The Value of Being Different

“Every day has the potential to be the greatest day of your life.”

-Lin-Manuel Miranda

There’s something magical about the Fourth of July, isn’t there?

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Independence Day still feels…sparkly.

Yes, I said sparkly. I may sound like a five-year-old, but I’m convinced this is the best way to describe the atmosphere and energy on the Fourth of July. In addition to sparklers spraying bright white light, mostly-illegal fireworks popping up and glittering down across the sky, and the totally acceptable low-level light beer buzz you can have throughout the day, the purpose of the holiday in and of itself is intoxicating in a sparkly sort of way.

I don’t know about you, but on July 4th I think I can actually feel the freedom ringing inside of me, rattling my bones and lifting me up with patriotic red-white-and-blue pride.

Some of my most favorite memories from when I was young happened on July 4th. I have vivid flashbacks of getting my very own metal-handled sparkler (which was thrilling to have, as my parents were rightfully vigilant about me not playing with fire). My favorite way to spend those twenty seconds was to write my name in sparking light across the dark sky once the sun set and the dank summer night crept in.

I also remember eating more cheeseburgers and hotdogs and chicken drumsticks than I care to admit, finishing each backyard BBQ off with a huge, juicy slice of watermelon (and a Chips Ahoy cookie…or five).

Is there anything more American than smoking a pork butt?

I can conjure up memories of backyard volleyball or badminton or kick the can, or those rare occasions where some brave soul invited my whole family (all four children and my parents) to a pool party at their home.

In fact, I can practically feel the drippy, sticky popsicle liquid running down my chin and hands, turning everything it touched a deeply-unnatural shade of electric blue. (Firecracker popsicle! Where have you been for the last 25 years?)

She isn’t a Bald Eagle, but I did see an Osprey on July 4th.

However, this Fourth of July felt very different from those in the distant and not-so-distant past, and not just because of COVID. The recent protests and my antiracist learning have made me much more aware of the fact that the freedom I feel ringing in my bones is not felt by all in our country. Far from it, in fact.

Instead of celebrating our country’s fight to win its freedom from English rule, this holiday serves as yet another reminder for many that the freedom our Founding Fathers fought and died for is still not enjoyed by all–more than 200 years later.

On July 5, 1852, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass addressed the hypocrisy and dichotomy of the holiday in a speech that has been widely shared online this year. It reads in part, “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.”

The fact that Douglass’ words still ring true today is incredibly sad. I know there are more eloquent and powerful ways to explain this understanding, but “sad” is the best way I can describe how it feels to me. It makes me sad to read the introduction to Douglass’ speech, in which he apologizes for his nerves and what he believed to be subpar speaking abilities (how far from the truth and his ultimate legacy as an orator!). It makes me sad to know that my fellow Americans–my neighbors, friends, and colleagues–are still being oppressed by a system from which I’ve unwittingly benefitted. And honestly, it makes me sad that so many people haven’t had the sparkly Fourth of July experience that I so lovingly remember.

A smile or a tear has no nationality; joy and sorrow speak alike to all nations, and they, above all the confusion of tongues, proclaim the brotherhood of man.

-Frederick Douglass

While I don’t think this needs to completely taint my childhood memories, I do think that the way I experience and celebrate this holiday needs to change moving forward.

Although I know how minor it is, the one teeny tiny change I made this year was to consume more of those things that remind me of the other, darker side of July 4th. From reading articles and speeches like Douglass’ to digesting the difficult messages posted from Black activists on social media, I was much more intentional about my holiday media consumption this year. I’m in no way suggesting I deserve a pat on the back for this, but incremental gains are still gains, right?

And just like everyone else on social media, I started what I plan to be a new July Fourth tradition: watching “Hamilton” as many times as humanly possible.

Please note: I am under no pretense that watching “Hamilton” is somehow going to make me and my future family better, antiracist people. I know that this requires more education, understanding, and vigilance than simply sitting on the couch and being wildly entertained. However, I still think this re-telling of the early years of our nation by a supremely talented and intentionally diverse cast moves the needle forward in reframing perspective. Beyond the diversity of the cast, though, the script is intentional in highlighting the injustice of slavery and hypocrisy of slave-owning leaders, and the hip-hop style of performance wonderfully obliterates cultural expectations for a story about one of our Founding Fathers. It’s a true masterpiece that was well worth the $7.49 we paid for a month of Disney Plus to watch it.

