Cancellations on Your Side: The Hidden Gem of 'Hamilcamp'
Why camping out on the street for days to see Hamilton was one of the best experiences of my life.
By nature, I am impatient. I get anxious when I have to wait for more than 2 minutes for a subway train. I rarely see the opening act for a concert for it implies an uncomfortable 20-minute gap between performers. I plan my meal times around when the line for a food truck will be the shortest. Anyone who's close to me knows these things, and anyone who's close to me would be shocked to learn that I waited for more than half an hour for - well, anything, really. But if you told these people I waited 68 hours to see Hamilton last week, they'd believe you in a heartbeat.
I could spend a few pages telling you about why exactly I chose to be homeless for 3 days and 3 nights in exchange for a ticket to a Broadway musical, but that's not what I'm here for. There's plenty of writing out there already that does Hamilton the justice it deserves: it is, to put it simply, an unprecedented, timeless masterpiece that defies the expectations of not only Broadway theater but music and storytelling in a modern-day context. Those folks can convey that sentiment a lot better than I can. They have their fair share of writing and entertainment creds and use bigger and better words than I do, but I digress.
The idea of waiting out in the cancellation line for Hamilton began brewing in my head many moons ago, in late April when a friend told me about it. I had been in the same boat as many other fans: too poor and late to the party to be able to get a ticket. I juggled my two possibilities: working and saving up to purchase a resale ticket at an unspeakable price, or waiting hours or days in the cancellation line to see the show. Not seeing it simply was not an option.
I researched my options for weeks. Here is how the cancellation tickets come about: at every show, a limited number of tickets are released to the line due to either last-minute cancellations by ticketholders who cannot attend, spare standing-room tickets reserved by family and friends of the cast and crew, or premium seats that are first held for celebrities that do not get filled.
Flash-forward to mid-May, when I'm out of school and begin working two jobs. What I got from Twitter was that the wait time in the cancellation line was increasing week-by-week. Makes sense. Kids are getting out of school, the weather's getting nicer, more people keep learning about the show. Not worth it, I thought. I'll just cut my losses and spend several hundred on a resale ticket. With living at home and not paying rent this summer, I can - sort of - rationalize that. I should have enough money saved by mid-June to purchase a ticket for later in the summer.
Then June 2nd rolled around. News broke that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be departing on July 9th. Shit. Shit shit shit. This sucked for two reasons: first it meant that my timeline for getting my life together was cut short, with only 6 weeks to solidify my plans, and that the demand for tickets would only soar from then on. Sure enough, throughout the month of June, following the Tonys (where Hamilton scored a shabby 11 awards) and the announcement of leads Leslie Odom Jr and Phillipa Soo departing on July 9th as well, resale prices skyrocketed. Tickets that were $950 were now $1875. The cheapest ticket I ever saw online was for $1100.
My decision had been made for me: I was going to wait in that line. I read that the average wait time had gotten to around 3 nights, but it was now or never. I took the third week of June off of work and got a buddy to agree to do it with me, and for the days leading up to it I thought of every possible thing I might need to take with me. In the end the inside of my duffel bag looked something like: a neck pillow, 3 outfits, a sleeping mask, makeup, rain ponchos, an umbrella, ear plugs, wipes, a Snuggie, deodorant, a toothbrush, bug spray, a yoga mat to sleep on, a mini speaker, a portable phone charger, books, and a debit card with $650 on it.
On Monday, June 20th, I left work to catch a 6:30pm bus to New York. I would have left earlier if I could, but in my office, I couldn't innocently take a whole week off for the sake of the théatre. Imagine telling a team of computer engineers you were leaving in the middle of the week to live on the street to see a Broadway musical. I think you catch my drift.
I got to Manhattan at 11:02pm. I got in a cab and rushed up 10th avenue, arriving at the Richard Rodgers on 46th and 8th at 11:20pm.
I was completely alone. I looked like a gypsy, the unprepared kind. I was both terrified and thrilled. I had no idea what to expect.
