The performance itself brought three indelible moments. The first came when Miranda entered as Hamilton. There’s often applause for his entrance, but arguably nothing like this time at Bellas Artes, where the entire audience rose, as one, for an ovation that lasted more than a minute and seemed like an epoch. It was as though all the tension of the preceding months was being released in a collective exhalation; the people in the theater, at least, wanted Miranda to know they wanted him there. (“It was the first time I felt a cheer,” Miranda recalled at a press conference after the show. “I felt my hair move.”)
The second moment came when Hamilton, enmeshed in a political scandal, thought back to the hurricane that destroyed his childhood island. “In the eye of a hurricane, there is quiet,” Miranda sang, with an emotional depth that belied his customary ebullience. The hall was hushed. (“I feel like I’m going back to Maria when I sing it,” he later explained.) The show had become about the island’s trauma after the disaster. “Hurricane” sounded like an echo of the West Side Story lyric from “Maria” that Miranda had remixed for a benefit single: “Say it soft, and it’s almost like praying.”
The final moment came at the curtain call, after Miranda had thanked his co-creators and invited his father onstage. “Lin-Manuel always said, and I take that to heart, that it was not only to experience Hamilton in its artistic value, but also to leave Puerto Rico a little better than we found it,” Luis said, speaking of their fundraising efforts. Then his son reached into the breast of his Hamilton costume and whipped out a giant Puerto Rican flag. The crowd erupted. Miranda appeared to be in tears. Where 500 flags had greeted In the Heights, what looked like thousands of cellphones came out to capture Miranda waving la bandera puertorriqueña. I showed my cellphone video to my Airbnb host the next day, and she started crying. “We’re a colony,” she said. “We’re treated as American, but we speak Spanish. When Lin-Manuel takes out the flag, it’s like, Yes, we exist.” Did it matter that Hamilton was a show about America’s Founders? “Not at all. It’s a great story!”
Hamilton has always been about the slipperiness of political narratives. “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” Washington tells Hamilton on the eve of the American Revolution. In San Juan, the musical’s strength lay in its complexity, its eagerness to embody conflicting points of view. Was Hamilton a brilliant son of the Caribbean who used his wit and determination to change the world? Or was he an incorrigible motormouth who inserted himself into debates over a colony’s independence, argued for a centralized financial system to control local debt, and antagonized so many people that he brought about his own demise? Was the audience rooting for America to rebel against King George III (played with aplomb by Rick Negron, the only Puerto Rican–born actor in the cast)? Or did the drama of a colony trying to unshackle itself from a superpower across the sea, ruled by a narcissistic buffoon, have a different resonance in PROMESA-era San Juan?