Hamilton, RENT, and the Power of Fiction on Thought and Politics

You know those moments when you step out of a movie or a show, when you put a book down or finish listening to a song for the first time and you feel as though your life is somehow different than it was minutes or hours ago? As if you wave your hand through a sort of haze and see the world in a different way once it clears?

Stepping out of the Richard Rodgers Theater after seeing Hamilton was like that for me.

I’ve experienced this feeling before, most notably after the first time I saw the Phantom of the Opera movie (don’t laugh, it led me to the musical and the book, both of which are much better. Sorry, Gerard Butler. But I still have a soft spot for it.) and after I read Les Miserables the first time. I should probably count Harry Potter among those things too. As I stepped out into the hot New York night donning my new baseball cap bearing the A.Ham moniker on the front, weaving my way through the crowds of people waiting at the stage door, I experienced that feeling again. The world felt brighter, the colors sharper, yet there was some sort of heaviness, as if my excitement, the sense that somehow my life was different even if I couldn’t quite articulate how, longed to burst out. I wanted to tell everyone. I wanted to listen to the music until it was more in my bloodstream than my actual blood. Which you know, given how much I’ve listened to it already (we bought the tickets something like eight or nine months ago) is saying something.

Hamilton’s had me thinking a lot about creativity and art/media lately, partly because it’s a downright breathtaking piece of theater-no matter what he says to the contrary, Lin Manuel Miranda is a genius, though a wonderfully nerdy, human one-but also because it couldn’t have had better timing. It’s had me thinking about the effects fiction and all forms of media have on us, and in turn our politics.  On how we view the world and the people living in it. How it can teach us to relate to and care about people who perhaps are not like us, and hopefully in turn, give us the courage we need to fight for them. To stand up for them.

Hamilton’s message rings with support of immigrants, applause breaks are taken during the show to hear Hamilton and Lafayette shout “immigrants, we get the job done!” And even more, to hear those words spoken by a Latino and an African American man makes it hit the heart even harder. To hear that message resound night after night in the Richard Rodgers theater to thunderous applause, to sold out crowds, even as outside Donald Trump and his supporters discuss building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as they seriously talk about banning all Muslim immigration. To see a cast full of people of color showing us pieces of America’s history, even as people decry the Black Lives Matter movement. There is so much tension in the air, and there is, without a doubt, so much at stake in this election. So much at stake in our times. And to hear the hateful rhetoric and vitriol spewed by the Republican party this election season, it might be easy to think most people want to take America back decades. That most people want to live in a country where we spend most of our time hating each other. That we want the opposite of progress. But as I sat watching Hamilton, I thought to myself, I don’t believe that.

As I sat there watching, as I’ve heard it said, America now telling the story of America then, I believed that other people in the room, that almost everyone who set foot in that theater, couldn’t emerge without wanting a better country. Without feeling something for each other. If they didn’t walk into the theater thinking about the importance of immigration, about what it takes to build a country, to progress forward even as we realize and admit our flaws, to create a place where all races and gender are equal, they sure were when they walked out.  I am just not sure how you could emerge from that theater and support the divisive, hateful policies that the Republicans and Donald Trump represent. Hamilton makes you believe in the good in the world, in the good of people. Hamilton makes you want to do something. It does it boldly, and without apology. And in these days of fearful, dangerous rhetoric, in a time where actual KKK members are emerging back into public life, Hamilton’s marquee shining bright could not be more important. The fact that people love it, it’s message, and the man who created it could not be more important.

As I stepped back out into the streets of New York City after seeing Hamilton, I couldn’t help but feel that we truly were bending toward progress, that the moral arc of the country, as MLK might say, was bending toward justice. And it reminded me, once again, that we need to do everything we can to keep it that way. As I witnessed the joyous, hopeful, emotional atmosphere in that theater, it reminded me that I was not alone in that fight.

And Hamilton isn’t the first musical to step out into the world and tackle subject matter like this-it’s also interesting to me that two of the biggest pop culture events like this in recent memory were musicals-Jonathan Larson did it with RENT, which started its workshop in 1993 and came to Broadway in 1996. Almost everyone knows RENT, which features LGBTQ characters, characters of color, as well as characters facing AIDS. And to talk about this stuff in the 90s? To discuss AIDS when a lot of people were still afraid to say the words? The show openly gay and lesbian couples long before same sex marriage was a thing the majority of Americans supported? But RENT brought those things out into the mainstream of American culture, drawing in both people who related to the stories presented on that stage, and people who didn’t. But it taught that second group of people to care about the issues through these characters, and in turn, the real people facing AIDS and discrimination for their sexuality and gender. I can only imagine what it was like to see a character like Tom Collins, a gay man of color facing AIDS step on the stage and have people cheer in response.

And that’s how art speaks to us. Art like Hamilton and RENT has the power to change the conversation. To change the way we think. To change the way we view other people. And that’s an incredibly powerful thing. I thought about this again as I sat in the movie theater this weekend to watch the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters. And as exciting and fantastic as the movie was, most of the trailers before it got me thinking. There was some sort of war movie. Then another one about the plane landing on the Hudson and the controversy afterward. There was a really apocalyptic Dan Brown movie where Dante’s Inferno was somehow real and only Tom Hanks can save us. Everything was told in hues of blue and black and gray, complete with dramatic music that indicated the world was probably ending. It felt like a constant hum of white man-plane-crash-apocalypse-death-war-destruction-ONLY ONE LONE WHITE DUDE CAN SAVE US THERE IS NOTHING ELSE TO DO WE’RE ALL DOOMED. And against an echo chamber of apocalyptic misery porn, how could anyone feel inspired or good about the world? How could anyone find the courage to fight?

Is the purpose of art to inspire or terrorize? Why do so many dark dark dark movies get such high praise? I’m not talking about things that make you cry and have difficult parts; my favorite book in the world is Les Miserables, and it makes me sob, but there is a point, there is a purpose, there is a direction, and a hope. Hamilton, while full of funny moments, also made me lose all my makeup until my eyeliner was in tear streaks down my face. But that is genuine human emotion. That is not this endless grayness punctuated with blasts of fire and fear. With so much media like that, making us believe in our imminent destruction, it plays right into Donald Trump’s fearmongering and “I am your voice” rhetoric the entire debacle that was the RNC represented.

That’s not what I’m here for.

Give me an immigrant founding father played by a Latino man with a cast full of people of color talking about “America, you great unfinished symphony.”

Give me LGBTQ characters saying “No Day But Today.”

Give me that all women Ghostbuster reboot that is unapologetically filled with things women can relate to, like pinning your keys to your bra-strap..

Give me Leslie Knope fighting the good fight day in and day out in Parks and Recreation.

Give me Jean Valjean adopting rescuing a little girl from abuse, give me young men standing up for the poor and the voiceless.

Give me all of that. Give me art that inspires me. Give me art that makes me feel like I can change the state of things. That makes me feel like I can make them better. Give me art that becomes part of the conversation. That challenges the status quo.

Give me that art that retains its optimism while never ignoring the struggles of our country, the world, and humanity as a whole.

Give me art that creates empathy between people. That changes them.

I think Lin Manuel Miranda said it best in a keynote speech he gave, saying: “But this goes beyond transcendence and action: It’s empathy. When you create that moment between the audience and the people onstage, you’re asking the audience to live outside of themselves. You’re asking the audience to identify with people they might not normally ordinarily identify with.”

Word, good sir. Word.

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