Three years ago: Hamilton
Brilliant reader Pete reminds me that exactly three years ago, I wrote this story about Hamilton. Every week, someone mentions it to me. It's one of the most personal stories I've ever written and -- with Eliza my daughter about to become a senior in high school -- I look back at and again I cannot believe how slowly and rapidly time goes by.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
— The opening words of “Alexander Hamilton.”
* * *
The idea took hold a few months ago. It’s hard to say exactly what sparked it other than … well, have you ever been the parent of a 14-year-old girl? It is a daunting experience. Elizabeth is a good person. She’s a good student. She has a huge heart. She’s a loyal friend. She’s funny too. She likes Death Cab and Spinal Tap and comic books and reading. The other day, she told me that her favorite movie of all time is “The Godfather.” I mean, she is more me than I am.
But she is 14, and in some ways that explains everything. In some ways it doesn’t. There are times I feel closer to her than ever … and times I feel so much further away. Farther away? Further away? One gorgeous day in autumn, I was sitting on the porch, working, and she came outside and sat next to me, and it became clear after a few choice words about tattoos and nose rings and such that she had come out for the sole purpose of starting a fight. There was no specific reason for it other than she’s 14, and I’m her father, and this is the timeless story.
There have been other things, trying things, unforeseen things, a punishing year, and one day I came up with this idea. I would take Elizabeth to see “Hamilton.”
We have a flaw in my family, one that goes back generations: We tend to grow obsessed with, well, stuff. What kind of stuff? OK, my mother through the years has had been possessed by countless activities including (but not limited to): paint-by-numbers; cross-stitch; stamp collecting; Harlequin Romances; computer programming (the most profitable of such obsessions); various soap operas; various reality TV shows; crossword puzzles; cookbooks; Candy Crush; all sorts of collectibles and, most recently, coloring books. She recently had coloring pencils shipped from Sweden or Switzerland or some such place. She’s very good at coloring. You can find her work on Facebook.
This is just how the family mind works, I guess. I have known all my life about my weakness for growing obsessed by things. This is the reason I haven’t seen Game of Thrones or The Americans or Downton Abbey or House of Cards or any other recently popular television show. It isn’t because I dislike television — it’s the opposite. I like television too much. I know the only way to avoid free-falling into that television hole is to never start watching in the first place.
I don’t mean this theoretically. For years, people have been on me to watch “Mad Men.” Three weeks ago, I caved in and decided to watch. I have now seen every show, all seven seasons, 92 episodes. That’s in three weeks. In other words, I have spent roughly four of the last 21 days doing nothing but watching Mad Men. That’s not healthy. I mean, the show was superb but I’m glad it’s over. I would rather obsess about something else.
Elizabeth is one of several million people — so many of them teenagers — who have become obsessed with the Broadway show “Hamilton.” It is funny, if you think about it. Kids all over America are smitten by a show about a previously minor Founding Father who probably would have gotten chucked off the $10 bill had it not been for the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. When I was Elizabeth’s age, we all wore Rush and Black Sabbath T-shirts and sang about how Mommy’s alright and Daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird.
These kids are singing about Alexander Hamilton’s argument with Thomas Jefferson over a plan to establish a national bank and assume state debt.
All of Elizabeth’s friends seem to be into Hamilton. One of them will periodically and for no obvious reason break into “You’ll Be Back,” a song where King George tells the colonies they will eventually return to England’s rule (‘’Cuz when push comes to shove/I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”). Another somehow got to see the show back before it became a national phenomenon and this has turned her into something of a superhero.
But of course, Elizabeth is more consumed by the show than most. She has memorized every word of the musical, read every word she can about Alexander Hamilton, and, naturally, she has asked us to start calling her “Eliza” after Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler. She wears one of her three Hamilton T-shirts every single day that she’s allowed, and she regularly says things like “Thomas Jefferson was the worst,” though it has nothing at all to do with what we were talking about, and she will actually tear up a little thinking about poor John Laurens.
This is all hilarious, of course — a 14-year-old girl utterly fanatical about the Founding Fathers — that is until you realize that it isn’t going away.
All of this reminded me, strangely enough, of the Cleveland Browns. They were my first obsession. Even now, I’m not sure I can put into words how consumed I was with the Browns. In classes, when I should have been learning how to find the area of a circle or how circuits work or what the heck Hawthorne was talking about (things I still don’t know), I was scribbling stupid little stories about the Cleveland Browns. You might think this was because I wanted to become a sportswriter, but no,I had no idea about sportswriting, no ambitions to be a writer. I was writing these Browns stories because I couldn’t stop thinking about them — no, more to the point, I did not want to stop thinking about them. I was happiest pondering Bernie Kosar and Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack and Hanford Dixon and all the rest. I was happiest dreaming up imaginary plays that might work, strategies that might pay off, preview stories that might come true.
