“History has its eyes on you.” Lin Manuel Miranda
The words and music of the hit musical Hamilton make me laugh, cry and stare straight ahead with dropped jaw as I drive north on a trip. The story is riveting, the music seductive. I smile and shake my head. Later, I pull out a $10 bill, "the ten dollar, founding father,” and there he is, Alexander Hamilton. He’s been in my life all along, and I never knew his story.
One song after another—hip hop beat, clear as a bell voices. I get every word. So much nuance about these complex relationships in clever lyrics and perfect rhythms. I get every bit of the story from the original cast recording, every detail historically accurate.
I arrive where I’m going late at night and sit in the car listening to the end, the last song, tears streaming. Like others who have experienced this musical, I am stunned. How can this be? It’s a powerful, beautiful moving poem of a story. Whatever little snarky things might bother me about my own life seem trivial and I am inspired to overcome them.
I learn how Hamilton was born in the Caribbean and was an orphan by 14. He and his mother were both sick and “Alexander got better but his mother went quick.” He grew up on an island and through providence was sent to the mainland for education. There he landed on his feet: “In New York you can be a new man.” His brilliance shone when he got the chance to study.
The story comes thanks to gifted writer and historian Ron Chernow who pieces it together into a thoroughly researched book. Lin Manuel Miranda reads it and resonates with the story. He dives into the project of writing a musical with the passionate intensity of Hamilton himself.
Ron Chernow’s renowned biography of Hamilton is the source for Miranda’s musical which has becomea smash, a phenomenon. Why? It strikes a chord, like Seabiscuit the racehorse did in the ’30’s and Mohammed Ali in the 60’s. It is ART in our time. Like Michelangelo says, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Ron Chernow drew out the story. Lin Manuel Miranda made it sing.
From the angle of my life over sixty I delight in the energy of these young men who created a country. Then I nod in the direction of the women in the story. The Schuyler sisters are vivacious, adventurous and smart. Like many women then and now, their part appeared as adjunct, yet was key. They are raised in wealth. Eliza Schuyler marries Hamilton, and her sister Angelica remains a vital character in their story. The delicate dance of love between Hamilton and his wife captures the painful situation of Hamilton’s involvement with another woman. We experience his agony and how he ultimately came to peace with his wife and her sister.
On the battlefield Hamilton had a keen ability for military action. He was at peace with dying for the cause: “I’m young, scrappy and hungry, just like my country and I’m not giving away my shot.” George Washington says to him at one point, “Dying is easy young man, living is harder.”
Alexander was driven to write articles that influenced public opinion, sometimes under a psydonym. He wrote over fifty of the essays of The Federalist Papers. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” goes one of the songs from the words of his wife. Indeed, he was the only founding father not to reach old age. He died in a duel. His wife lived another fifty years and is largely responsible for preserving his story. The Federalist Papers provide the foundation for our financial system.
We think we are little cogs in the cosmic wheel. In a way, we are just that. What we do doesn’t make a lot of difference. But what about, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for?” So many characters play vital roles in the tapestry of a larger story. We make a difference. Each of us has quirks, foibles, and a unique path to the same moment in time.
We need to know these stories in our bones. They are stories of our ancestors and of how we as a nation and people get to be here now doing what we do in the modern USA. These characters matter. The handsome, clever, boastful Hamilton makes me think again of Mohammed Ali who was remembered in death this summer. Talk about boastful! “I’m the best.” And he was. It is refreshing to experience this truthful bit of hubris.
Doesn’t history have its eyes on us? My generation came into this world after our parents returned from war and its effects. They had to step up without hesitation to do what needed to be done. They wanted us to have a good, safe life after they saw such evil in the world.
History has its eyes on us. What does that mean? Now some of us are elders. Our world has challenges of great magnitude, and we must rise to the occasion, have courage to do what is needed without hesitation, to speak up. It is so easy to accept complacency.
What must we do without hesitation? There is no sound bite answer. This is a question worthy of exploration over the rest of our lives. Without hesitation, we engage with open hearts and curiosity. Knowing our history can remind us of what others did in earlier times. It’s a reminder of the intensity they lived with and through that resulted in action.
I am grateful to the “young, scrappy and hungry” Lin Manuel Miranda who took a leap into creative inspiration to write, produce and act in this musical. It is through this kind of ART that we can wake up and transform. It is our privilege and responsibility to explore the meaning of our lives. To seek understanding we need to shift gears and tune into ourselves. Art is one of the tools that can help us do this.
We must live our lives fully awake, willing to accept whatever comes our way and consider what actions we can take. We can’t know the outcome with certainty, but we can fully engage in the life we have. This takes courage, verve and love, and I think we have it. History has its eyes on us.