What do the musical Hamilton and the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis have in common? Glenn Wagner explains.
Michigan Conference Communications
It was almost a perfect day. We had been dreaming of this perfect day for three years. This day when we finally attended Hamilton. An American Musical, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Hamilton is the remarkable story of Alexander Hamilton, one of our nation’s cherished founding fathers, our first Secretary of Treasury, father of the Coast Guard, and the iconic visage on our U.S. ten dollar bill.
Hamilton, An American Musical, is a global phenomenon. This show has received 11 Tony Awards including best musical, score, book, direction, choreography, and orchestration.
Miranda, the composer has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, three Grammys, an Emmy, two Olivier Awards and has been nominated for an Academy Award. In 2015, he was the recipient of a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Fellows Program. In 2016, Time magazine included Miranda in its annual Time 100 as one of the “Most Influential People in the World”. He has received stars on the Puerto Rico Walk of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Kennedy Center Honors for creating Hamilton.
Hamilton, An American Musical has grossed already over 523 million dollars in receipts from its continuously sold out performances on Broadway in New York and after three years it has launched successful runs in other major cities like Chicago, Detroit, and London. Ticket prices to this prized show are dear with most exceeding $100 per ticket. Our mezzanine tickets for a highly valued Chicago performance were $151 each as a part of a local bus tour group from Michigan.
Everything about this musical is gloriously revolutionary. The music, the staging, the content, the lyrics, the dancing, and the casting all break new ground in the theater. The message of the show is inspiring immigrants, minorities, and school children from all walks of life to dream big dreams, to understand American history, and to cherish our Democracy while appreciating the sacrifices that have made our nation possible. Hamilton, An American Musical has established programs to make attendance affordable and accessible for thousands of disadvantaged school children during its run.
Nancy and I first heard about the show on a PBS special which featured an evening of performances by American poets in 2009 at the Obama White House, where Miranda was invited to share a song from his first hit musical, “In the Heights.” Instead he captured national attention with the debut of his opening number for Hamilton, which was still just a dream in his genius mind.
We were further intrigued to learn more about the musical from Facebook reviews posted with selfies from many of our friends, who somehow made the time and coughed up the fortune, won ticket lotteries, or scored less expensive nosebleed seats in the balcony.
For the past three years Nancy and I have been dreaming of a day when we might go and see Hamilton, An American Musical in person, too.
Hamilton tickets ordinarily cost way more than I was comfortable paying but we did more than dream. For the past three years we have learned more about Hamilton. Nancy and I each read Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, which provided the motivating inspiration for Lin Manuel Miranda to imagine his musical. We read 1776 by historian, David McCullogh for a deeper apprecation of the American Revolutionary war. Nancy purchased the cast CD recording of the sound track for Hamilton, and printed out and enlarged the lyrics so we could follow the words which sometimes are sung rapid fire and overlaid by competing lines delievered by multiple singers simultaneously. We devoured another book, Hamilton: the Revolution about the history of the making of the musical which also provides Lin Manuel Miranda’s personal commentary for each line, the casting, composing, and staging.
Nancy has followed the news about Hamilton and was the first to notice the confluence of events that inspired us to, finally, dig deep into our savings to make a cherished family memory and attend a recent performance of the musical in Chicago.
First, our daughter Bethany and her husband, Aaron, shared with us the great news that they are expecting our first grandchild with an aniticpated arrival in November. Second, Nancy planned a baby shower for Bethany with her relatives to be hosted at our home. Another baby shower was planned for that same week by friends in North Muskegon’s Community United Methodist Church, the congregation that loved Bethany through grade school and high school. Bethany planned to take time off from her work in Troy, Michigan for several days to drive over to West Michigan for the baby showers. Our son, Michael, who lives also in Troy, also agreed to take the time to come over for the week.
Nancy then noticed the news blurbs that Hamilton would be closing its Chicago run at the end of the year. Another story highlighted, Hamilton, the Exhibition, a dedicated Chicago Lake Front museum with a heralded historical exhibit about the American History behind the musical that would be closing permanently by the end of August. Nancy further drew my attention to a third item about a West Michigan bus tour company that was offering tickets that would include round trip transportation to both the Exhibition and the Musical in the same day and in the same week that Michael and Bethany would be viisiting us.
We bit the bullet and bought inclusive Bus Tour, exhibit, and theater performance tickets and excitedly awaited the day to make a lasting and treasured family memory together. We were joined by our children and several other theater loving friends as a part of the bus tour group. We didn’t know anyone else on the full bus.
We were not disappointed. The weather was perfect: sunny and with temperatures in the low 80s. The bus was modern with comfortable seats. The crowd included friendly senior citizens with a sprinkling of engaging younger adults. The tour guides were genial. They had planned for bathroom breaks, coffee, extra assistance for persons with handicaps, and a stop for breakfast enroute. The ride with family and friends to Chicago from Grand Rapids was wonderful.
It was nice not to worry about navigating Chicago traffic or stewing about the dear cost of parking in the city. Service was door to door.
The Hamilton exhibition was engaging and further whetted our appetite for the main course matinee at the theater in the early afternoon. Our stroll through the narrated exhibit was also the stuff of cherished memories.
When our motor coach finally deposited us after lunch in downtown Chicago near to the CIBC Theater for our day’s main event, we shared the building excitement as we exited the bus.
