Skip to main content
Feedback

Thank you, Ed.  I’m so thrilled to be with you tonight for this initiative to bring some of our era’s most exciting and relevant music to a broad audience.  I commend IU’s Center for Rural Engagement, the IU Jacobs School of Music and the Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance for this stroke of inspiration, and feat of collaboration. (That’s just getting us ready for the rhyming coming soon…..). Thanks also, always, to this publicly owned venue, Bloomington’s own, Buskirk Chumley.

And I thank you for reaching out to ask me to participate. When presenting in other cities in Indiana, the producers have found a local historian or teacher to offer introductory remarks. In Bloomington, the producers asked me. Well we all know Bloomington teems with eminent scholars of American history, so I was a little taken aback, ...but, I guess they just couldn’t resist the coincidence.  I mean, what are the chances? That you’d be staging a revue of songs from the musical Hamilton in a city where the mayor... REALLY LOVES SINGING SHOWTUNES?!

OK, so maybe it actually was the shared family name.  There’s no relation, so far as I know, but it’s a nice coincidence. Names aside, I sincerely appreciate the chance to introduce this production AND to appear very briefly, later, with this wonderfully talented crew of students from IU and BHSN. I know you’ll cheer for them at the end, but please express to these wonderful performers our thanks for giving of their talent and time.

Now to get to some context. Based on a biography by Ron Chernow, Hamilton: An American Musical, was conceived of, written by, and starred Lin-Manuel Miranda. Since its debut off-Broadway in 2015, the production has garnered 11 Tonys plus a Grammy for best new musical and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. This January, Hamilton broke a record when it grossed $4 million in a week.  After a sold-out run on Broadway, the show has opened in Chicago and on London’s West End and is currently enjoying its third US tour, scheduled to swing through Indianapolis this December.

At first blush, it would seem that the play’s wild success is as improbable as that of its protagonist.  The musical, its creator, and Alexander Hamilton himself are all linked by: humble roots, bold risk-taking, and years of tenacious effort. Consider Lin-Manuel Miranda, for starters:  the son of a Puerto-Rican immigrant, the sometime substitute teacher took ten years to write his first show, In the Heights, which eventually won four Tony awards. Miranda was invited to the White House for a poetry jam soon after Obama took office, and expected to perform a number from that musical. Instead, with nothing more than “16 hot bars” of a stand-alone rap about George Washington’s right-hand-man, something he’d only performed in the shower, Miranda debuted the opening number of the musical that went on to take the world by storm. Don’t we all wish we’d been in the room where THAT happened!  Miranda recalls the go-for-broke mindset from that White House night:  “I felt like, well, if it doesn’t work in this room, when’s it gonna work?”

After that very short debut, it would be tempting to say that the musical’s success was charted. The Obamas loved it, and HBO was there to tape it, yes, but the musical was hardly a fait accompli! Miranda went ahead and finished the number that would be “Alexander Hamilton.” But the process was arduous--Miranda describes spending a day writing one couplet. It took him a year to write the musical’s next tune--”My Shot.”  Eventually, the musical was workshopped at Vassar College and, finally in 2015, produced off-Broadway, and after six months hit Broadway, to rave reviews and sold-out crowds. And let’s remember, this Broadway smash describes events that took place over 200 years ago in the life of someone who wrote economic policy and constitutional interpretation.

An unlikely rock star, indeed. Alexander Hamilton’s trajectory was not so different from Miranda’s, or that of the musical itself.  This be-wigged Founding Father on the ten dollar bill made his way to the sawbuck from distant shores and low-estate as they might have said. Born out of wedlock on the little Caribbean island of Nevis, orphaned as a child, inheriting nothing from his mother but her books, Alexander Hamilton as a teenager, it was said, wrote essays of such “verve and gusto,” that so impressed members of his community that they financed his education abroad. He studied at King’s College, now known as Columbia, in New York, then distinguished himself on the battlefield as captain of the New York Artillery. The musical recounts Hamilton’s rise during the Revolutionary War to the role of George Washington’s aide-de-camp, his first Secretary of the Treasury, and the author of most of the 85 Federalist Papers supporting the US Constitution.  Like Miranda, whose musical grew from those first “16 hot bars” to comprise 50 (!!!) songs, Alexander Hamilton, defender of a strong new, national government, opponent of slavery, believer in entrepreneurs, wrote “like he was running out of time.”

