As the door to the Richard Rodgers Theater crept open, an ear-splitting scream rang out through the throng of Hamilton fans clogging the New York City sidewalk. They had gathered by the hundreds for a chance to win a ticket to the sold-out Broadway uber-hit through its weekly lottery, and they knew that the show’s star and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, often puts on a mini-show for the crowd while they wait. In Hamilton lingo, this is called the “Ham4Ham show.”
But neither Miranda nor any of the other acclaimed cast members appeared. Instead, a bespectacled 27-year-old named Mike Karns emerged, and the sound died down as quickly as it started up.
“Not me! Not me!” Karns told the disappointed fans, several of whom were wearing paper masks of Miranda’s face.
Karns in person may not have thrilled the would-be audience members. But he’s played a crucial, if unsung role in stoking their excitement for the biggest hit on Broadway today. Karns manages Hamilton‘s digital footprint, which includes the dozens of viral videos that populate the musical’s YouTube channel; the hundreds of Instagram posts that have earned Hamilton more followers than any other Broadway show; and the Hamilton Twitter handle, which has 202,000 followers.
In less than a year on Broadway, the show’s online audience has surpassed that of longstanding classics like Wicked and The Lion King. And that’s no accident. The Hamilton team has worked hard to cultivate a strong online presence to make up for the paucity of tickets. With so many shut out of the show, the internet has become a vital way to keep fans stoked.
Hamilton’s online audience has its own language, its own inside jokes, and occupies some alternate universe in which YouTube comments are actually totally delightful to read. Of course, while these digital snippets may help quench the thirst of fans who’ll never make it to the show, they also have another effect: they expose the show to a much broader audience that might never have been interested in Broadway before.
The day I visited was May the 4th, also known as Star Wars Day. So, while Karns and the army of fans waited outside the theater, Miranda was inside, hastily scarfing a sandwich while rehearsing that day’s Ham4Ham show with a surprise guest—Star Wars director J.J. Abrams. Star Wars and Hamilton overlap in precious few instances. But Miranda and Abrams had recorded a song together for the most recent Star Wars film, and now, they were getting ready to perform it for the hundreds of fans outside.
Meanwhile, Karns was standing by, ready to capture the moment for hundreds of thousands of fans nowhere near the theater. Online, the show is always going on.