It is not my habit to offer my opinion about current productions, and I tend to even avoid doing so retrospectively. But I do want to briefly discuss the shows I’ve seen over the past week or so, because they’re never the same each night, because they’re exceptionally brief, and because they’re free. I’m referring to the “Ham4Ham Show,” the two to three minute bits of entertainment offered up outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre at the ticket lottery two hours before each preview of the new musical Hamilton.
For those who haven’t seen them or heard about them, the Ham4Ham shows can be anything – you have no idea what you’ll get – that the protean Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company choose to present. It could be a song, a dance, a Q & A with Lin in which he answers using only the lyrics of a favorite musical. But what it means is that those who’ve trekked to 46th Street in hope of snagging a pair of seats in the front row of the theatre for the performance two hours hence for only $10 a ticket may walk away empty handed, but they’ve gotten a little something more than suspense out of the experience.
Now it’s easy to look at this and be cynical, if you tend that way, thinking this is all about selling tickets. But while videos of the nightly event may spread out on social media (and the show’s official accounts do participate in that), the performance is first and foremost for people who haven’t bought seats, and very possibly can’t get or can’t afford tickets any other way. It is an act of generosity by Lin and the company, without a marketing message attached; indeed, it seems more an expression of gratitude to fans than anything else.
I say this as someone who has attended a dozen of these little shows, and viewed others online. I find the spirit of the crowd and of those who come out to perform to be enormously congenial and electric. I’ve seen no jostling for space, no rivalry among those competing for the same tickets, and I’ve watched the crowd spill into the street in blazing heat and humidity without complaint. I don’t attend to enter the lottery – I’ve been going to see, enjoy and record the shows for those without the proximity or time to attend in person. It just so happens that my office is on 46th Street and I simply have to cross Broadway to be there.
As theatres talk about how to engage audiences, there’s no question that Ham4Ham is a sterling example, if not necessarily a replicable model. To tick off just some the things that make this unique: 1) Lin-Manuel wrote and stars in Hamilton, so it’s truly his show, 2) no one is required to perform, they’re doing it entirely of their own accord, 3) lots of theatres don’t have the easy foot traffic that New York can generate to draw impromptu crowds, 4) not every show has the advance excitement (and sales) that Hamilton has generated off of its run at The Public – and so on. But it’s also worth noting that, my personal example aside, people would be there trying for the cheap tickets regardless – Ham4Ham is simply a bonus.
For all the reasons why Ham4Ham would be difficult to reproduce, there is something at its core that can perhaps provoke other models of engagement for other shows, for other theatres. If we can all learn from Lin-Manuel’s example and actively engage in giving something to audiences that they can’t get anywhere else, outside of the space that they need a ticket to enter, that may even stand alone and apart from what’s being offered on our stages, then perhaps we’ll find some new friends and new relationships that go far beyond just ‘how do we sell more tickets.’
Once Hamilton opens on Thursday, Ham4Ham may be less frequent, or perhaps change in format. So for everyone who has been out on 46th Street since the Ham4Ham shows began, thanks Lin, thanks Ariana, thanks Jon, thanks Renee, thanks Okieriete, thanks Karen, thanks Jon, thanks Philippa, thanks Alex – and thanks everyone I haven’t named too. The best show in town was the crowd, outside the R. Rodgers Theatre for A. Hamilton.
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The videos above were all shot by me (and let’s hear it for the iPhone), as was the photo at the top of the post, but here are a few more, shot by others in the crowd, that I think you’ll enjoy: