The Story of tonight: A Presidential Performance
Nicolle Borrero and Marie Louise Toruno
Bartender Marie Louise Toruno has worked at the Richard Rodgers Theater for several years.
She has seen her share of shows come and go in that space but nothing can compare to the phenomenon of Hamilton: An American Musical. After If/Then, starring Idina Mendzel, closed, Marie wondered what show would end up taking its place. When Hamilton’s residency at the Richard Rodgers was announced and pre-sales broke records, Toruno knew she had job security. It’s been a whirlwind ride for everyone involved, at every level, ever since.
The show itself has become a symbol for American perseverance and tolerance, a reminder of what our core values are as a nation of immigrants, and a beacon for hope and love amidst the turbulent, hateful, and alarmingly divisive rhetoric currently sweeping the United States. Between ticket scarcity and current political context, a night at that theatre can be just as entertaining as the show itself.
The audience has been a revolving door of celebrities. Name anyone, they’ve probably seen the show. We’re talking Oprah (she winks a lot), Saudi princes, Beyonce (Pre-Lemonade: she was wearing an orange jumpsuit, a high pony, and a knowing look), Sarah Jessica Parker (the sweetest), Chelsea Handler (the rudest), Amy Schumer (infamously the best tipper), Courtney Love (“I just want rum in a cup, I know that’s trashy”). But the show has attracted powerhouses from the world of politics as well. For anyone lucky enough to have seen the show, it is important to remember you may have been present during a performance that has made history in some way or another. When it comes to Hamilton, context is everything.
In July 2015, President Obama attended a matinee of Hamilton on its first Saturday of previews. The house opened hours earlier than usual in order to accommodate the Secret Service, the sweep of the building and screening of every guest. As Marie tells it, no one could leave after entering the theater. The entire block of West 46th St between 7th and 8th Avenue was cordoned off and barricades required proof of ticket or employment for anyone trying to enter all the theatres on that stretch, not just the Richard Rodgers. “It was really fun. We all took turns flirting with the hot Secret Service men!” says Marie. Earlier in the morning, Lin Manuel Miranda himself had come into the lobby looking anxious. Marie offered him a glass of wine to calm his nerves and Miranda revealed this would be the very first time he would watch his own show. An understudy would perform the role of Alexander Hamilton and Miranda would get to sit down with President Obama himself. Can you imagine that feeling?
Theater staff were only made aware a couple days in advance whereas Obama’s identity was kept from the audience members. Marie recalls the metal detectors and intense screening somewhat gave it away making the guests’ anticipation palpable. President Obama was brought in through the alley, which had been tented and would be where a limo would remain parked until the end of the show. When he finally entered the theatre, the house went absolutely nuts. Guests and staff alike struggled to get a good look at him, while trying not to anger the Secret Service. “I just want to see my President!” The room where the bar’s ice machine lives was sectioned off for Obama to hang out in during intermission, a major inconvenience to the bar staff. The rumor of the day between the staff was that the nuclear codes were being kept there for the President.
After the matinee Obama was quickly ushered out of the building and back into his limo. The house cleared, and Miranda came back into the lobby.
Marie: Hey I gave you a glass of wine earlier! How’d it go?
Lin: I never needed a glass of wine more in my life. Thank you so much!
Marie: No problem. I’ll leave you to have your moment.
Lin: I’ll see you at work!
Thus ended the first week, an indication of the show’s run to come. Marie says “Once one of the most important people in the world saw the show, it gave me a sense of how important it was going to be. After that, everyone came.” Joe Biden saw Hamilton flanked with only two Secret Service agents, and walked right through the crowded lobby with confidence. He shook hands and freely gave hugs to the guests’ delight. When Hillary Clinton saw the show, she was very much on the campaign trail. She had already seen Hamilton at the Public. She came to speak to the Democratic National Committee (they’d bought out the theater). Marie recalls Clinton smiling at her while she was doing her checkout behind the bar. “The Secret Service tried to move me but I wouldn’t let them. I had to count my drawer! I remember thinking to myself ‘OMG our next president just smiled at me!’ It was my 28th birthday.”
On November 18th 2016, Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence went to the theatre just nine days after election night. “It was too fresh,” says Marie. Security was light, no metal detectors. The staff was told about Pence’s impending visit the very same day. Most felt if they’d been told sooner, they would not have shown up for the shift. In fact, the set-up leading to opening the doors was markedly angry and most of the staff wanted to go home. While Marie prepped the bar, Pence used the bathroom in the lobby before entering the house. He waved at Marie specifically but she turned her back on him. “My brother told me to boo him like the old lady in the Princess Bride.”
The usual protocol for ushering in VIPs at the theatre is precise. The person is kept somewhere, usually the alley or the wings, and only brought in once the house lights have been lowered. Mike Pence waited in the wings and was instructed to enter the house, but the lights were definitely still on. Marie insists this was not a coincidence. “It very much felt like we were putting him on display. ‘We see you Pence.” The audience immediately booed him. No hesitation. Marie booing loudest of all. “Everyone started yelling, their eyes were welling. Maybe it was cathartic. We got to express our rage and disappointment.” Specific moments of the show received a much louder, prolonged response from the audience that evening: “Immigrants we get the job done!” and “You don’t know how to lead a nation” and “When people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.”
The backdrop of that dark week turned the musical on its head. Protesters lined the street, which had not been cordoned off, after reports of Pence’s presence leaked. Then of course, came the infamous curtain call. Lin Manuel Miranda wrote a message for the cast to deliver directly towards Vice-President Pence. Marie was surprised at the general attitude of the staff and guests after the show. “The night began on such a sour note but once we got it all off our chests we felt better. It feels good to know when you bring a group of people together in NYC, they will make their voices heard, they’re going to react.” Lin-Manuel Miranda himself had just a few months back performed that infamous heart-wrenching poem when he swept the Tony’s:
"This show is proof that history remembers // We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger //
We rise and fall and light from dying embers // Remembrances that hope and love last longer.
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,
cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story. // Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.”
Marie doesn’t believe other theaters would have allowed a spontaneous protest to occur within its walls. “That’s the kind of art people are creating now and the kind of message being communicated against hate, intolerance and injustice. Hamilton is using its voice to speak to large groups of people at a time. Both days that Obama and Pence came to see the show were amazing nights to be in house. With Obama, the vibe was very much ‘That’s our dude!’ We felt very proud to share a space with him. With Pence, it was like he invaded our space. We had to let him know where the fuck he was and show our resistance. It’s freeing to work in an atmosphere where my values are shared. Our community creates a celebration every day in so many ways. The work we do, whether as bartenders, cast members, crew, or as ushers, isn’t separated from the outside world. It’s a great place to come to work.”