The hottest Broadway show not on any stage is a free, five-minute performance running two to three times a week about two hours before curtain on the sidewalk outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. There, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of and a lead actor in the rap musical Hamilton, MCs an impromptu performance with guests from his own and other Broadway hits, past and present. “Thank you for coming!” he shouts before introducing his guests. “We’ll be here hopefully for a nice long time, thanks to you, so come back.”
Audiences have obliged. Anywhere from 300 to 700 fans show up for what’s been dubbed the #Ham4Ham ticket lottery and show. The hashtag first appeared during Hamilton’s run at New York’s Public Theater earlier this year. A handful of names were drawn for $10 (a “Ham”) tickets at each performance. When the hip-hop tale about one of America’s founding fathers moved to Broadway in July, the lottery, the hashtag, and the buzz came with it.
The five-minute street performance has become an event in itself, and publicists for other shows have contacted Hamilton’s managers to see if their stars can win an invite to perform. “It’s doing something for the industry,” says Amanda Pekoe, chief executive officer of the Pekoe Group, a theatrical advertising agency. “A lot of other shows are seeing how cool the marketing can be, and are working to come up with their own take.”
Hamilton’s management expected 200 to 300 people outside the theater for the $10 ticket lottery on July 13, the start of Broadway previews; about 704 showed. “We weren’t prepared for that,” says Kaitlin Fine, the assistant company manager, “but the energy was unbelievable.” Miranda, moved by the huge turnout, thanked the crowd. Within days his gesture grew into the street performance. Along with company members, he presented bits from the play or anything the performers wanted to do.
Miranda then started inviting friends and fellow Broadway actors from other shows to join in. Tony award winner Kelli O’Hara, starring in the current production of The King and I, appeared on Sept. 2 to rap LL Cool J’s I Need Love (Miranda sang beatbox) and belt out Somebody Somewhere from The Most Happy Fella. Tony and Emmy nominee Matthew Morrison, the lead in Finding Neverland, showed up three days later and improvised a rap before singing a ballad from The Light in the Piazza, the 2010 Lincoln Center production he and O’Hara co-starred in. There were cast members from this year’s Tony winner for best musical, Fun Home. Ryann Redmond and Ariana DeBose, from Miranda’s Bring It On, the Musical, sang at the Sept. 26 show.
“It’s like a dopamine shot, total adrenaline for exactly four minutes with no prep. In a lot of ways, it’s the most pure essence of what we do,” Miranda recently said of the #Ham4Ham show.
Show lotteries aren’t new. Setting aside seats at a big discount started with Rent in 1999. Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller was behind that effort, too. Today, most shows run a lottery, putting their own spin on it. The current revival of Spring Awakening by Deaf West Theatre, with a cast of hearing and deaf actors, is running one in both American Sign Language and spoken English, selling a limited number of seats at $35.
When Hamilton’s $10 tickets, 21 of them, are gone, the staff encourages fans to seek out other productions. “We tell people, ‘If you don’t win, head over to the Spring Awakening lottery, which starts in half an hour,’ ” says Roque Berlanga, one of the staffers running #Ham4Ham. And since Hamilton is a particularly difficult ticket to score—there’s about a six-month wait for prime orchestra seats, which can cost as much as $477—the street performances reward potential ticket buyers for their interest and keep them coming back. The musical and #Ham4Ham show are helped by Miranda’s familiarity and comfort with social media. “Most people don’t have the marketing savvy and the artistic gifts,” says Hamilton cast member Renée Elise Goldsberry, who has performed twice at #Ham4Ham. But Miranda does, she says. “When you find in one body somebody who is very comfortable doing it all, that’s unique.”
Jim Glaub, creative director of interactive at theatrical advertising agency Serino/Coyne, says the #Ham4Ham show and resulting social media exchanges create great content. “It’s a special moment that you can never see again—but you can, because it’s documented on people’s iPhones and on Snapchat and other platforms.” Also, says Angelo Desimini, chief executive officer of Serino/Coyne, #Ham4Ham “is authentic to who Miranda is and the themes of the show,” and authenticity is the most important part of any marketing effort.
As traditional media outlets cut back on arts coverage, word of mouth is the main engine for Broadway ticket sales, says Desimini. And more of that chatter is online.
Given the limited marketing budgets that Broadway shows command—the average weekly spend can range from about $80,000 to $125,000—social buzz is key. “We’re always looking for something that could go viral,” says Pekoe.
The bottom line: The Broadway hit Hamilton holds frequent free shows outside its theater that draw buzz and future ticket buyers.