Looking back on it all, I remember my first 15 minutes in the line as what would perhaps be the most poignant metaphor for my entire waiting experience. I rolled up to a squad of 20+ other homeless weirdos who shouted and cheered as I settled in. A dad who was probably in his 50's said something like, "we got ourselves another one!" Shortly after, a poised young man with a plunging v-neck and coiffed hair walked over to me. "What's your name?" he asked. "I'm Jack, I'm at the front of the line for tomorrow's show. As you can see this line is 'self-policed'. I'm keeping a list of everyone who's here so we honor our spots in line. Right now it's looking like a 3-night wait, 2 if you're lucky. Are you ready?" I was fucking ready. Jack picked up a fountain pen and carved my name into his Moleskine in an impeccable cursive font at #23 - not too bad. You can tell Jack had done this before. Despite his young age, his aura suggested centuries of experience with theater. I suspected this kid knew every song from Cats from inside the womb. I wasn't wrong. Jack had done this whole shebang 3 times already, and he was doing it again for the next show. Tomorrow was his birthday.
To give you a little taste of the line: we had college kids, we had high school kids, we had professional line sitters, a family of four, an uncle and nephew, a brother and sister, some twenty-somethings, and a set of twins (colloquially known as the "Hamiltwins"). In less than an hour they had become my people. We were all here for the same, desperate reason. We sang, played card games and talked into the night. At one point a man at the front came over to help a young girl blow up her air mattress with a pump he had. I wasn't alone after all.
At around 2:00am, I settled into my new bed: a slab of Manhattan concrete covered by a thin yoga mat. By this point two new line people had showed up, very shortly after me: a man in his late 50's or early 60's, who literally told me he was doing this for his wife, (she wouldn't be waiting in the line with him one minute), and a young girl who was in town but had to depart on Wednesday night. Yikes. Thank God I hadn't dilly-dallied and good thing I took that cab straight here - I could've ended up behind these guys, and I have to be back at work on Friday morning. My exact spot could make or break whether I see the show. And in fact, it was.
Sleeping was hard. It's hard to sleep when you're substituting a half-inch synthetic pad for a mattress, a duffel bag for a pillow, and when there's a Church of Scientology directly across the street that projects a 24/7 propaganda video on loop, with sound. Since then, I haven't had a dream not imbued with flashbacks of the meaning of Scientology's "mission" and "friendship". I think I slept two hours between 2 and 4am, two more hours between 5 and 7am, and half-slept for another hour after the sun rose.
Our nighttime ventures were not interrupted. While in the line you can expect inquiries from passersby approximately every 15 minutes, at any hour of the day. Most of the time you'll get something along the lines of "What are you guys out here waiting for?" and a "Wooow" upon your response. But there are variations to this line of questioning: namely rude, judgmental New Yorkers who have nothing better to do than harass homeless theater queens about their life choices. "You're doing all of this... for a show?" "You could see three other shows in this same amount of time!" "Why wouldn't you just buy a ticket?" "I mean. I've seen Hamilton. It's good, but not that good. I mean, I wouldn't put it in my top 10." "By taking days to wait in line you could just be making money in that amount of time to pay for a ticket, right?" (Ed note: No sir. Just... No. You are wrong. No.) I must say some of them were pretty fucking awesome. We were woken up one morning by the sound of someone singing to us at the top of his lungs. Another man woke us up by yelling, "what all y'all out here waiting for?" at 5am. And my favorite: a disheveled looking man, with a questionable employment status to be wandering 46th street aimlessly at 4:30am, valiantly yelled out, "GET A JOB!!! GET A JOB!!! GET A JOB!!!" into our sleeping faces. He is my hero.
Morning arrived. For the first time in my life, my day had begun at 6:47am. Jack had bought the entire line bagels. Again, you could tell it wasn't his first time doing this. Sometime around 11am, a staff member from the theater came over and told us to split the line. If you were past #20 on the list, you were to leave and come back after that night's show was over, because there was simply no way more than 20 tickets would be given out in one night, and the theater didn't want additional people loitering. Fair enough. I had heard about this, and it seemed legit. This meant I got to camp out in a Starbucks for 8+ hours and chill for the whole day. Cool. The show was at 7pm, so I went over there at 6:30pm to watch from across the street and see how the whole thing goes down.
