I love invited dress rehearsals.
I love seeing a work in progress in the making. I love being a part of an initial audience to "beta test" a new piece of art. I love watching the faces of the actors on stage as they hear reactions to what they've been practicing for so many weeks in the isolation of a rehearsal room.
But mostly I love being a part of an audience that's experiencing a theatrical performance for the very first time.
This Thursday night marked the fifth or sixth invited dress rehearsal for Hamilton the musical that I've attended.My husband, who has been a part of the Hamilton sound team since the pre-Broadway days of the show, occasionally offers me invitations when I'm in town for new productions. Since I had already booked my flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to see the opening night performance the following day, I gladly accepted. Even after all these years, I still feel amazingly lucky every time I have the privilege to watch this show.
Especially when I get to bring a first-timer.
Before the show, I caught up with my “plus one,” a woman I met three years ago on a solo trip to Puerto Rico. Back then, she showed me around her neighborhood, introduced me to La Placita in Santurce, and recommended others places where I might explore. This time, I had a chance to pay it forward.
Over dinner, she briefed me on how life has been for her since our first and only previous meeting, back in February 2016 when I was in between jobs. I filled her in on how my life has been since that moment, as did she. I learned that for her (as is likely the case for many Puerto Ricans), there are now only two “eras” of time in her life: Before the hurricane, and after.
We spoke about the lives of her and her friends and her family. Where people disappeared for long stretches of time afterward. Chicago. Miami. Somewhere else. We spoke about the ironies of how it was only her landline phone that allowed her to place a call to her sister the day after it happened.
"What day was it, again?” I asked.
She gave me a look that was as if I’d asked what day the Twin Towers fell in New York City.
"Right,” I said. "Sorry.”
Reviving the local spirit
I heard many versions of this story during the two weeks I spent in Puerto Rico around the holidays this year. Uber drivers who were without power for three months. A university student who barricaded himself and other foreign exchange students with no where to go into the deepest, concrete-protected part of their dorm. And while recovery efforts have been great, you don’t have to look far to see indications of Maria’s damage. The hotel where we stayed had reopened just days before the arrival of the Hamilton crew and creative team that would be staying there for the duration of the show’s run in San Juan.
"So how long have you worked at this hotel?” I asked one of the fitness instructors on my third day there.
"Well, before the hurricane, I worked her for six months. Then, we were closed one year. This is my first week back.”
The matter-of-fact way that people now talk about Maria may strike you as oddly impassive at first. But then you realize that it’s the only way to move on. How interesting, I thought, to be among a group of people who share such a striking and terrifying passage of their culture and society together. How empowering it is to see bits and pieces of rebirth everywhere you look. Art and creativity is all around — from the murals in Santurce to the revitalization of small businesses.
There’s a shared camaraderie among the people I met in Puerto Rico, and I felt honored to be welcomed on my visit and introduced to many locals. When I found what would become my opening night outfit, a colonial-inspired yellow and white lace dress, the shopkeeper of the vintage boutique directed me down the street to her friend, Nikita, to have it altered. Nikita, without speaking a word of English, perfectly sized the dress for me, then ushered me next door to the salon next door to make sure I’d have hair to match. I sheepishly showed the stylist (who also didn’t speak any English) a picture of how the Schuyler Sisters are dressed in the Broadway show asked for a simple blowout to match Eliza’s look.
"You’re here for Hamilton?” interjected another woman at the salon who spoke a little English."Jimmy Fallon is San Juan! Did you know? He’s doing the show here!” Her grin spread from ear to ear.
While getting my blowout, I watched as a local photographer documented the looks of myself and a few other patrons, interviewing the owner and shooting B-roll for publicity clips about the salon.
"I have a passion for hair. Come here for your highlights, your haircuts, and your blowouts,” he rehearsed three or four times in Spanish.
