Trip report: NYC, day 2, 4/6/18, Trinity Church, 9/11 Memorial, Hamilton: An American Musical

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, April 11, 2018, 11:30 PM | comments: 0

For our second full day, I knew we'd go downtown, but didn't get real specific until the night before. What we settled on was a trip to the cemetery to find Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, do the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and make time to get back to midtown for dinner before seeing Hamilton. Squishy possibilities included going to Battery Park and doing the observation platform in One World Trade, but given another slowish start to the day, there just wouldn't have been enough time.

After breakfast, we took the R train from Times Square to Cortland St., which actually lets out in the hideous Westfield World Trade Center shopping mall, sort of, which seems to connect below ground to World Trade Center Three and Four. That put us up on Church St., about two blocks from Trinity Church, our first stop for the day. It's here that we would find the final resting place of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton, the very subjects of the musical that motivated our visit to the city. It was surprising, the number of people who came there to see the grave. Most of the headstones in the cemetery are in very poor condition and many are not readable. Hamilton's inscription reads as that of a founding father should, but as his biography reads, he was certainly no saint. Still, he was killed too early, and his personal choices limited his impact. He definitely ran out of time.

After a lap around the grounds, we headed a block over to the former World Trade Center site, now the 9/11 National Memorial and Museum. I know there was a lot of emotion and controversy over what to do in that space, but I think they got it right. It's a beautiful and peaceful spot. It's weird to think that Diana worked in one of the towers briefly in the 90's doing temp work.

The line for museum tickets was enormous, so we quickly bought them online via my phone. Our entry time was 1:00, a half-hour out, so we went back over to Church St. (after finding nothing in the mall) for some bona fide New York City pizza at some place called Steve's Pizza. I don't think anyone there was actually named Steve, but I still enjoyed it as a quick bite to get me through the afternoon (in lieu of more museum food). I'm not a fan of NY-style pizza, but you know what they say about pizza.

At our entry time, we ended up queueing for another 20 minutes to get in, as a number of groups went in ahead of us and had to go through the security screening. The museum begins as a series of ramps and stairs that go several stories under ground, in the larger pit that acted as the foundation for the original buildings and surrounding support structures. If you look at the photos from the 70's of the construction, you'll see that "trident" structures at street level are many stories above the actual base of the building, and that the area around it was eventually built up to street level with parking structures, train stations and mechanical support for the towers. Similarly, you'll see the same thing in photos of what would eventually be called Ground Zero. The museum and outdoor memorial occupies most of that space, leveled off at street level.

As you descend the ramp, you'll first see what they call Foundation Hall, which is the open area between the former north tower and the slurry wall, which held back the Hudson River across West Street, before there were more buildings there. It's from this vantage point that you can see the memorial "cubes" that seem to hang from street level above, where the fountains are. Around both of these, the original foundations of the towers are preserved, the steel box columns cut down to the concrete, though in a few places (as in the photo below), you can see the concrete pulled away to see the steel beams in their entirety. There is some fascinating architectural and engineering history here, and it's striking how controversial the buildings were, which is not surprising because they weren't particularly attractive buildings.

The area beneath the south tower fountain has a short film, an education center and a hall with photos of all of the 9/11 victims, including those at the Pentagon and in PA, as well as the handful from the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. It's probably the most difficult part of the memorial, because it's not easy to disconnect thousands of faces from the destruction. These were after all people with families and friends whose only real fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The area beneath the north tower fountain contains artifacts and a walk-through timeline of the day, and despite the big steel building fragments displayed elsewhere, it's the core of the museum. You've probably seen most of the video and photos before, and these are combined with pieces of plane wreckage, charred office items, wrecked vehicles and other items from the disaster sites. This part wasn't as difficult as I expected, in part because we have seen so much of this on TV, and in documentaries made later, that it wasn't new. You never accept it all as normal, but it's not unfamiliar.

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was clear that Saturday was gonna be cold, so running around town wasn't appealing. But you know, staying in the middle of the Broadway area, another show was a great plan. You can get tickets for all but the most popular shows (i.e., HamiltonFrozenEven Hansen) at solid discount prices a day in advance through TKTS, this little stand that has three locations. The Times Square location, for whatever reason, was more restricted and not selling Saturday matinees, so we had to go up to the Lincoln Center location, which was easy enough on the D train. The weather was flirting with 60, and it was a beautiful day to be out. Round trip I think it was a half-hour, and we got great seats for Kinky Boots for 40% off.

As I mentioned, we ended up having dinner a second time at Connolly's, because the curry chicken is amazing and it was convenient across from the hotel. I didn't have much to drink the entire trip, I guess because cold weather isn't really great "drinking weather" and we didn't have time to risk any hangover-ish feelings, but they did have Magners, which is a little harder to find around where I live.