As over a thousand people (ticket holders) are filing into the Richard Rodgers, the cancellation line gets sectioned off and pressed up against the wall of the building. Tickets are not released until 30 minutes before the show, at the very earliest. Earlier usually means better because it means more tickets are up for grabs that night. The first set comes out around 6:40pm. The entire line cheers in support as the first people in line enter the theater with their tickets. This happens again and again, roughly 6 or 7 times until about 7:05 when the last ticket is released. They wait, a staff member comes out, people go in, the line cheers, repeat. When the whole thing is over, some of the leftover folks in the line reconvene. I ask the woman who is now manning the list (who is the mother from the family of four) what the deal is. She says "Today was a great day. They released 15 tickets." 3 Premium (best seats in the house - each priced at $550), 10 House seats (non-premium seats in the theater - $199 each) and 2 Standing room (standing area behind the last row of the orchestra - $40 each). She was right. I would later learn that that was the best luck we were going to have. I was grateful, knowing that this bumped me up a promising number of spots in line.
I felt shockingly good all day given my 5 hours of sleep. Around 10pm is when the show ended, and our line friends from before came out of the theater, raving, of course. I didn't want to hear it. Not now. My friend Hope who was doing the line with me arrived around 10:30pm (having her join my place in line was totally legal - everyone is permitted a "plus one," and as long as she isn't bringing her own +1, she can join me in line at whatever time she wants, even right before the show if she has to) and it wasn't until 11pm that the line really re-formed, with a revised version of the list and permission to re-camp out in front of the theater.
Fans had been waiting outside of the stage door starting at 10pm to get autographs. After an hour of nobody coming out, someone from the theater came outside to tell everyone to go home. At around 11:30, Leslie Odom Jr came out, shy but gentle and friendly. Some stopped to talk to him and get his picture, including myself and Hope. It wasn't too crowded or overwhelming because it was us: the cool, deserving line people that had been waiting all day. It was a nice touch.
I was told Wednesday would be a shit show. I actually got OK sleep that night - not long, but with only one minor interruption. I had worked out the recipe for how to get quasi-comfortable sleeping on the street. One of our fellow line-waiters bought cookies and banana bread and shared it with everyone that morning. With me in the first 20 spots in the line now, there was a chance we would be seeing the show that day. Wednesday has not one but two shows: a matinee and evening, as well as #Ham4Ham, where there's a live lottery at 12pm for the matinee, followed by a free performance held outside the theater, hosted by Lin. With all that business happening in front of the theater, the line was going to get moved around a ton. At 11am they moved us down 46th street in front of the Marriott, where we would be until the matinee show. The whole lottery and Ham4Ham sequence was madness, with police blocking the road off and thousands of people flooding 46th street to see the show. For the 30 minutes leading up to #Ham4Ham a flock of 60-80 tween girls congregated on the sidewalk, pressed up against barricades, and rehearsed the first 6 songs of the musical flawlessly. My sisters. Lin hosted #Ham4Ham with Rory O'Malley (who is now the new host) and had special guest Aaron Tveit, who in my opinion is the only white male on planet earth ever worth fan-girling over, so I indulged myself.
When it was over and things settled down, we formed our boxed-off section in front of the theater around 1:30pm (before the 2pm show). I got to wait there because I was in the first 20 now (I want to say #16? #17?) and could in theory be getting a ticket to the matinee show. Though unlikely, a number of the folks in front of me told me they didn't want tickets to the matinee and specifically were waiting for the 8pm show, so they would pass down those tickets to the following people in line. Holy shit, I thought. This could really be happening. I'm #16, yesterday they released 15, and some of the folks up front might pass down their tickets. We could be in the room where it happens in less than half an hour.
Chances of me getting in were low, but I couldn't stop shaking. The suspense was indescribable. Turns out the matinee had some good luck. 11 tickets went out, including 2 or 3 single tickets, which meant some pairs had to break up and sit separately (including the family of four and the Hamiltwins, ugh) though that was the least of people's worries. The doors shut and I hadn't gotten a ticket, which was fine - I was somewhere in the first 10 now, which meant Hope and I were absolutely golden for that night - or Thursday night at the very very latest, which was right before we each had to head home. We were seeing the show. I was elated.