Now, of course, I see it: The rest of life was kind of scary. School was scary. Girls were scary. My parents were scary. Homework was scary. All the other kids seemed to me to know something I did not know. They knew who they were. They knew how they fit in. They knew what they wanted to do with their lives. Of course, they did not really know any of that, but they sure seemed to know, and here I was, too small for one sport, too uncoordinated for another, too stupid or lazy (or both) to excel, too homely to ask out the cheerleader, too nearsighted to give up the glasses, too shy to be the class clown, too unimaginative to play Dungeon and Dragons, too uncool to be first, too uncommitted to think about it all very much. Ah, but the Cleveland Browns. That was a world I understood. I did not want to leave.
Elizabeth does not have any of my weaknesses — she has lots of friends, works way harder and does way better in her classes, is beautiful … but it’s only when you get older that you realize that ALL kids have at least some of these emotions. It is scary being a teenager. But it’s also exhilarating. She finds herself seesawing between childhood and and adulthood, enjoying a few minutes of peace doing girlish things but then growing outraged when the waitress gives her a kid’s menu, proudly interviewing and getting a summer job but then wanting to know why she can’t just stay home and read. It’s all so confusing.
It’s so much safer in the world of Alexander Hamilton.
So, one day, I decided to take on a speaking engagement for the sole purpose of raising enough money to take Elizabeth to see Hamilton. You probably know that it’s hard, almost impossible even, to get Hamilton tickets. This is true but it’s also not true. It’s true that getting Hamilton tickets involves lotteries and luck and trying to buy tickets months in advance and knowing somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.
But … it’s also true that you can simply buy resale Hamilton tickets — that is, if you are willing to spend more money than you could ever imagine spending. How much money? I still can’t say the number out loud.
Rain fell in New York the night we saw Hamilton.
And Elizabeth held my hand tight and couldn’t stop crying as we walked into the theater.
* * *
“I may not live to see our glory
(I may not live to see our glory)
But I will gladly join the fight
(But I will gladly join the fight)
And when our children tell our story
(And when our children tell our story)
They’ll tell the story of tonight
— The Story of Tonight from Hamilton
The thing about seeing Hamilton RIGHT NOW at its peak moment is that even before it begins, the entire theater is filled with wonder. Every single person would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. As a sportswriter, I often feel that sort of energy at the biggest events, at the Masters or the Super Bowl or the Olympics, but it’s even more pronounced in this theater. People look at each other with the same wide-eyed expression: “Can you believe we’re here?”
And then the show begins, Aaron Burr on the stage, talking about that bastard orphan Hamilton, and within about two minutes you realize the thing that makes Hamilton magical is this: It’s going to be even better than you had hoped.
How do you know only a minute in? You just do. The charms of Hamilton are so overwhelming and come at you from so many different directions that it’s hard to pinpoint. The music is fantastic, of course, and of every style. The actors are all thoroughly wonderful. The set, which is so simple, is ever changing as people bring things on the stage and take things off, almost without notice. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are so fun and surprising and joyful and glorious …
Here, the Marquis de Lafayette is the “Lancelot of the Revolutionary set.”
Here, George Washington is not the white-haired truth-teller known for annual white sales, he is the only hope when the Colonies are “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned.”
Here, the Revolutionary War is not some bloodless classroom lesson, but the answer to the question: “How does a ragtag army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower?”
Here, duels are explained in rhyme:
The challenge, demand satisfaction
If they apologize, no need for further action
If they don’t, grab a friend, that’s your second
Your lieutenant when there’s reckoning to be reckoned.
And maybe this begins to explain the sorcery of Hamilton: It is new and it is familiar all at once. You know these characters and don’t know them at all. You know the story and don’t know it at all. I can’t remember anything quite like that. When the second act begins, Aaron Burr introduces Thomas Jefferson (“You haven’t met him yet, you haven’t had the chance/‘cause he’s been kicking’ ass as the ambassador to France), and then Daveed Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson rolls out wearing a glorious purple suit, looking for all the world like a revolutionary version of Prince …
… and it’s JUST RIGHT. Do you know what I mean? You might be aware that Thomas Jefferson really didn’t look like Prince and he wasn’t much of a hip hop performer. He was a Virginia slaveowner. But by the time the second act begins, no, this is Thomas Jefferson. It feels exactly right. This is the closest experience I’ve ever had to that feeling inside a dream. You know: In the dream, you are talking with your best friend only he’s actually a grizzly bear wearing a stethoscope, and you’re inside a car that’s not exactly a car and you’re parked inside the Taj Mahal but it’s orange and looks a bit like old Shea Stadium … and none of it seems out of place. None of it seems unfamiliar. It doesn’t just make perfect sense, it feels perfect. There are goosebumps detonating because, my God, look, that’s Thomas Jefferson.
No, I guess I cannot put you there in the theater, though I wish I could. I wish you could see it if you have not. I don’t even know you, but I wish you could see it because you will be happier after you see it. You will be happier after watching Hamilton and Jefferson have a hip-hop rap off about whether the U.S. should honor its treaty with France. You will be happier after watching Angelica relive the moment that she introduced her sister Eliza to Hamilton. You will even be happier after seeing the Burr-Hamilton duel, which is indescribably powerful and so utterly simple all at once.