And although some have recently criticized the play for not going far enough in its depiction and treatment of slavery, there’s still time for Miranda and others in the industry to tackle this and other issues of inequality through playwriting (if the theaters ever open again) and other forms of entertainment. We know from the enormous gains in gay marriage and other social issues that television, movies, and plays can make a difference, and I am certain the changes erupting in our world today will result in tomorrow’s progressive and impactful masterpieces.

So, without further delay, this week’s purpose-driven life should come as no surprise in light of my “Hamilton” fawning. In examining his life and how he fought to become one of the most well-respected and acclaimed composers in recent history, what can we learn from the one and only Lin-Manuel Miranda? Let’s take a shot.

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2019. Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Lin-Manuel Miranda was born in 1980 in New York City. His mother, a clinical psychologist, and his father, a political consultant, were both born in Puerto Rico before coming to America. His mother immigrated to the U.S. as an infant, but his father worked hard to graduate college in early and leave Puerto Rico to attend graduate school in New York. Miranda’s unusual name, “Lin-Manuel,” came from a poem by a Puerto Rican writer that his father read as a teenager. From his christening, it seems Miranda was already destined to be a different kind of person than the world had seen before.

Miranda grew up 30 blocks north of Washington Heights in the Inwood neighborhood of NYC. Every summer, he and his older sister traveled to Puerto Rico to spend time with their grandparents and other relatives. When he was five, Miranda was accepted to the Hunter College Elementary School, a selective school for gifted children on the Upper East Side. The only student to attend from his neighborhood, Miranda was surrounded by mostly wealthy classmates. He again did not fit the expected mold, as he recalled spending time at the homes of his Jewish friends speaking Spanish with their housekeepers.

Credit: Twitter

Growing up, Miranda’s parents were enamored with Broadway musicals, and though they could rarely afford to see shows in person, Miranda did get to see the trifecta: “Les Miserables”, “Cats”, and “Phantom of the Opera”. He has clear memories of these experiences, from being moved to tears at Fantine’s death, to having his hand touched by cats running down the aisle, to relating deeply with a story about “an ugly songwriter who wants to impose his will on the world.” Though Miranda was struck by musical theater from a young age, his ultimate purpose wasn’t as simple as working in the industry, and even that milestone took time.

When he was six years old, Miranda started learning to play the piano as a way to channel his innate musical talents, but he became disinterested by the time he reached middle school. In high school, he tested out another avenue for his gifts by trying out for the school play. After beating out a senior for the lead role and performing to rave reviews, something magical clicked, and Miranda devoted himself to musical theater. He directed “West Side Story” his senior year, and after seeing “Rent” when he was 17 years old, he began writing short plays as well.

Miranda in “Jesus Christ Superstar”

After high school, Miranda went to college at Wesleyan University. There, he lived with other first-generation Latino kids and began to explore that side of his identity in ways not possible with his friends at Hunter. Drawing on that experience, Miranda began writing a musical set in Washington Heights featuring Latino characters, music, and style. The central plot about a love triangle wasn’t exactly compelling, but the innovative decision to have characters rap instead of sing visibly moved the audience.

After staging it his sophomore year, however, this play sat in Miranda’s desk for years. Upon his graduation, Miranda’s father urged him to go to law school, fearing his son needed a back-up plan in case his professional theater dreams were never realized. Miranda decided instead to begin substitute teaching at his old elementary school. As he remembered, “They did grammar, which we didn’t do when I was a student, so I was kind of learning grammar one lesson ahead of my kids.” 

While substitute teaching, Miranda finally unearthed his Washington Heights manuscript and began working on it with a fellow Hunter alumnus. Two years and several rejections later, they brought in a young playwright to rework the play. The playwright made drastic changes to the plot, shifting focus to the charismatic main character and his vibrant neighborhood.

After that complete overhaul and several workshops, Miranda’s musical, “In the Heights,” finally premiered Off-Broadway in 2007, seven years after completing his first draft. In 2008, it moved to Broadway, where it won 4 of its 13 Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Miranda was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as the main character, and the play even earned him a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

Miranda in “In the Heights”

After that colossal success, Miranda slid effortlessly into creating and staging “Hamilton”, right? Not exactly.

