5 Times Hamilton Impacted Me from 2000 Miles Away

President Obama with the cast of Hamilton
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (2015), Public Domain

I don’t live in New York. My students and I probably won’t see the juggernaut that is Hamilton: An American Musical any time soon, if ever. We live very far from any major tour schedule. Still, it means something to us, so I wrote out a series of moments to explain Hamilton’s reach as a cultural phenomenon that outstrips its intended format as a musical.

I work as an assistant professor in a theater department at a university in southernmost Texas. You’re thinking San Antonio, but I’m talking deeper. Less than fifteen miles from the border of Mexico, three and a half hours from the nearest city or nearest professional theater deeper. It’s seven (Louisiana) to nine (Oklahoma) hours to the next state border. I live and work in the lower Rio Grande Valley, an area of Texas that is often forgotten except by spring breakers and nationalist wall builders. The Rio Grande Valley, or “the Valley” as Texans call it, is hugely misunderstood, and a place of astounding paradox. There is immense poverty, but also staggering wealth. Its relative isolation leads to some gorgeous innovation in original live music (Check out the documentary As I Walk Through the Valley), amazing food, fantastic art, and a culture all its own. There is no place like it, and it’s become home in a way I haven’t known since childhood.

Here are a few statistics. By every metric, it’s the poorest part of the state. The two largest cities in the Valley, McAllen and Brownsville, are the two poorest metro areas in the United States. According to Texas Monthly, the average poverty rates between the two cities hover around 36%. It has the lowest percentage of college graduates in the country. The surrounding countryside is dotted with tiny unregulated townships called colonias, where there may or may not be electricity and running water. Most of the public schools qualify for free lunches for all due to the high poverty rate. Many students at my HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution) are Dreamers, or one of over 1.5 million DACA applicants (as of 2106, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services) seeking legal status. Since recent crackdowns on immigration and deportations of Dreamers in other parts of the country, this has led to heightened anxiety and fear of traveling across the Falfurrias checkpoint a hundred miles north of the university.

Our students, theater/tv/film majors and minors, number approximately 250 at last count, and yet most of them haven’t seen a live professional theatrical performance. Some have never left the state. Some have never left the Valley. Because of the extensive cartel violence just across the border in Mexico, many of my students haven’t visited Mexico to sample the arts and culture there in years. So when I write about Hamilton, I want you to understand that most of us have no hope really of seeing that level of professional theater without enormous effort and expense, let alone getting our hands on the most exclusive ticket in American theater any time soon. 

While initial reviews sounded interesting, it was not so exciting that we looked further. We then started to hear about Hamilton second or third hand — it’s a tiny world, theater — from summer theater colleagues on the east coast and from the students who’ve left the Valley and moved on to professional performance, design, or technical careers. These excited Facebook posts were the first indicators that something extraordinary was happening.

Moment One: Minute 4.07 of The Tonight Show “Wheel of Freestyle” clip

By chance, I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda for the first time on a clip from The Tonight Show, in a rap battle with Tariq Trotter, leader of The Roots. Miranda is charming and brilliant, and manages to throw in a reference to the Puerto Rican debt crisis, which we were doubly aware of as we were working on a production of Carmen Rivera’s La Gringa, which is set in Puerto Rico. I was charmed by Miranda’s whimsy, enthusiasm, and political awareness. This is the moment when I started looking into Hamilton.

Moment Two: Minute 2.33 of “The White House Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word”

If you saw the “White House Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word,” you know what I’m talking about. There is Miranda, in his Usnavi haircut, all set to perform a song from In the Heights for the Obamas and a room full of Very Important People. Instead, he gives what must be the elevator speech for Hamilton, and starts to sing “Alexander Hamilton,” Burr’s narrative introduction to the play and the eponymous character. And people laugh. Even the President laughs. They laugh and Miranda’s eyes change, and you can tell, if you look, that he’s hurt. But he keeps singing. He’s selling this as hard as he can. By the third verse, he gets a third and final laugh at minute 3.55 of the video, but this time the audience is hooked, and the laughter is gentle. He has them.

