The security lines were snaking once more from the Kennedy Center foyer, and Silver Spring teens Amelia Beard, Anastasia Wixson and Ranvita Sen chatted excitedly. In the end, they were lucky enough to see “Hamilton,” the musical giant who won too many awards to count until October after a two-year delay. Beard said she and her sister spent the pandemic blasting the soundtrack, annoying their parents into submission. “Eventually they were like, ‘We can’t stop them,'” she said.
“Hamilton” is back at the Kennedy Center. Will the ticket hype follow?
The Kennedy Center and surrounding neighborhood are also counting on “Hamilton” to become unstoppable again. But since the last time the show hit the District, outside its venue at the Opera House, quite a bit has happened.
The Kennedy Center, which paid more than $50 million to present “Hamilton” in 2018, had to ax it and other major productions in 2020. The venue cut nearly 30% of its administrative staff this year- there and projected a budget deficit of $23 million. And some restaurants and bars in Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, which pre-pandemic feasted on rambling, hungry Kennedy Center patrons, have been battered. Could a revolution happen now?
“With all the activity and people coming to see ‘Hamilton,’ it benefits every aspect,” said Jeffrey Finn, Vice President and Executive Producer of The Kennedy Center Theater. “There are more people in the building, more reservations in restaurants. There is more activity. It’s so exciting for us at the center to see a huge hall full of very eager customers to see the show. So any Broadway hit, I use the phrase, can lift all the boats.
It certainly lifted Circa. The bistro, which thrives on the thong-wearing happy hour crowd, is across the street from the Kennedy Center subway shuttle stop. During the 2018 “Hamilton” season, this location propelled it to its highest sales year in its 11-year history.
“After the show, the shuttle would drop, and it was always kind of a heavy-handed response to prepare for this rush of people,” said Maggie O’Connor, assistant general manager at the time. and now Brand Manager for Circa’s parent company.
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These types of rushes require extra preparation in times when restaurant staff are shrinking. The Tonic team at Quigley’s Pharmacy, a gastropub a 10-minute walk from the Kennedy Center, keeps show times in mind when staffing, events director Anastasia Kochnowicz said. Farmers Fishers Bakers, on the Georgetown waterfront, goes further: the managers there stick the calendars of the theater to the wall.
“The Kennedy Center is very important to us,” said Dan Simons, one of the owners of Farmers Restaurant Group. “The loss of live events like this during the pandemic was just one more thing in this pandemic disaster restaurant recipe. Every time the Kennedy Center started with a new live activity, I didn’t necessarily notice anything immediately. But the arrival of ‘Hamilton’ is really precious for us.
In less than two weeks since the show’s return, Farmers Fishers Bakers has seen a 15% increase in diners in the lead up to the show, Simons said. So far, however, the post-show crowd hasn’t quite returned. Carpool lines outside the Kennedy Center tend to be long, as many customers are simply driving home. “I don’t fill my bus like I used to,” said David Wade, who drove a shuttle to the site for 18 years.
“It’s hard to capture the feel of the pre-pandemic days,” O’Connor said. “We’re getting back to it, but it’s not the same atmosphere as before at the restaurant.”
The country’s political and cultural landscapes have also transformed, noted Georgetown history professor Adam Rothman, and it has transformed the context of “Hamilton.” When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation thundered down Broadway in 2015, an anti-racist rap musical touting immigrants “doing the job”, it was an “expression of the kind of multicultural exuberance of the Obama era, that sense of possibility of some sort of post-racial America,” Rothman said.
That hope has, as he said, “everything been dashed”.
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One reason: increased awareness of racism and slavery, encouraged by The New York Times Project 1619, made “Hamilton” feel “naive” with his evasion of the subject, Rothman said. Another reason: “Hamilton-based” appeals, such as the distribution’s attempted intervention in November 2016 with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, have been unsuccessful.
“One thing that’s obvious and so clear now, which maybe wasn’t clear then, was the limits of liberal culture to shaping politics,” Rothman said. “There was this idea that if everyone saw ‘Hamilton’, we could all get along.”
But it can still speak to our times today, he said. Also in the show’s hyperpolarized era, it seemed like “the union might not survive.”
“Hamilton” can spark new conversations, fans suggest, about the genesis of the nation, how the founding fathers made the decisions they made and what they did wrong.
It allows audiences to “go back and look at the ideas surrounding the creation of the country and understand that the people who wrote it, their perspectives may have been limited,” said Lena Steiner, 38, before a recent Kennedy Center screening, after his friend had won a lottery ticket.
Having people of color telling the story was powerful for Steiner, as a Latina woman. Miranda “was able to take something that was very white-centric and tell the story in a way that now includes people, and it makes everyone feel like we’re included in American history,” Steiner said.
“It’s such a creative and imaginative way to reinterpret history. That’s part of what makes it inspiring. I think that still makes him inspiring,” Rothman said. “It always draws people into the story who otherwise wouldn’t care about the story. And, as a historian, I think that’s really important.
Attracting people will be most important for the next two months for the Kennedy Center itself. In planning for the pandemic return, the historic venue was eager to pile its theater schedule on high-profile shows, including the Tony Award-winning ‘Hadestown’, which sold out its tour of October 2021 and marked the resumption of normal programming. But finally, getting a second round from “Hamilton” was key, Finn said.
Another change since its last run in Washington was its 2020 arrival on Disney Plus, greatly expanding access to a performance that 70,000 fans crammed into the online queue for here in 2018. It was a boon for fans like Beard, but also a possible factor why tickets are more available at the Kennedy Center this time around.
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Katie Rose, 43, and Jennifer Dougherty, 39, took two. For them, the return of “Hamilton” meant the return of show rituals like heading to the Tazza Cafe at the Watergate complex for pizza and drinks. More than just a meal, it’s a way to debrief and analyze the show between them and even with strangers.
“There’s just kind of a buzz in the air,” Dougherty said. “And there have been a few times where we’ll be there and strike up a conversation with someone at another table about what we’re passionate about,” she said. “There is always this excitement about going to see something live. It’s still there.
The show, at least for now, continues.