We made a quick stop back up to the room to kill a little time, then headed out to the Richard Rodgers Theater for our primary motivation for this trip: Hamilton. We arrived around 7:15 and were third in line (behind this teenage girl with the most amazing purple hair you've ever seen). I had noticed that every show had these enormous queues of people hanging out before shows, and I wondered why they didn't let people in sooner to buy drinks and such. When we got inside, I realized that most of my theatrical experience is with really big theaters, or at least theaters with big lobbies. Playhouse Square in Cleveland doesn't hurt for lobby space, and obviously our pride and joy, Dr. Phillips Center, is enormous. Beyond that, I've been in some big musical halls, and the Paramount in Seattle, all with adequate lobbies. Most Broadway theaters have no such luxury. The Richard Rodgers has about 1,300 seats though, and it's a beautiful place to see a show. We were in the second to last row of the balcony (no mezzanine) and I was perfectly cool with it. As I mentioned in my previous post, we scored tickets first-hand via a "verified fan" email list, at a face value of $200 each. That's still more than twice what we pay for any show in Orlando, but the market is what it is.

The show has been all the hotness for a long time, and when I started to really listen to it in earnest in late 2016, I was skeptical of the hype in part because it seemed like integrating hip hop lyrics into a musical would be a gimmick. I was totally wrong about that. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a creative genius who managed to blend most every genre into the show, and even the rap influences tend to span decades of styles (including those from my 80's childhood). More importantly, it's really dense, which is fitting for a historical drama about a guy who did an awful lot in his 47 years.

Hamilton is an ultimate love letter to the founding principles of the United States, a nation founded by immigrants, and the founders themselves, who were anything but confident in the democratic experiment they would begin. Its self-awareness is extraordinary, not just because it takes on the ideology of freedom in a time where humans were traded as slaves, but by casting diverse people, most of whom would not have had any rights if they lived in Hamilton's lifetime. These were imperfect people, and we're challenged to embrace their achievement while acknowledging their flaws. It's not something they teach in school.

Seeing the show fills in the blanks not made obvious by the soundtrack. You witness more than two hours of movement, which I'm sure is a deliberate choice to match the man that Aaron Burr suggests "writes like he's running out of time." Indeed, the turntable in the stage makes it possible for the cast to move continuously. The blocking also enables funny moments between Hamilton and his friends, King George and those leaving the stage, and of course, the cabinet battles, complete with hand held microphones.

Most amazing is the choreography. It's precise and dynamic and mind blowing, unlike any show I've seen. (And one of the women in the chorus is from Orlando!) Songs like "Yorktown" attempt to wrap up the Revolutionary War and the place that the principles have in it ("Hercules Mulligan, I need no introduction! When you knock me down I get the fuck back up again!"), and it's intense and beautiful and borders on overload to see.

I was familiar enough with the scene design from the various documentaries and clips, and it's a very utilitarian space that's versatile enough to do whatever they need with minimal props and some moving stairs. But the lighting design is something else entirely. I'm a total lighting nerd, and when I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be one of the four people in the world who design lighting for arena rock concerts. In lieu of that, I did it in college for a year, but I studied the shit out of it and to this day I notice it more than most of the production work. Hamilton integrates the lighting tightly with every aspect of the show... with the set itself, the actors, the choreography, the blocking, the costumes... all of it. It serves the story and the action in every way, whether it's censoring Hamiltion with red light ("Sit down, John, you fat m[BEEP] f[BEEP]er!"), setting a painful night scene ("Burn") or grouping lines of soldiers together in formation, it's tight.

The hardest thing about the show is that the original cast recording has been out for years, and those performances were epic and set the standard. It's impossible not to have some expectations. Still, I might argue that the story is the main character, and the hip-hop nature of many songs makes it possible for any performer to put their spin on the part without departing from the intent of the text. James Monroe Iglehart, who is probably best known as the guy who originated the Broadway Genie role in Aladdin, or Titus' nemesis in Kimmy Schmidt, absolutely kills it as Lafayette/Jefferson. The rest of the cast did a pretty great job, though I do think it's hard to live up to Christopher Jackson's George Washington. That particular role with that actor was something special and rare. Michael Luwoye as Hamilton may have been better than Miranda. Like I said, there is generally room for actors to make these roles their own, I think.

Overall, it was the emotional experience I expected the show to be, finally being in "the room where it happens." My favorites, "Wait For It," "Yorktown," "Say No To This," "One Last Time," "It's Quiet Uptown" and "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" were the moving moments that I hoped for. It met all of my expectations, and I can't wait to see it again next year in Orlando.

It was an emotionally exhausting day, but entirely worth it. I didn't want the day to end, and I couldn't sleep.

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