At the first 'Hamilton' performances, the party is just getting started

At the first 'Hamilton' performances, the party is just getting started
Chad Evett as King George III and Katie Aiani as George Washington take a selfie with Olivia Kimbley before the performance of "Hamilton" on Friday at the Pantages Theatre. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The gilded foyer of Old Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre buzzed with restless anticipation. With just an hour on the clock until “Hamilton” took the stage for its firstperformance in Los Angeles, a healthy dose of nerves was par for the course. This is the theater, after all.

It was 6:55 p.m. Friday and the biggest theatrical event in Los Angeles in decades was about to commence. "Five minutes!" called out Benny Aguayo, the assistant director of marketing and communications for the theater.


At his cue, two T-shirted staff members scurried across the carpeted lobby to collect a stray plastic folding table before hotfooting out of sight. The gray-toned flash furnishing looked out of place among the neighboring accoutrement: three deliberately positioned, glossy pop-up booths touting “Hamilton”-themed wares, spotlighted quite masterfully beneath a glittery lineup of Art Decochandeliers.

The venue's staff had been awaiting this moment for quite a bit longer — pretty much since the Pantages' 21-week run of "Hamilton" was announced in January 2016.

And now, after months of grand preparations — for example, the theater replaced 6,000 square feet of plush geometric carpeting post-"Book of Mormon" run, which closed in July — the staff geared up for its own well-rehearsed, first-time performance: the pre-show.

The clock (or rather, a smattering of iPhone screens) struck 7 sharp — like a shotgun. The staff snapped into position as the lobby doors swung open, giving way to a flood of ravenous, giddy, "Hamilton"-obsessed audience members.

Within minutes, the cavernous entryway was packed and pulsing with an extraordinary fervor. Per its remarkably wide appeal, “Hamilton’s” opening night preview show drew an eclectic crowd of locals and out-of-towners, ranging from wide-eyed youngsters to white-haired adults. For both die-hard fans and run-of-the-mill theatrical enthusiasts “Hamilton” is — and has always been, since its debut — a really, monumentally, life-alteringly big deal.

But even beyond the seemingly endless “Hamilton” craze, Friday night’s audience was distinguished in its own right. These devoted attendees proved themselves the reigning chieftains of the “Hamilton” fandom — on the West Coast, at least. They are the shrieking, costume-wearing testament to the very real, very poignant influence of “Hamilton,” a pop culture reference point for our times.

Theatergoers, some in costume and some in good voice, attend the first performance of "Hamilton" at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood on Aug. 11, 2017.

For 19-year-old Sam Hengesbach (whose pronouns are: they, them, theirs), the so-called magic of "Hamilton" is in its sweeping ability to spark change — even if only in a deeply personal sense.

Donning a recently thrifted, Colonial-inspired ensemble (topped off with mother Dawn Hengesbach's vintage white-lace homecoming gloves, circa 1980), Hengesbach stood near the end of a cramped, winding queue for one of the merchandise tables. Sandwiched between the refreshments counter and an ostensibly middle-aged couple, Hengesbach — whose almost equally emphatic mother stood just a few paces away in line — took the opportunity to do what Hengesbach likes best: Gush about "Hamilton."

"This is unreal," they said, nodding toward the auditorium doors nearby. "It's dream-like. It's that 'I can't stop smiling' sort of feeling."

Even from an unfamiliar third-party's perspective, that was unequivocally clear. Hengesbach's ear-to-ear grin was luminous from across the teeming venue.

Three months ago, Hengesbach's mother gifted them "Hamilton" by way of one of the Pantages' season pass ticket packages — whose guaranteed admittance to "Hamilton" apparently outweighs its lofty price. (Hengesbach pointed out that other "Hamilton" die-hards are going to much greater lengths in an effort to score a ticket. See: Hunt4Ham Ticket Scavenger Hunt.)

Candice Berge, right, finishes belting out a song from the musical, "Hamilton," while friend Amber Infante looks.
Candice Berge, right, finishes belting out a song from the musical, "Hamilton," while friend Amber Infante looks. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As far as the Hengesbachs are concerned, "Hamilton" is more than worth the fare. Because, for Sam, "Hamilton" is much more than a musical. At a critical point in what had been an enduring struggle with their mental health, "Hamilton" became something of a lifeline.

In 2016, Hengesbach was caught in the throes of what they recalled to be a stagnating cocktail of "senioritis and depression."

"I was just very low," Hengesbach remembered, adding, "I was failing, like, half my classes."

But when a friend messaged Hengesbach the YouTube link to "Non-Stop" — the galvanizing anthem that closes "Hamilton"s first act — listening to it actually sparked a sort of internal transformation.

"['Non-Stop'] finally gave me motivation to do something, I guess? To do my homework, to be a person again," Hengesbach said. "So, 'Hamilton' basically lifted me up and helped me graduate high school."

Since then, both Hengesbachs have been hooked.

"I used to make her listen to the whole soundtrack over and over in the car," Hengesbach said, nodding to Dawn.

"Yeah," Dawn chuckled dryly, "for a long time."

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