The CIBC Theater when it opened as the Majestic in 1906 was once the tallest building in the city. Its classic interior is itself a visual banquet for the eyes. The stage has hosted many of theater’s hallowed shows and has featured many of the greatest performers of our time.
When the doors finally opened at 1:00 pm the optimistic crowd surged patiently through security and e-ticket scanning and up multiple flights of stairs to shoehorn into seats as snug as economy class on a crowded airplane. No one complained. Many posed before sitting to take selfies with the dramatic stage far below in the background as the auditorium filled. We could feel the energy of expectation in the air.
As the lights dimmed, with the obligatory welcome and warning prohibiting recording and commanding that we all turn off our cell phones, the anticipated magic began with the pulsing of the opening lyrics.
“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 10 dollar
Founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter, by 14 they placed him in charge of a trading charter.”
We were already on the edge of our seats as the stage filled with light and interesting characters, and our minds were transported in a thoroughly modern rhythm to imagine our distant past.
The orchestra, costumes, staging, props, and casting were all superb. The crowd got swept up in the drama and the compelling music playing out before us.
I pinched myself in happiness. We were there with our grown children and an expected first grandchild, who came along for free, making a treasured memory. I quietly thanked God for the gift of this moment. I felt privileged to be able to share and afford this rare family dream.
Each song unwrapped like the opening of another treasured gift from a loved one, fresh and pleasing. Each scene delivered a new visual and audio delight. What a company! Incredible performances. World class vocals. Magnificent dance. Superlatives were all inadequate to describe the show.
We shared as witnesses to Alexander Hamilton’s difficult childhood, his scrappy climb to prominence, his love, marriage, the revolutionary war and political intrigue. We eavesdropped on Hamilton’s infidelity, multiple dueling events, deaths, and grief.
As the show came to its inspirational climax in the final number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” we were on the edge of our seats. Tears were welling. I experienced a one-ness with the cast and the rare specialness of that moment. I was filled with inspiration. I had never been a witness to anything like this. I estimated that more than $ 1 million dollars had been invested collectively by all those present plus theater sponsors in the cost of tickets, concessions, transportation, parking, lodging, and souvenirs.
The Bible teaches us that “where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.” Our hearts were definitely lifted in unity at that moment to a shared place just short of heaven. Everything was perfect. Just as I had dreamed it would be. Just as we had a right to expect that kind of personal and collective sacrificial investment would be.
That’s when we all heard it.
It was a discordant note. An intermittent tinny sounding tinkling. It was somewhat muted but in the superb acoustics of the theater it was as audible as the award-winning musicians and the world class vocalists reaching their climactic moment after three hours of masterful and heart-felt performance and on the cusp of a well-deserved and prolonged simultaneous standing explosion of wild praise from an appreciative audience. A tinkling. Annoying. Really annoying. Aggravatingly persistent. Tinkling. Really audible. Invading. Awkward pause. More tinkling. And again.
I couldn’t believe it! The magic moment was being shattered by the clearly audible ringing of a cell phone! I was thinking of other adjectives for cell phone that pastors are not supposed to utter in public. It was coming from the row in the theater right behind us. The phone kept tinkling. We hoped it would stop. We were offended by its presence. The phone kept ringing. We heard an exasperated whisper coming from behind us, “Your cell-phone!”
Followed by another whisper, “Is that my cell-phone?”
Followed by “YES!” and then an even more desperate appeal with a louder whisper, “Turn it off!”
When the person finally realized their own complicity in the devastating moment, we also heard them fumbling in their bag to pull out the cell phone which sounded even louder without its insulating wrap. The guilty party fumbled in the darkened auditorium and tried to remember how to silence the ringer. For a few moments more the ringing continued even louder and even as the music on the stage continued.
Finally the ringer was muted. The performers professionally never missed a beat and Hamilton An American Musical swelled to a climax with the unforgettable chorus singing,
“It’s only a matter of time
Will they tell your story?
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
I never learned the name of the cell-phone felon. The subject wasn’t discussed on the long bus ride home. I will never forget our unbelievable day nor the indelible story of Hamilton. It was perfect in every way, almost.
Our experience at Hamilton An American Musical helped me to better understand another equally unforgettable story at the beginning of the Bible, Genesis 2:4-3:24, that similarly reminds us that the world was intended to be perfect, like a Garden of Eden. Life almost was everything we are capable of dreaming that it should have been. Then some really foolish persons mucked it up. They, too, disregarded the opening announcement giving the house rules.
We are all related to the culprits. There is evidence abounding that we share an inherited disregard. You can see it in cars on the highway that exceed the speed limit, litter strewn within feet of the trash receptacle in the park and in sight of the “no littering,” sign, graffiti sprayed on the side of the freight cars, and in headline stories about the social embarrassments of the rich and famous.
Reminders are everywhere that while we are capable of dreaming of perfection, living towards it, and sometimes reaching it, frequently we fall a bit short.
With God’s grace I pray that we all keep working after the example of Christ toward that perfect day when we all love God and neighbor as God intends, and others remember that we got it all right without any need for the qualifying, “almost.”
And when life doesn’t quite turn out in every detail like we have dreamed that it should be, may we also give thanks for God’s abiding love and Jesus’ sacrificial response to our shortcomings.