We were told to come back after the show around 5pm, so we took that time to rest. When you hear someone "waited in line for 68 hours," that doesn't mean you're planted on one concrete spot the entire time. During show times and certain periods you are told to disperse with your spot being held by your number on the list. We spent many of hours in food places and the nearby Marriott hotel, which has a lovely lobby, wifi and bathrooms. And when you're in line, it's totally not frowned upon to leave for half an hour for food, bathroom, or to charge your phone. The line knows who you are. It was Wednesday afternoon now, before the evening show. We were so fucking exhausted.
As we grouped back in front of the theater entrance for our second shot that day, I passed one of the Hamiltwins, Madeleine, who had seen the matinee. She still had tears in her eyes. She hugged me thoughtfully and wished me good luck. With all the craziness that day I hadn't realized how long the line had become. There were over 100 people in line now. One of the line sitters told us that number wasn't real because people didn't know what they were in for, and that soon enough that number would plummet. He was sort of right. By the end of that night it was in the 40s - way lower than 100 but certainly a record amount of people willing to wait overnight.
Around 6:00pm we claimed our section boxed up against the theater walls. Soon after, shit started getting really messy. A posse of middle-aged women rolled up, and one asked "Excuse me, is this the cancellation line?" A line sitter named Ben, who was in front and had been managing the list, said "Yes. This is our list. It's pretty long now, I can put you on it but you don't need to be here right now because you won't be getting into tonight's show. It's about a 3-day wait, at least." They threw a fit. I don't know the details because I wasn't dealing with it, but I know they got aggressive, and one of them argued something along the lines of "This isn't fair, this list isn't legitimate because it's not run by the theater, how come I've never heard about this, bla bla bla." They refused to go away for some time, and kept fighting. I'm not sure what happened eventually - either Ben won them over with his words, or a theater staff member came out to tell them to shoo, but they were gone before the tickets came out. Soon after another belligerent woman showed up, claiming she was "seeing this musical tonight." Lol. She passively sat at the front of the line reading a book until the tickets were released. Needless to say, she went home empty-handed. When she was gone, Ben stood up and turned around, holding the orange folder containing the list, and shouted to us, "THE LIST PAMPHLET. HAVE YOU READ THIS?!?!!?" We got hype. You can't fuck with Hamilcamp.
It was 7:30pm now, and we were ready for the 8pm tickets to be released. I was feeling good. I was somewhere like #8 or #9 in line now. Some people had dropped out. So we waited. 7:40pm, nothing. 7:45, nothing. 7:50, nothing. Finally at 7:52 the first pair came out. They went to the line sitter and his client. That first pair were house seats, which meant there were no premiums available for that performance, since the tickets are always released in the order of premium, house, standing room. That sucks. Starting from house seats usually means there are less tickets. Plus, they had started unusually late. Next in line was a group of 4: the uncle and nephew each had +1's which were the man's wife and another smaller child. The wife and young kid got in. Three minutes later, the man and his nephew got in, standing room. Phew. At this point it was already 8pm, which really didn't look good for us. A few minutes later, the staff member came outside, and told us all that was left was one single ticket, standing room. The next person in line was someone who had been there since early on Monday, whose +1 had just shown up to join him. He hesitated on whether or not to take the ticket. Meanwhile, the girl who was just two spots after me in line, whose cutoff for departure was that evening, frantically tried to snag it: "Me! Me! I'll take it if you don't! Please, me!" The man at the front of the line decided: he was going to take it. Fair. His +1 had only arrived 30 minutes prior, and he was, after all, the first person in line.
All this was devastating in a lot of ways. First off, 7 tickets was abnormally low, even for Hamilton: one of the pro line sitters told me, "I've been doing this for almost a year. I have never seen it as low as 7." And the poor girl who came there right after me, who had to fly home Thursday morning... I can't even think about her. My heart hurts too much. But it also put the both of us in a tenuous position. This whole time we thought we were guaranteed tickets to the show. But Wednesday night bumped us up to #5, which sounded good at first, but I quickly realized that in all my previous estimates, I had been overly optimistic. The numbers on the list count warm bodies. They count the actual line waiters. Because the theater's rules state that each cancellation person has the right to purchase two tickets, for any given number of people on the list, the number of physical tickets we're talking about can be up to twice that number. That's where I fucked up. I asked the people ahead of me how many tickets they wanted. The first two folks were professional line sitters, technically together (husband and wife, I think), but who had both been hired in order to each get a +1 ticket for their clients: a young, white, presumably rich couple. I hated them already. So the two line sitters plus their clients made it 4, and the mother and son in front of us had one +1, so 7. Which made Hope and I not really #5, but tickets 8 and 9.
