Like every reasonable human being in America with functioning ears, I’ve been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack recently. I’m not particularly into hip hop, and I very rarely listen to musicals I’m not currently rehearsing, but this show has blown me away.
I get that I’m not the first person to have this reaction. I’m pretty late to the Hamilton party. But I’ve been surprised by the impact this show has had on me. I’ve been mulling it over, and here’s where I think that impact is coming from.
First, there is a sense that this show matters. When I studied musical theater history in college, there were a few milestone shows that everyone could point to and say, “YES! This one here! This one here changed the trajectory of theater as we know it. Pay attention to this one!”
Showboat is the one that stands out most in my mind. Showboat (from what I remember of my NYU education) took all of the loose threads of various theater traditions and tied them together into a form we can recognize now as the modern musical. There’s been an evolution, obviously, in the last century or so, but Showboat was clearly a turning point.
Hamilton feels a lot like that. Maybe it’s the implications of the intentional racial makeup of the cast, turning American history on its fat, white, patriarchal head. Maybe it’s the timing, that this is happening against a backdrop of what seems to be escalating racial injustice in this country. Maybe it’s just that Lin Manuel Miranda is a freaking genius and we are all lucky to be alive right now with him.
Even though I can’t say for sure why, I have the overwhelming sense that people who study theater a hundred years from now are going to look at back at this one and say, “Yes, that one mattered.”
And second, when I listen to this show (because I sure as hell can’t afford a ticket), I’m struck over and over again by the sense of awareness these characters seem to have that what they are doing matters. This is not a new idea – I remember hearing about the founding fathers and their obsession with legacy building in my AP American History class in high school and thinking, “That is a lot of pressure to put on yourselves, guys.”
Now, though, I’m jealous of that surety. I have struggled for a while with uncertainty over whether any of what I put out into the world actually matters.
For all of my artsy, creative leanings, I’m a pretty pragmatic person. I have a hard time committing to something if I am not really clear on what the point is. I don’t like going to the gym, but it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, really – it’s that spending an hour on a treadmill or wrestling with a machine doesn’t accomplish anything other than having spent an hour sweating. Even Zumba felt flat for me – where’s my new skill? What did I get out of this, other than a catchy Europop song stuck in my head?
Sign me up for dance lessons or martial arts or something like that, and I barely notice that I’m sweating or that I can’t technically use my legs for three days afterwards. Because I can understand the goal: a new skill acquired, a new move perfected, and usually a new challenge to look forward to.
Maybe that’s why I’ve been so inconsistent about blogging. I’ve always been a writer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve almost compulsively filled notebook after notebook with stories and essays and ideas. You would think a blog would be a great outlet for that kind of person.
But the internet is a big place. It’s hard for me to make writing and sharing blog posts a priority when I have no idea if anyone is reading them, let alone connecting with them.
Then, earlier this month, while my husband was away doing an annual “Flags on the 48” hike in honor of 9/11, I sat on my couch and decided to share my experience of that terrible day and its aftermath. I told the unflinching truth as I remembered it because I didn’t really think anyone would read it. And then, because I was happy with how it turned out and because it was the middle of the night and because I was feeling brave, I shared it on Facebook, thinking for sure that it would be lost in a deluge of 9/11 posts and pictures of the Twin Towers on fire.
When I woke up the next morning, that thing had gone as viral as anything I write is ever likely to go. I had a minute or ten of total panic – what Brené Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover,” that terrifying moment when you realize you’ve been too honest and it may have been too big a mistake and now it is too late to do a damn thing about it.
Then I started to read the comments. For the record, I often avoid reading other people’s reactions to stuff I write – but clearly something new was happening with this one. It wasn’t just that I was surprised by the sheer volume of people reacting to this post (which got more than 1,000 views in the week after I posted it). It was that so many people took time to say that I’d expressed something they’d been feeling, too, or that it helped them find a way to talk about what their experience of that day was. So many people took time to thank me for writing it, and so many people took time to then share it with others.
It resonated. It mattered.
It’s taken me awhile to get my head together about what that means, and what I should do about it. I’m still not sure I have a plan, other than this:
Write more. Share more. Be as brave as I can more, and tell the truth more. Do more of this writing thing that makes me happy.
So that’s what I’m going to do. Even on the bad days, and even on the days when it feels like I’m just throwing words out into the abyss. Because I might be and that might be pointless, but I also might stumble on something that does really matter.