Roughly ten years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at The State, talking on the phone with Fritz Hollings. This was shortly after he had left office, and we frequently had occasion to talk. I don’t know what we were talking about, or who had called whom. It might have been about one of several op-ed pieces he wrote for us in that period — he was still having trouble letting go of policymaking. Maybe it was the conversation in which I called him to ask a favor — his good friend Joe Biden was going to be in town, and I wanted him to drop by the office if he had time so we could get acquainted, before he ran again for national office (Fritz came through on that).
Anyway, we got off the subject, whatever it was. Fritz had just read Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, and he started singing its praises, saying I must read it. I took his advice — almost. I put the book on my list for family members looking for gift ideas for my birthday or Christmas, and someone promptly gave it to me. And… it has sat on my shelf ever since, until this weekend.
I really, truly, meant to read it. I’d always been interested in the Founders. On my way to sort of inadvertently getting a second major in history, I concentrated to a certain extent on that period. And I came away convinced that had I been alive and in politics at the time, I’d have been a Federalist. That was the party Hamilton had founded, and I knew he was brilliant, and that he provided most of the arguments that sold the Constitution to the country among other startling achievements, but… I was less attracted to him than to the others, and I knew that as a result I had neglected him. Which is why I had dutifully put the book on my list. But still, I kept my distance. Maybe I had absorbed some of the propaganda put out about him by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but it seemed to me that there was a reason why Hamilton wasn’t ever president, and I thought that if I was a Federalist, I was more of an Adams Federalist than a Hamiltonian. I mean, the guy was so into money and all…
So there the book sat. And during the years that I failed to read it, a young man named Lin-Manuel Miranda picked it up, and it set his mind on fire. He was inspired to write a musical based on the book, and it became the biggest hit on Broadway in a generation.
So, I missed a big opportunity there.
I kept hearing about the play, and seeing video clips from it, and I thought it was really exciting that someone had made a hit out of one of the Founders (and, to my mind, the Founder least likely to inspire a hit musical), but I had some Clueless White Guy questions: What did hip-hop have to do with the guy who had founded banks and our whole financial system? And why were most of the actors on the stage black — or at least, seemingly nonAnglo-Saxon? I didn’t object to them being black — I just wondered why. It seemed that there was a point being made, but I didn’t understand what the point was. I wondered whether it had to do with Hamilton’s obscure origins. All I knew (thanks to Jefferson’s folks) was that Hamilton was a bastard out of the West Indies. Was Miranda saying that, coming out of the ethnic richness of the Caribbean, he was of mixed race, so it was fitting to have actors of color fill the stage?
Well, on Friday night, I saw “Hamilton’s America,” the fascinating documentary about the creation of this play, and suddenly I got it. I saw what people were so enchanted with. I understood why, when Manuel was reading Chernow’s book on vacation, he thought, “This is a rap!” And I was deeply impressed by how everyone involved in the production was thoroughly immersed in Hamilton and the other Founders and what they were all about, and why they are important today — and not just to pasty-faced people of English extraction.
I was really impressed by that part. Decades ago, when I did some community theater back in Tennessee, I met a lot of talented people. And I was shocked to find that people who were brilliant musicians — something I could never be — and really gifted amateur actors were nevertheless… how shall I put this… not well read. They might do a play based on history — say, “The Lion In Winter,” which I acted in — and they’d get their lines and the intonations perfectly, but they wouldn’t really know the history or the cultural context of what they were pretending to be.
In this documentary, not only Miranda was able to speak fluently and inspiringly about Hamilton and his world, but the other actors as well. They went on and on about it, and you could learn a lot by listening to them.
And as I listened, I — who was last attracted to musical theater when Andrew Lloyd Webber came out with “Evita” (another sort of history I sorta kinda concentrated on in college was Latin American) — started really, really getting into the music. And that’s really, really saying something, since the only rap numbers I’m familiar with and like are the ones from “Office Space.”
So here’s the irony: Hip-hop helped get those young actors into history. And now history is getting me into hip-hop. As I type this, I’m nodding my head to “I am not throwing away my… shot!”
OK, OK, Lin-Manuel! You got me! I finally picked up the book yesterday, and started reading. Slow reader that I am (the book’s 800-plus pages of small type pushed me away as much as anything), I’m on the third chapter now, and wow! He was right: This is a rap. I’m still in young Alexander’s shockingly difficult childhood in the Indies, and there’s nobody who ever came from meaner streets than he did. What a story.
So I’m really into it now. Fritz was right. So was Lin, who gave me the swift kick I needed…