The rest of that evening was pretty morbid. We both realized what we had gotten into. We both had to leave by Friday morning. Thursday was our only shot left. There was a perfectly reasonable chance that we weren't getting in. All it would take was another turnout like tonight. We talked about it for an hour or so, weighing our chances, but I realized that was only making it worse and suggested we stop talking about it. We hung out in the Marriott and listened to Serial for a few hours before returning to the line that night.
We lightened up after seeing our friends return from the show, and singing along to the soundtrack all together. I was so, so tired. Around 11:30pm I set up my little cot under the Richard Rodgers awning. "I'm going to sleep now, I'm gonna try and get a good rest for tomorrow," I told Hope. I couldn't believe what I was saying.
We were awakened by a theater employee telling us to move because they were getting ready to film the show and needed all of the front doors open and cleared to move equipment inside. By some miracle I had gotten 7 full hours of sleep that night: I was curled up before midnight, woken up at 7am, and don't remember any interruptions. We decided to disperse and reconvene at 1pm, so we sat in the Marriott and listened to Serial again.
There isn't much that can be said about the happenings of this day. My emotional and mental states were precarious. I really just remember a vague blur of waiting, sitting, eating, waiting, peeing, Serial, waiting. The upside to Thursday, if there was any at all, was befriending a group of really fun college kids in the line. But any decent moment I got was clouded by uncertainty, nervousness, and fear. Call me dramatic, but this was my 62nd hour on the street, and I could be going home tonight with nothing but several pairs of used earplugs and a dirty yoga mat.
5:00pm rolled around. The show was at 7:00pm. We waited, and waited. I felt lightheaded, thirsty, sick. I can't tell how much of it was due to how incredibly, mind-numbingly nerve racking that whole wait was, or how much of it was due to the literal fact that I had been living, breathing and sleeping on the streets for three days. 9 tickets needed to come out. Last night there were only 7. This was our last day.
At around 6:30, the two line sitters at the front of the line had their clients return. The same young, cold, waspy Greenwich couple that cared more about the upper-crust bragging rights that came with having seen Hamilton than the appreciation of the work of art itself. The theater's new rules were meant to discourage line sitters by preventing them from directly swapping out with their clients. Instead, they had to bring their clients in as their +1. I did the math on my phone. $25 * 75 hours * 2 line sitters, plus the ticket price * 4 people = $5900 if they took premiums, and $4550 for house seats. Fucking idiots. That's $2275 each, far more than the average resale ticket, plus the internal conflict of having to rationalize the fact that you just bought a ticket for a stranger to sit in that theater and see Hamilton. Anyway.
The first line sitter and Waspy Greenwich couple partie un got their tickets around 6:40. Good news because it was early, not so good news because they weren't premium seats, meaning likely a smaller number of overall tickets would be released. There was a long gap until the second line sitter and Waspy Greenwich couple partie deux went in: 6:48. At 6:54, the next pair was released, and the young boy and his +1 went in while his mother stayed behind. A few minutes later, his mother accepted a single ticket.
It was 6:58 and Hope and I were at the front of the line. Meanwhile, another obnoxious New Yorker had come up to the line, questioning us. "Wait - so you guys are camping out here for days? Well what if you wait that whole time and still don't get a ticket?" Jesus Christ lady. Really? "You know if they release a single ticket next, you have to take it," someone in the line told me. "She's right," said Hope. We had discussed this previously. Hope said I had been waiting in the line for a whole extra day, and it would be silly to reject a single ticket. I couldn't fathom that. But now with everything happening in this moment, I just didn't know. The staff member came back out. He waved me in. "Go! Go! GO!" the line told me. "GO," Hope told me. As I walked I asked the man: "But are there two?!" I don't remember his response exactly, just that it was nondescript. He either didn't answer my question, said he didn't know, or just told me to keep moving.