This is not an unusual reaction to new ideas. One of the most difficult things students have to learn is overcoming the years of conditioning they’ve endured as public school students — bubbling in scantron tests with only one correct answer, incredibly detailed project guidelines, and intensely structured environments tell them that there is only one right answer to everything, even creative endeavors. Open ended assignments are anxiety-inducing. There is no room for open ended play in most of these students’ educational lives. There is an adjustment period for even the brightest and most creative of my fiercely creative students. It’s easiest and safest to look at what’s been done before and riff on that.

New ideas, truly new ones, are met with laughter in class, in the screening of directing projects. I encounter this as well while designing sets and costumes for a production of The Hobbit directed by a student. She is clever and creative, but the concept (it’s children making a play in their backyard, and everything from the elves’ costumes to the scenery to the dragon is a found object) was a hard sell to theater-goers and children who assumed they would see something like the film. We all take an emotional beating on that one, and that White House video helped us take courage and go again.

When we enter the production process, all of us get to a point where we are terrified of our concepts. New ideas and interpretations of old scripts, new approaches, are terrifying. There is a point in every creative project, usually toward the last third of production, where we think, (or I moan, hands on head on the cutting table in the costume shop) Oh God what have we done? This is the most dangerous time in a production process. If you abandon your concept, there’s no time to adopt another. You must steel yourself and stay the course.

There is something about watching Miranda and his collaborator Alex Lacamoire sell that crazy new unthought of idea that helps us over this hump, time and time again, in the last year and a half. We retain the courage to stick to the risky concept, to try new things, to fail, to try again. That look in Miranda’s eyes when he hears the president’s gentle laughter is enough to inspire us through the pain and exhaustion of punishing work hours and long rehearsals. I’ve introduced this concept into my syllabi, along with a generous dollop of game theory. When I show my students this clip, and tell them to watch his eyes, something changes. It’s inspiring watching him work like crazy trying to sell this idea, to get laughed at, and to keep going.  

Moment Three: Minute 2.07 of CBS Sunday Morning Interview: The Creation Story of Hamilton

In the interview with Mo Rocca, Miranda tells the story of the genesis of the musical. There he is, on a much deserved vacation. He’s sitting on the beach and picks up Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and is amazed that no one has thought to create a musical about this particular founding father. He’s relaxing, playing with his family, but he’s interested in more than just his work as a writer and performer. He’s interested, as we all should be, in everything. This concept is a hard sell to my kids, who are invested enough in their one true passion that they are going into this reputedly impractical major. One student is scared enough of parental reaction that he/she is claiming an entirely different major than theater/TV/film.

This is a controversial major in a time when STEM reigns supreme; a rigorous and demanding major that only promises more and harder work once you graduate — if you are lucky enough to get work. Crossing disciplines is a tough sell. The film students don’t see the relevance of working in the costume shop, and the theater kids don’t see the relevance of working on a film shoot. Both are necessary. I pull out the Hamilton reference again, fire up the internet, and play that interview. They sigh, roll their eyes, get to work.

This interview, a rich source of footage from the musical, also tells us something else. It took six years for Miranda to bring the project to fruition. It’s hard to envision six years on one project when you’re eighteen and cramming to finish the last project of the semester in a week, but it does make it easier to take out that line of stitching you screwed up and start again if you remember that nothing of value happens instantly. My colleagues, especially the playwrights, work on plays for years at a time, honing, researching, rewriting, re-conceptualizing. We begin pre-production on a play six months out, and begin building/rehearsing/producing six weeks out from opening. Students are surprised by that, and wonder what we are doing that takes that much time. Why do we need to plan that long? Good things take time, and that is no time at all compared to what they may encounter in the film or professional theater industries.