In the years that followed his departure from the “In the Heights” cast, Miranda pursued a mishmash of opportunities, many of which don’t seem befitting a Tony and Grammy Award-winning composer. His success did open doors to working with greats like Stephen Sondheim and making special appearances on television shows like The Sopranos, House, and How I Met Your Mother. However, during this period he also performed at bar and bat mitzvahs, worked as an English teacher at his old high school, and wrote music for commercials. Miranda continued in musical theater as well, though, co-writing “Bring It On: The Musical,” writing and acting in a short one-man show, and performing in Merrily We Roll Along.

Miranda with a collaborator in 2012

Although his life post-“Heights” was varied and uncertain, it was during this period of strangeness and uncertainty that Miranda’s true dharma would reveal itself to him.

While on vacation in Mexico with his future wife, Miranda began reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. He had purchased the 800-page book on impulse, but in hindsight, perhaps it was the universe that led him to the book that would change his life forever.

Miranda was gripped by the story of an orphan in St. Croix who willed himself to America, helped lead the Revolutionary War alongside George Washington, and used his writing to propel the subsequent birth of our nation. A year later, ideas swirling around his musical mind, Miranda was invited by President Obama to participate in the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. The invitation suggested that he perform a number from “In the Heights,” but Miranda had other plans. Fueled by the fire that Hamilton’s story had ignited in his soul, Miranda performed a Hamilton-themed rap instead, which included the line that would later become part of his record-shattering musical: “The ten-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.”

Miranda performing at the White House in 2009.

From that night in 2009 to the Off-Broadway premiere of “Hamilton: An American Musical” in 2015, Miranda read Hamilton’s letters and writings, visited places of significance from his life, and worked tirelessly on rewriting and reworking each song in between bar mitzvahs and other aforementioned gigs. It was most certainly worth the wait, as “Hamilton” won practically every Tony Award in the musical theater category, earned Miranda a Pulitzer Prize, and enjoyed astronomical financial success.

Miranda and his cast mates rehearsing before its Off-Broadway premiere. Photo by Joan Marcus

Beyond the accolades, though, one of the greatest accomplishments of this show has to be the way it connected two seemingly disparate cultures. By using hip hop and choosing a cast that celebrates people of color, Miranda told a much more engaging and interactive version of the stale, white-male-dominated story told in classrooms. And its audience reflected how successfully it bridged this gap, as this was not just a show that President Obama enjoyed; Vice President Pence went to see it, too.

Credit: New York Times

“Hamilton” opened other doors to Miranda, and he has since composed songs for the Disney movies, including Moana (you know, the best, most catchy song in the movie), acted in the Merry Poppins reboot, and used his remarkably large platform to advocate for Puerto Ricans and other Latinx Americans.

So, other than inspiring you to watch the film adaptation of “Hamilton” with me (again) this week, what can we learn from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s fight to find his purpose of using his talents to bring hip hop to musical theater and bridge cultural divides in the process?

I think the main takeaway from his journey is that the thing that makes you different might just be the calling that’s calling your name.

Miranda was never one to blend in or adhere to anyone’s expectations of him or his art. Instead of trying to fall in line with traditional notions of what makes a musical a hit, he used his roots and background–what makes him unique–to create a new form of musical theater.

Another lesson about purpose I can glean from Miranda? Just keep going. Because even when you think you’ve made it, your version of “Hamilton” might just be waiting for you around the corner.

Finally, after celebrating July Fourth in a new way this year, I also think there is a greater lesson to be learned from Lin-Manuel Miranda about perspective. Miranda’s perspective as a first generation Latino American is precisely what makes “Hamilton” such a brilliant, exciting play to watch. It’s not the white-bread version of the story that I grew up hearing; it’s indescribably better.

So, just as a different perspective on the story of our Founding Fathers improved our collective experience of this tale, there are undoubtedly numerous other facets of our lives that can be improved by the perspective of someone different from ourselves. Perhaps by changing our perspective on the Fourth of July and other American traditions in much more inclusive way, we all can feel the immeasurable joy that watching a sparkler burn down brings to my five-year-old heart.

3 thoughts on “The Value of Being Different

  1. Thank you Kelly! That was wonderful.
    Kina gave me tickets to both Hamilton and In the Heights. I loved both shows
    so much. Nothing like having your daughter working in the industry.
    I hope you and Alex are well and that we can see you soon.

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I’m so envious that you got to see both shows (definitely doesn’t hurt to have Kina in the industry!). We got to see Hamilton when it came to Tampa last year, but I have to imagine the cast in the Seattle show was even better. I hope you and the gang are all staying well, too, and that we get to see you (and maybe do some fishing?) soon! Xoxo

      Like

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