Ken Howard died last month. A proud union actor and leader, he is remembered by most from the 1970s dramatic TV program The White Shadow. To many of us, he has always been the face we picture when we think of Thomas Jefferson.
I turned eight in 1976, the American Bicentennial. We visited Williamsburg, our class portraits included Betsy Ross’s flag, and I personally have a strong and intimate association with seeing the film adaptation of the musical 1776 on Broadcast television.
The musical was originally produced on Broadway in 1969, when the U.S. was deep into Vietnam, the film version in 1972. For years, before cable anyway, it was rebroadcast around the Independence Day holiday. My family had the cast album, which we loved playing.
This story, depicting the signers of the Declaration of Independence as witty, flawed, somewhat crabby, but above all hopeful public servants was a helpful antidote to the general malaise of actually being American at that time.
It was much later that I learned, much to my disillusionment, that musical’s book compels the character of Jefferson to tell one whopper of a lie, in an obvious effort to leave the tall, awkward, Blythe Danner-loving redhead untarnished.
When debating the inclusion of language which would have publicly condemned the practice of enslavement, a South Carolina congressman reminds Thomas Jefferson of Virginia that he is also a slaver.
Jefferson states quietly, “I have already resolved to release my slaves.”
Actions speak louder. In reality Thomas Jefferson never released any slaves, with the exception of those he fathered, whom he conveniently allowed to “escape.” In fact, there was a practice at that time for slavers to put into their wills to grant freedom to those they held in slavery upon the slaver’s death. George Washington, for example, did this. Thomas Jefferson did not, passing possession of two hundred or so souls onto his heirs.
The worst sins of the historical characters in 1776 is that they are a bit laconic and playfully lascivious.
Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cultural juggernaut that is Hamilton. Inspired by biography and history, Miranda has single-handedly retrieved the least-known or least-understood of the “founding fathers” from obscurity by creating a vast and complex narrative which begs repeated listening. Most of us cannot hope to attend the production at the Richard Rogers Theatre, and have spent the past several months listening to the soundtrack, which weaves rap, hip-hop and R&B into traditional but staggeringly effective modern showtunes.
Part of the appeal of Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is how unapologetic the character is. In fact, he is the diametric opposite of apologetic, he refuses to apologize for anything.
Recently I purchased the cast recording to In The Heights. Without question it is a very well-written show, fun to listen to, and inspiring. It is important that Latinx voices are being heard, on Broadway, that musical styles never before presented were in the mix, the faces, the accents, the names. It deserved to and received the Tony Award for Best Musical that it received.
Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for In The Heights. He also wrote the music, lyrics and book for Hamilton.
Hamilton is a monster.
My children listen to it, all the time, it is on before school and whenever we get into the car. My thirteen year-old daughter listens to it when she’s doing her homework, every single day. My ten year-old son is working very hard to memorize every single word -- especially the cabinet meetings, the boy loves the cabinet meetings.
Several of the girl's friends are on board, and my wife sees her students sharing earbuds to listen between classes. I walk into the office of one of my work colleagues to drop off paperwork, she's listening to Hamilton. I keep seeing friends and colleagues surprise me on Instagram with their selfies at the Richard Rogers.
What is the difference between these two Miranda shows, or in fact between Hamilton and virtually any other Broadway show that has created a kind of widespread, “crossover” appeal that hasn’t been seen since perhaps the original production of Hair?
I think it's all the history.
Doctoral theses will be written, have been, are being as we speak, to be sure. My question is this; what is it about history which at once lends drama instant gravitas, but also compels great writers to reach deeper, go farther - and provides us the freedom to move along wherever it will take us?
The best example I can think of is The Crucible. Not a critically well-received drama when it was first produced, though it did win awards. But with that one play Miller reached far outside of himself to find the humanity in an arcane historical event and created the piece which I believe will stand the test of time, greater than All My Sons, greater than Death of a Salesman.
In one thousand years, Salesman may seem as obscure as The Women of Trāchis. But we will still be performing The Crucible, and it will play as fresh as it did in 1953, or as it remains today. Who is John Proctor? Who is Alexander Hamilton?
Well, he’s me, isn’t he? And who are you? Who are you? Who are you?
There was a recent bit of unpleasantness regarding the open call audition for the national touring production of Hamilton. They were looking for “Non-White Actors” and said so, causing scores of melanin-deprived individuals to get the vapors. “Colorblind” casting is one thing, but to show blatant preference against a single race? This feeling of being treated unfairly just because of my skin?
White people cannot comprehend the idea of not being allowed to have something they want.
