kind of felt hipsterish for a while, except that I was quite happy to find it becoming popular. I will never understand the mentality that says things are only good until people find out about them. If they’re good, people should enjoy them.
A month after being introduced to the cast recording, we realized that we’d be in New York City over New Year’s, visiting family, and we thought, “Hey! Wouldn’t it be lovely to see Hamilton?” So we called the theater.
“How about August?” they said.
The musical – really an opera, since there are no spoken lines outside of the songs – had become immensely and deservedly popular, and it remains so even now. It’s won awards. It’s made the news. And it’s spawned touring companies. We didn’t even bother trying for tickets this past New Year’s – I think Broadway is booked out until 2045 now – but when tickets went on sale last summer for the Chicago touring company we decided it would be worth the price. Christmas would be light on presents, but we were going to see Hamilton.
You know you live in the midwest when the idea of driving a couple of hours on a school night for an evening’s entertainment and then driving a couple hours back makes perfect sense.
And it did make perfect sense. We had a magnificent time.
Pretty much the instant we all made it home from our various schools on Thursday we piled into the van, drove through the local burger joint for dinner, and hit the road. It was smooth sailing until we got to Chicago itself. Chicago is surrounded by a permanent gridlock of cars like in an old Doctor Who episode, with entire generations being born, finding spouses, reproducing, and passing away without ever getting to their exit. Fortunately we managed to give all that the slip and eventually we found ourselves at the parking garage with plenty of time to spare.
Which is why we could stop at the Crocs store that was almost exactly halfway between the garage and the theater.
And the art supply store on the corner.
Eventually we made it to the theater, showed them the ticket code on Kim’s phone (seriously – they just print you the receipt right there, which is a bizarre thing), and found our seats.
We were way over on house left, on the first balcony – so far over, in fact, that we couldn’t actually see the last four or five feet of stage right. We didn’t miss much, though, and we were right up by the stage too, so they were good seats. There was nobody in front of us. And we had actual chairs that we could move around to find more comfortable positions, so it was a win all around.
After a short run at the souvenir stand (new mug for me! you cannot have too many books or mugs!) we settled in to wait for the show.
The first thing I noticed, as we waited for curtain, was the incredible number of lighting instruments hung about that theater. It’s not a very big space, really, but it was festooned with instruments – there must have been at least 300 of them over the stage itself, as well as maybe half that many out in the house that I could see. During the intermission Tabitha and I wandered down to the lip of the stage to get a closer look – you could get right up to it, and even put your hand on the stage if you really wanted to. You could also peer down into the orchestra pit – the musicians were actually under the stage, and during the show the conductor’s head just barely peeked out of a small opening downstage center. There were a couple of monitors on the front of the balcony, in the center of the house, so the actors could see the conductor, and they were fun to watch during the performance. There were also three separate spotlights way up at the rear of the house, a fact that probably nobody else noticed or cared about but which made us very happy. During the show we noticed a lot of the lighting, actually – it was really impressive, if you were the sort to pay attention to it.
Eventually the house lights dimmed and the show started.
It. Was. Fantastic.
The touring company cast was very good, though I did have to keep reminding myself that they weren’t doing it wrong, just differently from the cast recording. The actor who played George III was a natural ham – he looked like a cross between Craig Ferguson and the bald eagle on the Muppet Show and clearly thought he was Rowan Atkinson – and he knew how to play a crowd. The actress playing Angelica Schuyler captured much of the intensity of the original, and the actress playing her sister Eliza did so as well, especially in the last song. My favorite actor, though, was the one who played both Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, mostly because he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. But they were all incredibly talented.
There is a part toward the end of the first act when Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette meet just before the Battle of Yorktown to renew their friendship and plan for the upcoming fight. Neither was born in what would become the US, and only one would stay after the war, but they fought for their ideals – for our ideals – and were critical to this country’s very existence. “Immigrants,” they sing. “We get the job done.” The audience hollered and applauded that line, a reminder in our present cowardly age that this country has always extended a welcome to immigrants and refugees and is both poorer and less secure when it forgets that simple fact.
I’m guessing that happens a lot at these performances, nowadays. They vamped for a while, and then moved on with the song. Somehow, it made me feel better about this country.
It was surprising to me how many of the scenes played out much as I’d imagined them. Not all, and not entirely, but within tolerance, many of them. “Blow Us All Away,” at the end of the first act and one of my favorite songs, was almost exactly as I’d pictured. I will admit that Jefferson’s electric purple coat was a surprise, though.
It was a long drive back to Our Little Town, and we got in around 1am. Friday morning came fast and hard, and to be honest the day was a bit of a lost cause in many ways.
But it was worth it.