'Hamilton' Reminds Us Of Our Country's Promise

Jul 10, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today of all the sad, terrible and frightening things that happened last week, it's certainly understandable if you neither noticed nor cared that Lin-Manuel Miranda took his final bows last night in the title role of "Hamilton" In the musical he created about that, perhaps, heretofore underappreciated founding father. I get the eye roll.

Despite the producer's efforts, the tickets came to be crazy expensive. I mean, mortgage-payment expensive, which eventually made it one of those only-the-cool-kids-invited kinds of experiences. All the celebs wanted to go and many of them did. It's in and set in New York for heaven's sake. But, still, after a terrible week, we could do worse than celebrate this only-in-America creation, all of it, the story of Alexander Hamilton himself and the magical work of Lin-Manuel Miranda that caused us to see this 200-year-old story with fresh eyes.

Be honest. How many of us knew or remembered that the man so responsible for the shape of our nation's government and financial systems, the man on the $10 bill grew up so hard, suffered so much and died so hideously? To put it bluntly, Hamilton's story reminds us of our nation's promise, even as that promise continues to elude many, that America is meant to be a place where the out-of-wedlock son of a panelist, friendless single mother, cleaning up the play's opening lines, of course, can rise up with hard work, brains and courage.

It's supposed to be a place where ideas matter more than birthright and that a motley band of, yes, immigrants can love this country so hard they put everything on the line for it. It's also a reminder to put it bluntly that hardship is not limited to those whose skins are black, brown, red and yellow. Again, as the opening lines remind us, by the time our kids would be in middle school, Alexander Hamilton had been abandoned by his father, orphaned by his mother, lost another guardian to suicide and was essentially supporting himself.

But it's also a reminder of the ways race does matter. Noting his potential, benefactors took up a collection to send him to America to study, an option not available to the slaves of the Caribbean and the rest is, well, you know. I also take note of the way he died - a fact I had long forgotten - in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. It was, as creator Miranda has said many times, a hip-hop beef and a reminder, I hope, to all those who think that the willingness to kill each other over words respect and pride is an affliction suffered only by black and brown boys and men. It's a reminder that this is a disease that has afflicted many over time. And as that sickness has been cured among the privileged, hopefully it can be cured among those who are not.

Can I just tell you none of this is new news, of course, but the achievement of the work, in my view, is helping us see and hear all of this anew. In his language, his music, his clever and unapologetically diverse casting, Miranda and his co-creators reminded us that the American story belongs to all of us who are willing to help write it and not just to the few. And he taught us something else, which we should know but often become discouraged and forget, that the forms and spaces that have belonged to a few of us can be shared by the rest of us with no loss to either, that culture and ideas do not have to be seen as a pie that's divided until it's gone, but rather a light that expands as it is shared.

I saw that Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrated the end of this part of his journey by getting a haircut. He no longer needs the ponytail. While the play will continue, he and some of his co-stars are moving on to other projects, maybe one of those projects can be something that helps us through the mess of guns, race and policing that we just lived through this past week, maybe something that helps us see each other anew. Until then, bravo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.