I got to the box office. "How many tickets?" the clerk asked.
And there it was.
I bolted back outside. "HOPIE!!! HOPIE!!" I yelled, tears already in my eyes. Hope ran into my arms. The line cheered. "One or two?" he asked me. "Two... Two."
I hope that by reading this now you feel at least a fraction of what I felt in that moment, so that you believe me when I tell you that at this point in the story, I was in every sense of the word bawling my fucking eyes out, to the point where anyone passing by might think I'm either a) having a stroke or b) dealing with the death of my first born child.
"It's gonna be okay! You alright?" the box office man asked. "I'm alright. I'm alright."
I started to move towards our seats. "Hey! Don't forget the tickets!" he said. Ah, the tickets. ORCH-G 103, they read. Orchestra G. 7th Row. Center.
We were there. We were there. We busted into our row, a line of sophisticated, unacceptably relaxed adults who saw what might have seemed to them as some kind of monsoon: two disgusting, grimy homeless teenagers carrying bags twice their size who were hyperventilating and crying and pushing and shoving their way through all too naturally.
We thought the questions would end in the line. "Where did you guys come from?" "What's going on?" "How long did you wait outside?" People around us were taking our picture. "Gee, who on earth let two homeless youths into the Richard Rodgers? This is BROADWAY, and I'm from MANHATTAN, for Christ's sake!" is what their faces looked like. But it didn't matter. We were here. We were here and everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
(I might add that David Letterman sat in front of us, and Helen Hunt behind us).
The lights went dim. I was clutching Hope. I was sobbing. I sobbed through the first two songs.
I could spend a few more years telling you exactly how I felt during each magical song of that 3-hour performance, but I've said that that's not my job. Hamilton warrants attention. It deserves praise. It deserves the 68 hours on the street and the 6 months at school and at home that I spent wishing and waiting. It deserves excitement and tears. I would have given that for the whole show if I could have. I had exhausted all the salty, watery discharge that my little body could produce in the first 15 minutes of being there. But I was there.
During intermission, the girl in the row in front of us was posting a picture of the show on her Instagram. She had almost just been caught for illegally taking photos by an employee. She turned around to us. "Wait, what's the name of the guy who wrote this musical again?" she asked. I clutched Hope. "Lin-Manuel Miranda," I said. And that's when I realized that Hamilton deserved me just as much as I deserved Hamilton.
We left the theater after the show to say farewell to our line buddies. I saw Gary, the man I had met on my first day who came to the line an hour after me (the one waiting for his wife) sitting in his camping chair. "You're still here?" I asked. "Yeah! Waiting for tomorrow's show. You didn't hear? You and your friend were the last tickets."
I have never believed in God. My whole life I've been an atheist. My mother was raised Methodist, my father Muslim, but neither of them have practiced religion since elementary school. My father, now in his 50s, often claims that "If religion didn't exist, there would be a lot less fighting and craziness and the world would just be a better place." I tend to err on the side of agreeing with him.
But not that night. I believed in something that night, because things like that don't just happen. Two broke, helpless college students don't just end up in the 7th center row of the Orchestra at Richard Rodgers theater to see Hamilton with the original cast two weeks before their departure just because we "wanted to and so we tried." The world is never that nice of a place.
Hope and I caught an 11:15 bus back to DC that night, to both get to our respective jobs in the morning. We discussed the show on our ride home from start to finish.
We get to my house. After eating, showering, and settling down for the night, it is 4:30am. I'm exhausted. My body hurts. But I just can't sleep. My bed feels odd. I get up and wander around my kitchen. I sit on the hardwood floor, pressed up against my refrigerator. Something felt right.
I think about the past 75 hours. I wouldn't trade that experience for the world. Being present, being thankful, being understanding. There are millions of people out there. Thousands of those millions are people who have or have had tickets to see Hamilton. And out of those thousands, there are a few that stand out to me. They're special. We're bound together by a single, invisible thread: we are all willing to wait for it.