The fallout was that, in spite of several prominent examples of AEA productions which called specifically for “white actors” the call for actors for the tour was changed to a more inclusive, “performers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.” In that way they are free to do what casting directors have done for centuries, and simply disregard any performer they feel does not suit the production.
At long last, white American actors will know what it feels like to "Audition While Black."
The non-white make-up of the original cast of Hamilton is, of course, part of what makes it unique. Miranda has said as much, that this is America today, representing America as it began.
It is that opportunity for creative representation which makes theater unique. The boy and I watched the movie Gettysburg last month, and while it strives for historical accuracy, the beards are a little difficult to take. Historical film wants to be accurate. The stage is all about the suspension of disbelief.
Recently I recounted an incident in which I debated with stranger about a production of The Crucible at the Cleveland Play House which featured a mixed-race cast. Watching an African-American actor perform John Proctor apparently disturbed this man a great deal, which I simply do not get. He saw a black man, I saw John Proctor.
Theater has always been a representation of reality and not an exact replica the thing itself. Anyone can play anything, if they play it well enough. Is appreciating this a generational thing? My children love the actors, singers and rappers who perform Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Hercules Mulligan (EVERYONE loves Hercules Mulligan) each of them portrayed in Hamilton by non-white performers. My children are not stupid, and they are not confused by these performances, they are aware that actual men they represent were racially European-Americans. They just love the music, the words, the voices, the personalities.
The performance of their characters by those who are not white may have confused or confounded or even offended the men they represent. But would an eighteenth century man be any less surprised or scandalized or even offended by the music and lyrics of Sherman “1776” Stone? I do not believe so.
History has its eyes on you.
Much has been written about the historical accuracy of Hamilton, Miranda is pretty up front about that. Yesterday there was a piece in the Times about the accuracy of the politics of the piece, and how it positions Hamilton as a visionary hero and Jefferson as a villain.
Who cares. Really. This is a play. You are worried the kids are going to get their opinions on history from a Broadway musical? Sister, please, turn on the so-called news and listen to the outright lies being offered by real people. This is art and should be judged as art.
The fact is, the artistry is brilliant. The words, as blogger Tim Sniffen put it; "The words caressed my brain and flowed over my face like hot, relevant syrup." (Read the whole thing, rarely have I read professional jealousy so lovingly and hilariously expressed.) It is not a cop-out to remind everyone that art has a responsibility to reveal the TRUTH, and not to let facts get in the way.
What is exciting to me, personally, is that this is the first time my little family – wife, daughter and son – have discovered and been overwhelmingly excited by the same cultural object all at the same time. It is as new to me as it is to them, none of us are better educated than anyone else on this. I know my history, but my kids are closer to the pop culture and they are teaching me the memes the fandom, the inside jokes, the appearances on Jimmy Fallon, and everything else that comes with it in Twenty-Sixteen.
And after all, may I remind you; “I have already resolved to release my slaves"? Srsly? Don't talk to me about facts.
We purchased the original cast recording in early February, less than two weeks before my father died. I remember this because he and my mother had visited one day during a snowstorm and we had a long afternoon talking. That’s what my father and I did, we talked. I was telling him about this exciting musical I was listening to, and how much I thought he would like it, because it is about American history, only I wasn’t sure he would like it because he couldn’t understand rap music. It’s not that he didn’t like rap music, it’s that he couldn’t understand the words going by so fast, and he found that frustrating.
The following Friday morning, I had just gotten out of the shower and received a call that he had suffered a massive heart attack, and that it looked bad and that I should get to the hospital as soon as possible. I learned later that it was far too late, but I dressed as fast as I could and drove across town and found myself suddenly, quietly blurt out, “stay alive …” and almost immediately wishing I hadn’t.
The days and weeks that followed we listened to the cast album, and I mean a lot. There have been and there continue to be a lot of drives between Cleveland Heights and Lakewood, and each time the kids ask if we can listen to Hamilton. I mean, my butt hasn't even hit the driver's seat and my daughter says, "Hamilton."
So, to this guy, the sense of emotional emergency, and its aftermath, are all tied up in that period. Like my association between 1776 and the Bicentennial, I will always remember the events surrounding my father's death and discovering these songs.
And it is because of my father that I cannot make it through the closing song (Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story) without breaking into tears. After two hours of listening to his enemies - and even he, himself - describe Hamilton as an orphan, and also bastard and whoreson, the poignancy of his wife Eliza’s greatest gift, the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York (today Graham Windham) resonates deeply.
Because, you see, my father was also given up by his birth mother. My father was an orphan. And I can’t help it. In this song, I see him. I see him every time.