Alexander Hamilton’s life story, like a musical featuring rap battles between men and women of color in knee breeches and bonnets, is often described as unlikely, improbable. Yes, both are exceptional. As a young child, Hamilton may not have been voted most likely to succeed, let alone contribute the lion’s share of the founding documents of the most powerful nation in the world. Nor, might you say, would Miranda’s concept have swayed most Broadway producers.  But shouldn’t the musical’s overwhelming success tell us something about our notions of plausibility? Maybe they could use some updating. When a cultural phenomenon has such popular, critical, and political acclaim -- President Obama used to joke that the musical was the only thing he and Dick Cheney agreed on -- isn’t it time the counter-narrative be acknowledged as the prevailing narrative; the immigrant, the Founding Father; the underdog, the everyman?

Since Hamilton’s debut, a lot has happened on the American scene to incline us toward Miranda’s retelling of our nation’s origin story.  Border wall, Muslim ban, Pittsburgh, Charlottesville. A US president who has told prospective migrants, “Our country is full.” Well, tonight we’ll hear about our country as “young, scrappy and hungry,” maybe a good reminder of principles that guided our nation’s founding, and a spur always to be hungry to establish and protect, even after all this time, those inalienable rights for all.

As a work of art, Hamilton hit it big. Reviewers agree that all the mingling parts of old and new really do add up to a breathtaking, groundbreaking musical that reinvents the genre.  New York Times theater reviewer Ben Brantley was leery of the hype about Hamilton, but after seeing it wrote, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show. But “Hamilton,” … might just about be worth it — at least to anyone who wants proof that the American musical is not only surviving but also evolving in ways that should allow it to thrive and transmogrify in years to come.”

Remixes of the music in 2016 created a smash hit video that began, “It’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, ‘immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word.” One of the biggest applause lines in the show of course is “Immigrants, we get the job done!” And in a haunting phrase less well known, referring to the lost and left out in our history, we hear: “It’s America’s ghost writers; the credit’s only borrowed.”

Miranda himself has said this about some other lines: “I’m perhaps proudest of these three couplets in the whole show: They encapsulate everything the number is about, are fully in character, and also speak to something fundamentally true about contemporary politics that I’d never been able to verbalize until these lines showed up. Listen for these couplets in The Room Where it Happened:

The art of the compromise -- Hold your nose and close your eyes.

We want our leaders to save the day. But we don’t get a say in what they traded away.

We dream of a brand new start -- But we dream in the dark, for the most part.

And it closes with: Dark as a tomb where it happens. I’ve got to be in the room...The room where it happens.

Yes, our history shows how essential it is that people be in the room where it happens. That that room is opened up and available to all.

The artistic director of the Public Theater in New York City, Oskar Eustis, saw a connection between Miranda’s creation and the Henriad, Shakespeare’s early cycle of history plays about British monarchs. (And he’s talking about Miranda and Shakespeare together, yes):

“Lin is taking the vernacular of the streets and elevating it to verse. That is what hip-hop is, and what iambic pentameter was. Lin is telling the story of the founding of his country in such a way as to make everyone present feel they have a stake in their country. In heightened verse form, Shakespeare told England’s national story to the audience at the Globe, and helped make England England—helped give it its self-consciousness. That is exactly what Lin is doing with Hamilton. By telling the story of the founding of the country through the eyes of a bastard, immigrant orphan, told entirely by people of color, he is saying, ‘This is our country. We get to lay claim to it.’”

I can’t agree more that the message of this musical ultimately is meant for everyone, for everyone in our great, multi-colored quilt, immigrant-filled, rainbow of a nation, to say: This is our country. We ALL get to lay claim to it. For 200 plus years that’s been a long, hard struggle to reach toward, to realize. Still is. But this musical inspires us to look back for motivation, and to look inward for strength and energy, and to look forward to march -- rap? dance? -- together to a better future.

Are you ready for Hamilton!!?? Remember this is a sing along, so you’re welcome to join in your favorite parts! Ladies and Gentlemen, give it up for Hamiltunes!!

Speeches