It felt uplifting and inspiring to see so much energy around improvements and upgrades. There’s an authenticity to this rebirth, as if everything around you served as a reminder to lean deeply into your Puerto Rican roots. Being Puerto Rican means something more now than it did before Maria, that’s for sure. But as a visitor, I couldn’t quite place what it was just yet.
When I talked to my friend about this, she told me about a campaign that she’s been working on to help encourage this growth period and optimism across all of Puerto Rico. Rather than focus on the negative — on the spike in mental health issues and suicides since the hurricanes — it’s better to find the strength to grow and move on.
There’s a phrase she’s been testing out for a potential campaign intended to spark optimism and hope among Puerto Ricans: Reverdece Tú También. In English, it roughly translates to "You can rebloom too.” She says when people hear it for the first time in Spanish, it catches them a little off-guard and they they grow quiet, even somber.
"Wow,” they might respond."Yeah, actually…that’s pretty good. I needed that. Thank you.”
The magic of live theatre
There are three things I like to pay attention to in dress rehearsals for Hamilton as a way to sort of get an early pulse check on the overall vibe and persona of the audience in a new city:
Whether or not people sing along with the King in "You’ll be back.”
How much people react to the line, "Immigrants. We get the job done.”
Whether or not there’s applause after "Quiet uptown.”
None of that mattered in San Juan. All I could think about as we kicked off the second act was, how is this room going to react to the song about the hurricane?
The audience that night was packed with locals. My friend recognized at least two other people from our seats on the mezzanine. The energy was good, but I also got the sense that it was not a room full of superfans who already knew every last word. Was it possible the song would catch some of them off guard?
As the stage cleared and the lights adjusted in the signature blue and purple circles at the top of the song, I held my breath through the first few bars of piano in the introduction. Then, Lin, picked his head up from the deadpan straight shot across the orchestra level and locked eyes with us, the people, his people, all the way up in the mezzanine.
"In the eye of the hurricane, there is quiet. For just a moment. A yellow sky.”
I felt the whole room bristle at the word,"hurricane.” It was like a minor assault, a tad of PTSD, or the feeling you might expect by saying, “Voldemort” in a room of wizards in a Harry Potter story. Lin held the gaze with the upper levels of the theatre. Oh god, I thought. He’s going to say it again.
"When I was 17, a hurricane destroyed my town.”
It felt like a little electric shock or zap on each utterance. I wanted to turn my head and read the room a bit more, but I couldn’t budge. I couldn’t even breathe. I’ve never heard a theatre so quiet. It felt simultaneously cathartic and horrifying insensitive to bring up something so raw, just right down there, in center stage. To sing about a tragedy that everyone in the room knew far too well.
"I didn’t drown. I couldn’t seem to die.”
I suddenly felt like I was a part of the world’s largest group therapy session. You’re okay, he seemed to be saying. You didn’t die.
You made it out. You made it here. Things will get better.
It was the longest and shorted two-and-a-half minutes of my life. I wished it could stretch out more, to allow a bit more of that feeling to settle in, to give the room the satisfaction of digging in a bit too deep before bringing us back out of it again.
But of course, the show must go on. And so, the next song began, and the moment passed as quickly as it arrived. By the time King George came dancing and prancing on in the midst of "The Reynolds Pamphlet,” everybody had rebounded right back up. That’s live theatre for you.
I didn’t talk about this with any of the locals at the show, but I was still thinking about that moment on the car ride home. I felt something palpable and real during that song, and whatever it was, I was glad to be there for it, to share a fraction of that feeling with the rest of the room. I won’t pretend to know what it might have been like to be in San Juan during Hurricane Maria, nor what it must be like still to this day to be recovering and grieving. Maybe it's impossible to understand. Maybe the point is that you can’t exactly even articulate it into words.
But of all of the people that I met, all of the vibrancy and the colors and the music and the drinks, it is clear to me that, even while the collective consciousness may still be raw, there is lots of life on this island yet. I thought back to the working motto my friend shared with me: "You can rebloom too.” Maybe, for now, that one song is just enough.