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‘Hamilton’ returns to a Kennedy Center, city and world turned upside down

“Hamilton” returned to the Kennedy Center after two years of leaving amid the pandemic. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

The security lines snaked once more out of the Kennedy Center foyer, and Silver Spring teens Amelia Beard, Anastasia Wixson and Ranvita Sen were chattering with excitement. At the end was their chance to see “Hamilton,” the too-many-awards-to-count-winning musical behemoth running until October after a two-year delay. Beard said she and her sister had spent the pandemic blasting the soundtrack, annoying their parents into submission. “Eventually, they were like, ‘We can’t stop them,’” she said.

The Kennedy Center and surrounding neighborhood are also counting on “Hamilton” to turn unstoppable again. But since the show last hit the District, outside its room at the Opera House, quite a bit has happened.

The Kennedy Center, which paid more than $50 million to present “Hamilton” in 2018, had to nix it and other major productions in 2020. The venue cut nearly 30 percent of its administrative staff that year and projected a $23 million budget shortfall. And some Foggy Bottom and Georgetown restaurants and bars, which before the pandemic feasted off scrappy and hungry Kennedy Center patrons, got battered. Could a revolution be incoming now?

“With all of the activities and the people who come to see ‘Hamilton,’ it benefits every aspect,” said Jeffrey Finn, the Kennedy Center’s vice president and executive producer of theater. “There are more people in the building, more reservations at the restaurants. There is more activity. It is so thrilling for us at the center to see a very full grand foyer of patrons very eager to see the show. So, any Broadway hit, I use the phrase, can lift all boats.”

It certainly lifted Circa. The bistro, which thrives on the lanyard-wearing happy hour crowd, sits across the street from the Kennedy Center’s Metro shuttle stop. During the 2018 “Hamilton” season, that location powered it to its highest sales year in its 11-year history.

“After the show, the shuttle would drop off, and it was always a bear-down-the-hatches kind of response of just get ready for this rush of people,” said Maggie O’Connor, an assistant general manager at the time and now a brand manager for Circa’s parent company.

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Those kinds of rushes require extra preparation in a time of diminished restaurant personnel. The team at Tonic at Quigley’s Pharmacy, a gastropub that is a 10-minute walk from Kennedy Center, keeps show schedules in mind when staffing, events director Anastasia Kochnowicz said. Farmers Fishers Bakers, on the Georgetown waterfront, goes further: Managers there tape the theater calendars to the wall.

“The Kennedy Center is very important to us,” said Dan Simons, one of the owners of Farmers Restaurant Group. “The loss of live events like that during the pandemic was just one more thing in that disastrous restaurant recipe of the pandemic. Whenever the Kennedy Center started with some new live activity, I didn’t necessarily notice anything immediately. But the arrival of ‘Hamilton’ is really valuable to us.”

In the less than two weeks since the show returned, Farmers Fishers Bakers has seen a 15 percent increase in diners in the pre-show period, Simons said. So far, though, the post-show crowd has not altogether returned. The ride-share lines outside the Kennedy Center tend to be long, as many patrons simply zip home. “I don’t fill up my bus like I used to,” said David Wade, who has driven a shuttle for the venue for 18 years.

“It is hard to capture the feel of pre-pandemic days,” O’Connor said. “We are getting back to it, but it is not the same vibe in the restaurant as before.”

The nation’s political and cultural landscapes have also transformed, noted Adam Rothman, a professor of history at Georgetown, and that has transformed the context for “Hamilton.” When the Lin-Manuel Miranda creation thundered onto Broadway in 2015, a race-bending rap musical touting that immigrants “get the job done,” it was an “expression of the kind of multicultural exuberance of the Obama era, this sense of possibility of a kind of post-racial America,” Rothman said.

That hope has, as he put it, “all been blown up.”

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One reason: Heightened consciousness of racism and slavery, fostered by the New York Times 1619 Project, made “Hamilton” feel “naive” with its evasion of the subject, Rothman said. Another reason: “Hamilton”-founded appeals, like the cast’s November 2016 intervention attempt with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, did not land.

“One thing that is apparent and so clear now, that was not maybe clear at that time, was the limits of liberal culture to shape politics,” Rothman said. “There was this idea that if everybody would just see ‘Hamilton,’ we would all be able to get along.”

But it still can speak to our time today, he said. In the hyperpolarized era of the show, too, it looked as if “the union might not survive.”

“Hamilton” can prompt renewed conversations, fans suggest, about the nation’s genesis, how the Founding Fathers made the decisions they did and what they did wrong.

It allows the audience to “go back and look at the ideas surrounding the country’s creation and to understand that people who were writing it, their perspectives may have been limited,” Lena Steiner, 38, said before a recent Kennedy Center showing, after her friend had won a ticket lottery.

Having people of color tell the historical story was powerful to Steiner, as a Latina woman. Miranda “was able to take something that was very centered on White people and tell the story in a way that included people now, and it makes it so everyone feels like we are included in the American story,” Steiner said.

“It is such a creative and imaginative way of reinterpreting history. That is part of what makes it inspiring. I think that still makes it inspiring,” Rothman said. “It still draws people into history who might not otherwise cared about history. And, as a historian, I think that is really important.”

Drawing people in will be most important, these next two months, for the Kennedy Center itself. When planning the return from the pandemic, the historic venue was eager to stack its theater schedule with high-profile shows, including the Tony-award-winning “Hadestown,” which sold out its October 2021 run and marked the resumption of normal programming. But finally getting a second round of “Hamilton” was essential, Finn said.

One more change since its last Washington run was its 2020 arrival on Disney Plus, significantly widening access to a performance for which 70,000 fans piled into the online queue here in 2018. That has been a boon for fans like Beard, but also a possible factor in why tickets are more obtainable at the Kennedy Center this time around.

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Katie Rose, 43, and Jennifer Dougherty, 39, snapped two up. For them, the return of “Hamilton” meant the return of show rituals like heading to Tazza Cafe, at the Watergate complex, for pizza and drinks. More than just a meal, it is a way to debrief and analyze the show with each other and even with strangers.

“There is just sort of a buzz in the air,” Dougherty said. “And there have been a few times where we will be there and strike up a conversation with someone at another table about what we are excited about,” she said. “There is always this excitement around going to see something live. That is always there.”

The show, at least for now, goes on.

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