My first-grade daughter wiggles to get as close to me on the sofa as possible to watch a Youtube video on my smartphone of the Hamilton cast singing “My Shot” at the White House.
The Grammy Award-winning " target="_blank" data-ylk="subsec:paragraph;itc:0;cpos:3;pos:1;elm:context_link">cast album has reached wildfire status in our house: the soundtrack to every part of our day, the distraction to family games that require strategy, an aspirational objective to our plan to spend several weeks in NYC this summer. (It is also the source of clear discomfort for 90-year-old Grandma when she hears a lyric that we have given up censoring once our daughter’s reading ability led her to the liner notes.)
“A minute into the song she knows nearly by heart, Ailigh taps the pause button. “Wait, Mom!” she says, her face the picture of distress. “That’s not what I thought they’d look like!?””
There, on the tiny screen held between us, the male principal cast members of the biggest Broadway hit of our time stand beside each other, dressed in stylish suits. They begin beatboxing with no other accompaniment, trading off beats as each actor raps the introduction of their character: John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The back of the President of the United States’ head can be seen from his seat in the front row.
A minute into the song she knows nearly by heart, Ailigh taps the pause button. “Wait, Mom!” she says, her face the picture of distress. “That’s not what I thought they’d look like!?”
“Well, how did you think they’d look?” I say. I’m pretty sure that the actors’ various shades of brown are confounding her, but I don’t want to put words in her mouth. When she is unable to articulate her confusion, I ask if we can return to the video.
It isn’t until reading a library book together about our Founding Fathers that she finds her way back to the topic. “Is this what our Founding Fathers looked like?” Yes, I say. “So, they weren’t black?” No, I say. “Did Hamilton know any black people?” Yes. “Were any of our Founding Fathers black?” No.
Sure, we’ve discussed how slavery and civil rights are inseparable from the fabric of our nation. We’ve read books about the Underground Railroad, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama. We’ve given the Broadway musical " target="_blank" data-ylk="subsec:paragraph;itc:0;cpos:9;pos:1;elm:context_link">Ragtime significant playtime, and I’ve often described how the story’s three racial groups (white Americans, black Americans, and Eastern European immigrants) are learning to navigate a changing world where their so-far segregated lives are beginning to overlap in the early 20 century.
But Hamilton has got her all mixed up. The show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda envisioned our Founding Fathers portrayed by actors whose skin and hair colors in no way resemble the pink cheeks and powdered wigs depicted in the library books we’ve been reading from cover to cover.
“Now, I notice that when my daughter sees a picture of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, she seems to have moved past the color of his skin and instead focuses on his character, both strengths and flaws.”
Here’s my shot at clearing things up for her. I paraphrase Miranda’s explanation (as I recall it) that he wants to tell the story of America then by the America of today. I pick up the thread of Ragtime and fast-forward another hundred years to the true melting pot that defines our nation today. She nods her understanding.
Now, I notice that when my daughter sees a picture of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, she seems to have moved past the color of his skin and instead focuses on his character, both strengths and flaws.
And therein lies the reason we’ll be investing some serious hours in the cancellation line at the Richard Rodgers Theatre this summer to attempt to buy tickets to experience Hamilton. Because now is the time for “passionately smashin’ every expectation.”*
“And I’m not throwin’ away my shot.”*
*Quotes attributed to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “My Shot” from the Broadway show, Hamilton.
Megan Padilla has discovered what it is to be fan girl, at the age of 45. She’ll soon head to Nevis, Hamilton’s birthplace, on assignment for ISLANDS magazine.