The house lights flash on, signaling the end of the first act of Hamilton, and women dart out of their seats.
They try not to trip as they rush down staircases and weave through crowds, leaving behind friends and family to fulfill nature’s call.
Already, it’s as if they’re running out of time.
Head usher Tanya Heath greets everyone outside the bathroom and assuages the fears.
She has a plan.
“My ladies, you’re going to start to form a line,” Heath, 31, tells the women streaming down. She holds an iPhone in her right hand, eyeing the running stopwatch app, and raises her other arm to direct the traffic.
Once women hear her instructions and see the line assembling in front of them, the chorus of groans and mumbling begins.
“Of course we are.”
“Don’t we always."
“Yep, figures. Where’s the men’s room?”
Every night people show up to the ornate Forrest Theatre to watch the wildly popular Hamilton, which has been running since late August and leaves Philadelphia on Nov. 17. The show is long — almost three hours — and the theater’s old charm means there are few restrooms. Apparently in 1927, building designers didn’t think about the large bathroom demand from female patrons. During the 20-minute intermission each night, Heath estimates 200 women line up outside a lower-level room containing a mere 16 stalls.
Women are used to waiting. They miss home runs and opening sets. They learn to cope, ducking out at the known boring part of movies or braving the men’s room, where there is almost never a line that competes with the ladies'.
Still, Heath wasn’t prepared for this rush at first: It’s the most people she has seen go to the bathroom at once during intermission in her eight years at the Forrest. After two weeks of porcelain chaos, she knew she had to do something.
So she assigned herself to bathroom duty and now ropes in at least two other ushers to help her. It would be devastating, she says, for someone to miss the beginning of Act Two.
Heath is no mere fan of the show — she’s auditioned for Hamilton three times, most recently for the part of Eliza. Heath, who lives in the Mantua section of West Philadelphia, is a classically trained musician who can play five instruments (her favorite is the oboe) and sings soprano. She plans to keep showing up to open casting calls until she can trade her all-black usher attire for a silk taffeta gown.
For now, she’s happy making sure the thousands of women seeing Hamilton in Philadelphia will always be satisfied.
During a recent Friday performance, the theater was almost at capacity, with 1,765 people in the seats. Heath is waiting for the night when attendance is exactly 1,776.
Within minutes of the end of Act One, women searching for the bathroom upstairs, where there are only three stalls, are directed to the lower level, where there are more options.
“This is crazy,” one woman says less than three minutes into the gantlet that is intermission.
Before people can become too agitated, worrying about their filled bladders and the impending second act, Heath climbs on top of a piano bench outside the bathroom and makes an announcement:
“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. We are at minute five out of a 20-minute intermission, which means I have 15 minutes to get you into this bathroom. I’ve formed a serpentine line. And it works. It only takes about six minutes from that door to get you in this bathroom.”
“All I need you to do,” Heath tells the crowd, “is trust me and trust your sisters.”
And they do. Heath zips around the lower-level lobby explaining just what she means when she says to “serpentine” the line, form a “horseshoe” and “loop de loop.” It’s a dance as complicated as any performed on stage. Heath makes it flow.
“You are working your ass off,” Julie Caramanico, 34, of Newtown Square says from the back of the line to Heath. “I love it so much.”
“This is minute eight,” Heath announces. “We are good. We are good.”
“Is there enough time?” someone asks from the crowd. Others also look concerned.
“Everyone just relax,” Heath reassures them. “We’re good.”
But then the lights flicker, the ladies in line seem to collectively gasp: “Nooooo,” women say. They don’t want to miss even a minute of Hamilton, a show for which people paid as much as $499 a seat. Should they throw away their spot?
“All right, my loves, we are approaching minute 13. That was a scare tactic,” she says. “That’s how we get people into their seats a little bit faster. We’re only at minute 13. I promised you 20 minutes. We have about seven to eight minutes to get you back upstairs.”
Heath sings her instructions: “Stay in lineeeee.”
The crowd that a few seconds ago seemed terrified is now clapping and cheering.
“You should be on stage,” Cathy Person, 76, of Macungie, Lehigh County, tells Heath.
“Soon,” Heath says.
Other people in line start singing, too. “We can pee, we can pee,” Liz Hanley, 61, of Marlton, and Jennifer Ward, 44, of Society Hill, harmonize. This familiar bathroom wait has a way of turning strangers into teammates — or costars.
Person steps into the restroom. On her way out, she slaps a high-five with Heath. “She’s fabulous,” Person says.
Time is running out, and so is the line. Heath makes her final announcements inside the room where it happens.
“All right, this is minute 20,” she says to those in the stalls. “There is an overlude playing. It will be dark. You are heading upstairs to meet Thomas Jefferson.”
The first song they hear is “What'd I Miss.”
Thanks to Heath, nothing.