Howard Sherman: How I helped bring Hamilton’s free shows to the world
As Hamilmania exerts its grasp on the UK in the run-up to next week’s official opening night, The Stage can take a bow for its own peripheral but popular contribution to Hamilton fandom.
An earlier iteration of this column focused primarily on new shows opening in the US, with the final spot typically a bit of humour or a new short video. Often it was the first time something from a US show had been seen by UK readers.
During previews of Hamilton in New York, Lin-Manuel Miranda started the ‘Ham4Ham show’. Every day during previews (less frequently after opening), for free, members of the cast – and guests from other shows – entertained the crowds waiting outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre to enter the Ham4Ham ticket lottery. I saw an opportunity.
I managed to capture about a dozen of the performances before including three in my column of 31 July 2015, just before the Hamilton opening and among those to help turn a bit of fun as Lin-Manuel called it, into a “remarkable platform to celebrate the talent and community of Broadway with fans worldwide”.
I wasn’t the only person holding up my cell phone on 46th Street. But a cordial relationship with the show’s company manager, and an office located just across Broadway, made it easy for me to attend fairly regularly, and even slip in front of the steadily increasing crowds at the last minute, where I would kneel to capture video of these one-of-a-kind shows.
By the end, I had filmed some five dozen Ham4Ham shows before they came to a stop in August 2016. There are plenty I missed that were captured by others.
I recall thinking that given the importance that Hamilton was rapidly coming to occupy in popular culture, it would serve the show’s history to have a consistent record of these unique performances. So I kept going and going.
Consequently, even though I had no official role or technical expertise, I felt something akin to anguish when my hands shook or my finger slipped into the frame, because there were no retakes possible. I knew I couldn’t laugh or clap or cheer with the crowd, since my proximity to the camera would have dominated to the recording. I still feel guilt about the Halloween show from 2015, where I thought I was filming, only to discover I’d accidentally hit stop only 30 seconds after starting. But others preserved it.
Through to December 2015, the production itself rarely filmed the Ham4Ham shows. When the cold of winter asserted itself, they were recorded by Lin and friends indoors without an audience. Returning to the street in April 2016, the production did start sending their social media team, rendering me rather superfluous, though by force of habit, I just kept going.
Audiences for the Ham4Ham show kept growing, to the point that they began to stop traffic as crowds clogged the street, ultimately requiring a police contingent to protect attendees. The low-fi audio of the first six months gave way to a fully fitted out sound system for the 2016 shows.
Despite its negative impact on my creaky knees, I miss the Ham4Ham shows now, because they were a treat that I helped to share far beyond the confines of a few fleeting minutes for lucky New Yorkers. Propelled by tweets from Lin-Manuel, my videos have been viewed more than seven million times.
They are part of a time capsule not only of the original Hamilton company having fun together, but of other Broadway shows playing at the same time, since Lin generously invited friends to join him on the steps on the Rodgers. After all, Ham4Ham wasn’t marketing for Hamilton, but an expression by Lin of his appreciation for those who turned out, in the cold, in the heat, in the rain for a chance to see whatever he cared to offer up.
I have no idea whether Lin might turn up one day outside the Victoria Palace to offer a Ham4Ham show, and I’m quite certain that even if he does, I won’t be there to capture it.
But at least on YouTube the show’s new fans can find such gems as the women of the original cast performing the men’s roles, the children from the musical Fun Home performing a tribute to all of the Hamilton children unmentioned in the show, Renee Elise Goldsberry singing a song for Angelica that was cut from the show, and the show’s first three King Georges lip-syncing as the Schuyler Sisters.
Would there still be Ham4Ham videos without my somewhat obsessive captures of what was meant to be ephemeral? Of course. But the most extensive trove, the one with the videos that Lin-Manuel tweeted about anticipating with excitement, might not have happened, had it not been for a need and desire to share what was happening at Broadway’s newest phenomenon with readers of The Stage. And even if you can’t see the show, get online, because Ham4Ham is free for all.
This week in US theatre
The last Broadway opening of the season is a transfer from the UK: Mark Rylance in Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King. John Dove once again directs the production, which plays the Belasco Theatre, where Rylance was last in residence in 2013/14 with the double bill of Twelfth Night and Richard III.