On a sunny Thursday evening, roughly 2,000 people packed into the darkened Atwood Concert Hall theater to absorb the experience of the opening night of “Hamilton” in Anchorage.
From the first strains of mood-setting music to the thunderous final standing ovation, we were enraptured.
The Broadway musical’s first performances in Anchorage this week attracted audiences representing a cross-section of a diverse community. Families with school-age children, retirees, young adults in jeans and sandals, others dressed to the nines in sequins, silk and sport coats — all packed the lobby before showtime and during intermission. The mayor attended Thursday night’s performance. On Friday, the Anchorage School District superintendent was there.
At the merchandise booth before Friday’s show, Anchorage sixth grader Ascher Strait literally bounced with excitement as she picked out souvenirs — including a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Just like my country, young, scrappy & hungry” — with her sisters, sixth grader Avalyn and eighth grader Alia.
Their family had eaten dinner at 49th State Brewing Co. and popped over to the new Wild Scoops location before parents Enjoli and Sterling Strait surprised their daughters with tickets for that night’s show.
”Our kids love it,” Sterling Strait said.
How many times have they seen the “Hamilton” movie? The girls’ estimates ranged from “at least five or six times” to “too many, too many.” Why do they like the show so much? “It has good music!”
Anchorage resident Alexis Tuazon, 26, also attended Friday’s performance with family. When asked whether she was a big “Hamilton” fan, she said, “Yeah, yes, oh my God. I’m pretty sure I know all the songs by heart.”
Tuazon said she and her husband had pounced on buying tickets when they received a notice from one of Broadway Alaska’s series sponsors. She’d previously considered whether to see the show on a trip to New York. Eliza Schuyler Hamilton — Alexander’s wife, a linchpin in the musical — is her favorite character.
The show’s broad appeal is what helped catapult a musical about Alexander Hamilton into the country’s pop-culture consciousness after its stage debut in 2015. Fans embraced “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s refreshingly modern approach and color-blind casting in telling the story of one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
Miranda’s songwriting, razor-sharp lyrics and mishmash of musical influences — who knew that rap battles, soulful ballads and R&B rhythms could pair so well with a snare-drum interlude? — hooked those who listened to the original Broadway cast recording. Often on repeat.
And history buffs could appreciate deep cuts on songs like “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” which quotes from Hamilton’s actual Reynolds Pamphlet, and the show’s spotlight on pivotal events surrounding our country’s infancy.
The musical became even more of a cultural touchstone when the film version was released on Disney+ in July 2020, a few months into the hunker-down era of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, “Hamilton” has landed in downtown Anchorage.
The people behind the new Broadway Alaska partnership believe bringing big productions like “Hamilton” to Anchorage can help reinvigorate the economy.
Rob DeLucia, co-owner and general manager of Crush Wine Bistro & Cellar, said before Friday’s show that he was optimistic about what the new developments at the Center for the Performing Arts could mean for Anchorage. Twenty-five years ago, he and his wife chose to move here in part because they wanted “a little bit of that metropolitan feel,” and downtown was vibrant back then, he said. Then years of challenges — including a recession, the 2018 earthquake and the pandemic — slowly sapped the energy from the city’s central business district.
“This is like, the first time that I’m seeing something get turned on downtown,” DeLucia said. “It’s like somebody flipped a switch again, which is pretty exciting.”
Crush is the performing arts center’s licensed concessionaire, and DeLucia said the string of major shows this season is huge for him as an employer because it helps him give his employees a series of work opportunities they can rely on and look forward to.
“You feel really confident hiring people and getting people excited about working,” he said.
Codie Costello, president and chief operating officer of the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, said organizers anticipate the four Broadway Alaska productions this season could yield $35 million to $45 million in economic impact.
Waiting in the line for concessions during Friday’s intermission, Bryan Evans, who recently turned 50, shared how his late mother was a huge fan of “Hamilton.” She died in January, and he said he decided to fly into Anchorage from Maryland to experience the show live for the first time.
“I just figured, you know, why not do it?” he said.
While Evans now lives in Bowie, Maryland, he said Eagle River was his hometown, and he and his mom would see shows such as “The Producers” and “Dreamgirls” together at the performing arts center. The turnout for the second night of “Hamilton” was bigger than he expected.
“It’s great,” Evans said. “And especially in a community like Anchorage, just to support so much diversity is vital to see and have.”
While plenty of other can’t-miss Anchorage events have attracted crowds in the past couple years, there’s something searingly intimate about sitting in a dark room with hundreds of other people, immersed in a live experience that can take you from roiling laughter, to heartache, to fervent applause, to the kind of echoing silence that sweeps over an audience when we’re collectively holding our breaths for the actors’ next move onstage.
There’s a rush that comes from getting caught up in an emotionally charged performance you can’t rewind and replay: Blink, and you’ll miss it. Recount it now, before you forget.
It’s all part of a shared cultural moment. During a song about 1781′s Battle of Yorktown, after actors delivered the line “Immigrants, we get the job done!” to audience cheers, I marveled at the experience of being a child of Vietnamese immigrants, seated alongside community members from an ocean of diverse backgrounds, watching BIPOC actors put their own spin on events that unfolded around the time of our nation’s founding, thousands of miles away.
The show touches on all kinds of questions without easy answers: What does it mean to hold true to your ideals? To be American? To belong? To act with honor and loyalty? To be a changemaker, or a leader? What legacy might we leave behind, and who gets to tell our stories?
Daily News entertainment and sports editor Chris Bieri contributed.