My friend Michael told me something before I saw the show and after he found out how much I paid to see it — I think he was saying it to make me feel better about the expense. He said it is the one thing, maybe the only thing, that lives up to the hype. He was exaggerating to make a point. After all, the Golden State Warriors, when right, live up to the hype. A Bruce Springsteen concert lives up to the hype. In ’N Out Burgers live up to the hype. Playoff hockey, The Great Gatsby, Paris, The Gettysburg Address, first kisses, baseball day games, chocolate cake, all of these live up to the hype. There are many other things, too — Messi and Harry Potter and Adele and Kansas City barbecue — that rise up to our highest hopes.
What made Hamilton different, I think, was that in addition to rising up, in addition to surpassing those hopes, it felt familiar too, as if we’d already seen it long ago and are now happily remembering.
* * *
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control
Who tells your story.”
— The closing song of “Hamilton.”
Throughout the show, Elizabeth would periodically grab my arm and squeeze it as tight as she could. It was as if she was trying to hold herself up.
“Dad,” she whispered in my ear during a quiet moment, “I cannot believe I’m here.” She was sobbing.
One of the enduring curiosities of parenthood is that you have no idea what moments will endure. I can vaguely remember, so many times, doing something with Elizabeth — holding her when she was just a child or taking her to her first something or other or having one of those important heart-to-heart talks — and thinking: “Oh, I’ll never forget this exact moment.”
And I’ve forgotten them. The details are lost. Oh, I’m sure they’re in my mind somewhere, and maybe they will emerge at some point, but right now they are gone. Her first day of school? Her first ballgame? Her first full-throated laugh? The unforgettable time that she … what did she do again? Gone.
Meanwhile, other moments, silly things, pointless things, they stand out, like something red in a fog of white. A bad pun she said once. The time I helped her study for a fairly meaningless quiz. That soccer game when she stood around talking to a friend even as the ball rolled by her time and again.
So, while it’s fresh in my mind now, I cannot imagine forgetting any detail of sitting with Elizabeth while we watched Hamilton. But I will forget. I will forget the details of this difficult but hopeful year. I will forget the size of eyes as she stared at the stage and tried to memorize it. I will forget because the years pile on, and memories cloud as they bump into each other, and I barely remember where I was yesterday.
But she will remember. That’s the thing. She will remember every detail. She will remember it the way I remember what it was like inside Cleveland Municipal Stadium with those stupid steel beams blocking every view of the field and the wind howling off of the lake and the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. She will remember every little thing about that theater, about that stage, about Lin’s voice, about my jacket being around her shoulders, about Burr’s unplanned little laugh when watching King George dance, about that night.
As we walked out into New York, the echo of the show still ringing, she held on to me tight, and she stumbled because she was still inside the dream. She leaned up and kissed me on the cheek.
“Are you going to start crying again?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, but she did, just a little, and she clung to me tighter, and I leaned down and sang in her ear:
‘They’ll tell the story of tonight.”
She smiled and wiped away her tear. “They’ll tell the story of tonight,” she sang back.
* * *
Postscript: The response to this essay has been overwhelming … and it has been humbling. I have heard from so many people who have shared their own stories about Hamilton, about family, about connection. I suppose that speaks to the power of the arts. More, it speaks to the power of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s crazy genius.
And speaking of Lin … there is one more story to tell.
In the hours after I posted this essay, I got a notification from Twitter that Lin had tweeted something. And it was this:
"Sobbing reading this in my dressing room after a long week. Thanks Joe. Thanks Elizabeth."
Whoa. Of course, after he did that, there was a flurry of activity, and the thing went viral and all that. But the key question my wife Margo asked was this: Do we wake up Elizabeth to tell her?
We decided, in the end, not to wake her. We could wait until morning. When morning arrived, Elizabeth was as groggy and grumpy as any 14-year-old who wakes up in the morning, and when I told her that we had something to show her, she was as skeptical as any 14-year-old would be. Show what? Some educational video? A lame adult meme that isn’t at all hip with the kids (Elizabeth and our other daughter Katie have started saying again and again that I’m just not “hip with the kids”).
When I handed her the iPad, she looked blankly at it, and you could see her mind working around it.
Hey, this is a tweet from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Hey, he mentions someone named Elizabeth.
Hey, wait, that Elizabeth is actually me.
And then she just started bawling. It was the most overwhelmed with emotion I think I’ve ever seen her, including when her favorite Harry Potter character died (no spoilers). She just cried and cried, and she didn’t try to stop, and we didn’t try to stop her.
Postscript II: Three years have gone by since I wrote any of this. Eliza is almost 18, she's almost a senior, she's almost in college, and she's almost gone. When I think back to that night, it's a bit foggy as I knew it would be. I remember her borrowing my jacket. I remember her stumbling in high heels. I remember singing "The Story of Tonight," in the New York evening. But mostly I remember how much younger she was, how much younger I was, how it feels like forever ago and it feels like yesterday.