The genesis of Hamilton is a fantastic example for us. Nothing is easy. Learning new things is difficult, particularly as we ‘level up,’ to use popular gaming parlance. The next level means hard things, and failure. But, as Rocco Landesman, former chairman of the NEA once said, “What does it mean when you get the Game Over message in a video game? What is failure in a video game but an invitation to start again?” Learning lines, blocking, choreography, stage combat, isn’t easy. Learning more and more complex concepts in the classroom isn’t easy. Frankly, for most students, learning to design or construct costumes isn’t easy. It’s filled with weird techniques, arcane knowledge, and finickiness.

Every time my students design costumes for another production, they are assigned a more difficult one. By the time they graduate, they will have designed (hopefully, if they follow the guidelines) three fully realised theatrical productions or films. They start with tiny things and end with a large main stage production, maybe a musical. It’s complicated to coordinate, difficult to design, the first few times you do it. It’s frustrating and scary if you aren’t used to it. And it takes an epic amount of labor. There is no sense of sprezzatura in a student costume design. That comes later, after years of hard work. Good things take time.

Moment Four: Same Interview, Minute 4.18 “Immigrants: We get the job done” and 5:18 “The story of how America was then, told by America now”

Finding work in the arts can be difficult. It requires flexibility, luck, talent, and a willingness to work on things that you maybe wouldn’t pick for yourself, and this is doubly true for actors. However, if we look again to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career, we can see he had his greatest successes by creating his own vehicles. This offers us an inspiration to seek out opportunities in unconventional locations. It gives us permission to actively create opportunities.

For example, several of our students have created film production companies, Youtube channels (check out The House on South Bronson (NSFW) and Luke and Evie ), written and produced scripts, among other endeavors. It may mean starting your own touring production, acting school, or finding work in unexpected places. This summer, one of my students mounted his own production of Legally Blonde the Musical. He told me he was doing it because he felt he ‘had to.’ I watched him negotiate royalties, fundraise, find a venue, recruit designers and audition actors and all I can do is feel a sense of awe at his courage and determination. If you’re as driven and talented as many of our students, you will find opportunities to develop an arts career, just as Miranda has. Those opportunities we create can also lead to opportunities for others, and we can pull each other up together.

Final Moment .48 of Miranda’s June 13, 2016, Tony Acceptance Sonnet–”Now Fill the World With Music, Love and Pride”

Miranda’s Tony acceptance speech, just days after the horrific Orlando shootings serves as a reminder for the necessity of love and tolerance, art and music. A group of us–both theater faculty and students–were in Dublin, Ireland, for a study abroad program during the historic vote in favor of gay marriage announced on May 23, 2015. We saw overwhelming support in the streets of Dublin for equal rights for LGBTQ+ people and it was incredibly inspiring to be there.

A month later, I was delighted at the Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage in the US. It seemed to indicate a change in attitudes about LGBTQ+ people that, as an ally, I was happy to see. However, the hope we felt was diminished by backlash against the decision, and I was shocked and saddened to hear of the attacks at the Pulse nightclub. Miranda’s ‘“Love is” sonnet reminds us to not live in fear, and to keep making art, creating theater and working together, no matter what comes next.

If I were ever able to meet Miranda, I might say this: Although we may never see your great American musical, we can find affirmations about the art and craft of theater from two thousand miles away. Your example as an artist and as a human being have created a spirit of creative risk-taking, of optimism, and a sense of being part of the wider world, We are all the richer for your words and worldview.  Best wishes, from your fans and followers at the very bottom of Texas.

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Jenny Saxton-Rodríguez is an Associate Professor in the Theatre department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in southmost Texas, where she teaches costume design and construction and other courses. She has worked as a freelance costume designer and/or costume shop manager from the Midwest to the Northeast and Texas. She enjoys reading (N K Jemisin, Erika Johansen, Ben Aaronovitch) and knitting (badly), as well as playing nerd games with her husband Omar and their two children.