Uninvidious 'Hamilton'

You've seen the status object. Now watch the thing itself!

Starting July 3, any schmuck with $13 can watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed 2015 musical Hamilton on DisneyPlus. Disney will be streaming a video featuring the original Broadway cast, taped over three consecutive evenings at the Richard Rodgers Theater, the only difference with the live version being the removal of a couple of f-bombs that I don’t remember hearing when I caught a Broadway performance (replacement cast) back in November 2016.

If the “livestreams” (usually taped, actually) that I’ve seen from the Met and the National Theater of Great Britain are any guide, the technology will be perfected to the point that watching Hamilton at home will be close enough to watching it live in the theater that the cost saving from the latter will moot any practical distinction. Indeed, if you’re a cheapskate like me who typically buys tickets in the back of the house, the livestream experience will be superior.

I was dragged to Hamilton by my friend John Schwartz, a science writer for the New York Times who got tired of seeing me mock the cult of Hamilton on social media. Hamilton turned out to be a good musical (I liked 1776 too), and the fact that it was performed by a multicultural cast that was in essence saying “Hey, this is our history, too” was, I thought, deeply moving.

But I still think I was right to mock the cult.

Think back to four or five years ago (admittedly not an easy thing to do these days) and you may recall seeing pictures of your friends on Facebook and Twitter pointing excitedly to the Hamilton marquee and the Hamilton Playbill by way of demonstrating that they, too, had had The Experience. This was more or less the equivalent of flashing a wad of hundred-dollar bills in front of everybody you’ve ever met. People were paying up to $5000 then to procure a pair of scalped tickets (which, among other things, meant that they had no choice but to adore Hamilton).

“You know who would REALLY love Hamilton?” I tweeted at the time. “Thorstein Veblen, that’s who.” The Richard Rodgers Theater has only about 1300 seats*, which is not unusual for a Broadway house. That means that when the theater is lucky enough to be housing a hit, scarcity drives the price of entry sky-high. Unless you are fabulously rich or have a sensitivity to theatrical excellence more finely attuned than seems likely, there is no way you can wring $5000 worth of enjoyment out of any live performance. So what you do instead is derive $5000 worth of enjoyment from having witnessed the performance.

Veblen called this “invidious distinction.” As the master wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class, “Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer's good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities.”

Was a pair of Hamilton tickets a superfluity? I would say yes, when you had to take out a bank loan to see it. (By the time I saw it, the price had fallen to around $200, which was still more than common sense would dictate; but John is a lovely person whom I’ve known more than three decades, and he was calling my bluff, and who was I to say no?)

Granted, the question of what is necessary in life is a subjective one. Veblen addresses this imperfectly:

It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life; and it may in this way become as indispensable as any other item of the consumer's habitual expenditure. As items which sometimes fall under this head, and are therefore available as illustrations of the manner in which this principle applies, may be cited carpets and tapestries, silver table service, waiter's services, silk hats, starched linen, many articles of jewelry and of dress. The indispensability of these things after the habit and the convention have been formed, however, has little to say in the classification of expenditures as waste or not waste in the technical meaning of the word. The test to which all expenditure must be brought in an attempt to decide that point is the question whether it serves directly to enhance human life on the whole.

The question before us now is whether the conspicuous tastemakers who were insisting five years ago that Hamilton did indeed “enhance human life on the whole” will reaffirm themselves on social media on July 3 and after, as it’s made available for a pittance to the masses. Is Hamilton great or was it just a really expensive candlestick? It seems to me that the tastemakers have been silent for some time on this question, starting about when Hamilton began its national tour in March 2017. Some gratified provincials posted Hamilton selfies of their own after seeing it in Cleveland or Las Vegas, but with ticket prices now fallen from their lofty heights the status reward was diminished considerably, and you didn’t see all that many.

Now we’re blessed with a natural experiment: We will be able to enjoy Hamilton with all the bragging rights stripped away. Will social-media influencers post selfies of themselves in front of their flat-screen TVs? I’m guessing not. They may not watch at all. I will, because I’m curious to see how Miranda played Hamilton, as compared to the replacement-guy I saw (who was very good). Mostly, though, I want to see how much I can enjoy Hamilton when the bragging rights of doing so are dropped all the way down to zero. In a way, I’ll be seeing it for the first time.

*Harvard, Princeton, and Yale all have freshman classes about the same size. I’d like to read an economic study explaining why status-generating scarcity is so often based on an allocation of 1000-2000 units.

Update, July 6: My missus and I watched Hamilton this weekend, not for $13—I got that wrong—but a little less than $7 (assuming I remember to cancel our new DisneyPlus subscription by the end of this month). I was much more taken with Hamilton the second time. Our $7 “seats” were much better than the one I shelled out $200 for at the Richard Rodgers Theater. And yes, the original cast was better (though the replacement cast I saw on Broadway was awfully good). Mainly, though, I felt better able to relax into enjoying Hamilton when I experienced it outside the realm of expectations and some discomfort with the ticket price. Feeling more free to dislike Hamilton made it much easier for me to admire it.

For what it’s worth, I noticed on the second go-round that Hamilton starts out a bit wobbly and gets better as it goes along. Maybe that’s because the hip-hop framing took me a little getting used to, even on round two. The extreme demands of the internal rhyme scheme simplified the lyrics’ wording in ways that felt a bit trite until I accepted hip-hop as a language, like any other, and even some of the lyrics that existed outside the rhyme scheme struck me as painfully clichéd (“Just you wait!”). But the musical gradually accumulated narrative power, complexity, and emotional depth, and by the second act all my doubts were swept away. It really is a great theatrical experience … and if you can, do try not to see it in a theater.