When, a handful of years ago, I heard my best friend Val’s 10-year-old daughter rap a song about the son of a whore and a Scotsman, it seemed strange that a Chinese-Jewish kid in Chicago would be so enthralled with Alexander Hamilton.
Then I realized that when I was 10, I began a lifelong love affair with America’s funniest founder and our first best-selling self-help author, Ben Franklin. My interest – and at that point, the entirety of my knowledge, of the American Revolution – came from the movie version of the musical “1776.”
Last December, two weeks before I visited Chicago, Val asked if I’d managed to see “Hamilton.” No, I said. I live in Spokane.
The Chicago production would be closing soon and she decided to treat me to a showing. It would be better, she said, if I heard the soundtrack first. I don’t listen much to music, but I try to follow Val’s advice. I downloaded it and went for a run.
I ran through the entire album. In December. It was like nothing I’d ever heard. I listened to “Hamilton” for hours each day until I boarded the plane for O’Hare.
“Hamilton” is for people who think they don’t like something: nonfiction, history, musicals, hip-hop, middle-brow Broadway, the old white dudes who founded this country, stories with an “unlikeable” main character, tweaking strictly factual historiography and things that are wildly popular (my snobbiest students are reflexively dismissive of work that succeeds commercially).
At the theater, as soon as I heard the first beats of the opening number and saw the cast, I started crying and didn’t stop until the final curtain call.
I cried reveling in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius; I got most of his literary and historical references and allusions, and I caught some of the musical ones. I cried seeing history made real and relevant. I cried thinking about how our nation of immigrants and mutts has, in the past, managed to overcome differences in order to rise up for what is right. And I cried because the show was written in the era of Obama; in divisive 2019 it seemed sadly nostalgic.
Mostly, I cried thinking about what it would mean to young people of color to see actors who looked like them playing the men and women who founded our great country. I thought about the hope and the promise: They too could play these roles on stage and in real life.
And then I wept a little because of the exorbitant ticket prices. I wanted every kid in America – and most of the grownups – to see Miranda’s version of our revolutionary history.
An hour or so after I’d left the plane, as we walked the three blocks from Val’s office to the theater, she said, “You might be mad at me.”
Val explained that we had an offer to stay after the show and meet the guy who played “Hamilton.” She turned it down, figuring it would late and I’d be tired.
“That’s very kind,” I said, “but I don’t need to meet an actor.” I may have placed some writerly disdain on that last word.
After the final bows, I fixed a red-eyed gaze on Val and sniffed, “I am so mad at you.”
There was something I needed to say to Miguel Cervantes, to the cast, to the people who worked on all productions of “Hamilton,” and to that brilliant polymath, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Something I want now to say to the folks who decided to sell the filmed version to Disney+ and to the executives who made it possible for us all to watch it on the day before our great nation’s birthday.
It’s this: Thank you.
One more thing. I couldn’t imagine how such a brilliant comedic writer had neglected to include my favorite founder. Then I read in “Hamilton: The Revolution” that Miranda knew that if he’d put Ben Franklin in the musical he would have taken over the show.
There’s a wonderful collection called “Hamildrops” – with deleted songs and remixes from the show – that gives us access to more wonderful things. Miranda wrote lyrics that Colin Meloy of the Decemberists set to music.
It’s not my version of Ben Franklin, and it’s filled with expletives, but it’s pretty darned funny. (I’m planning to write “Franklin: the Musical.”
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.
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