America sings for you

I love that transcendent moment when the curtain goes up and the air is electric with anticipation. But nothing was like the opening of “Hamilton.” In-your-face lyrics asked who the “bastard, orphan, son of a whore … dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…” could “grow up to be a scholar?” And then, tauntingly:  “What’s your name, man?” A diminutive actor emerged from the ensemble and meekly recited, “Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton.” That’s when the audience went wild, especially the teenagers. A Beyonce concert, screaming kind of wild. Why all of this excitement for parts of U.S. history that bored us in high school? Clearly this is not just another Broadway show. It’s a cultural phenomenon. 

Our mom took my two sisters and me to dozens of Broadway shows growing up. We still burst into song upon mention of “The Music Man” or “West Side Story.” Family occasions often include parodies with costumes and props (which scared off a few would-be boyfriends back in the day). So travelling to Nashville to see “Hamilton” was a good reason for a trip together. But I wasn’t sure I’d like the show. I’d heard the acclaim. But rap music? History? How good could it be? 

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s originator, elicited the same reaction when he previewed the work in process at the White House in 2009. 

“I’m working on a hip hop album about the life of someone who embodies hip hop…. Alexander Hamilton,” he said. Curious chuckles rippled through the audience. But he explained that this “young, scrappy” man who codified so much of our nation’s fundamental concepts “embodies the world’s ability to make a difference.” A few years later the show was a blockbuster. “Hamilton, I’m pretty sure, is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on,” President Obama joked. “This show brings unlikely folks together. And, Lin-Manuel, if you have any ideas about a show about Congress…now is your chance. We can use the help.”

Over wine and cheese in our wonderful Airbnb we listened to the show’s recording and studied up. Printed lyrics prepared us for the rapid fire renditions from the stage. We read interviews and debated themes. We were especially intrigued by Miranda’s inspirations, which included his father and Tupac Shakur.

Luis Miranda was an ambitious Puerto Rican who moved to New York after graduating college at age 18. He went on to serve as an adviser on Hispanic affairs to Mayor Koch before starting a political consulting company. Tupac, the rapper who was shot to death in 1996, reminded Miranda of Hamilton because both were brilliant writers who incited animosity and jealousy. Also, neither knew when enough was enough.

The unconventional music also struck me as a moment of cultural transformation. Like other innovations, it raised alarms. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premier caused a riot. Gershwin was called a poser and a Tin Pan Alley hack when he wrote “Rhapsody in Blue.” Even Miranda’s mentor Steven Sondheim cautioned him that an evening of relentless rap might get monotonous. Only a few glimpsed the potential. Rob Chernow, author of the biography that the play is based upon, heard a preview from Lin-Manuel Miranda. “He sat on my living room couch, began to snap his fingers, then sang the opening song of the show,” said Chernow. “When he finished, he asked me what I thought. And I said, ‘I think that’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ He had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song.”

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