Shortly after I graduated college in 2010, I got a bit of an itch for old-fashioned liberal arts learning. I decided to undertake the epic, 84-lecture History of the United States lecture series from The Great Courses. I listened to the lectures during my commute to and from work.
It was an absolutely fantastic decision that completely engaged and opened my mind, even though I don’t think I ever made it all the way to the end. I learned more about American history in those couple months than I did in my entire high school and college career. (I only got a 3 on the AP US History exam.)
Two of the most important things I took away from the lecture were a) Alexander Hamilton was the by far the most fascinating and under-appreciated political figure in US history, and b) Thomas Jefferson was a major toolbag. The latter revelation produced some severe cognitive dissonance, as I attended the Jefferson namesake high school and the Jefferson-founded University of Virginia.
My appreciation of Mr. Hamilton grew into a historical man-crush. I had eyes for no other founding father. When I visited Philadelphia in May 2011 with my cousin, I insisted he take my picture with Hamilton’s portrait.
Around this time, I also discovered a video from the 2009 White House Poetry Jam. A Tony-winning playwright name Lin-Manuel Miranda announced he was working on a Hamilton-themed hip hop album. Perfect. I’m 100% in before I hear the first line.
Miranda performed a rough draft of the first track from this album he was working on. It was even better than I imagined. Dramatizing Hamilton’s early life and providing context for how unlikely and inspiring and American Hamilton’s rag-to-riches story is, the track is a delight. I’ve probably listened to it a hundred times in the past seven years.
This inspired me to learn more about Miranda. I listened to the soundtrack for his breakthrough play, In the Heights, and became a big fan. I followed him on Twitter and Facebook, not just with hope of hearing more about the progress of his Alexander Hamilton album, but because he’s an infinitely fascinating dude. (I was psyched to hear about his contribution to the Tony Awards and to see him appear on HIMYM thanks in part to his close friendship with NPH.)
I also splurged to buy the definitive biography of Hamilton, written by historian Ron Chernow. I later learned that this was the book that inspired Miranda to write about Hamilton. I must have started the book fifteen times, but never got more than a couple chapters into it. (It’s a very long and dense book.)
Fast forward three or four years. I start reading on Miranda’s Twitter account updates of his progress writing his Hamilton raps. I assumed that this was the long-promised hip hop album, and got really excited.
I eventually realized that the idea of the album had been reworked and expanded: Miranda would be producing a whole musical around the founding father.
Awesome! I told Katy about it and we vowed to visit New York when the production went live.
When her New York-based friend visited us, I relentlessly proselytized her with Miranda and Hamilton propaganda. We told her we’d come visit her to see the just-released musical. We even found tickets on Broadway, but hesitated in pulling the trigger. Tickets were running a hundred dollars or more, and we hoped to wait a couple months to see if prices would drop.
You probably know what happened next. The play went viral and became one of the zeitgeist sensations of 2015. Ticket prices didn’t drop. In fact, they skyrocketed. I scratched my chin, determined to see the play — because of course I needed to — but was stuck between regret for not buying low and dread at exorbitant future prices.
And there was something else, too. If you’ve ever really, intensely loved something that felt a bit obscure and weird and personal but then went mainstream, you probably know the emotions. Sure, there’s a sense of pride — that you were a tastemaker, and understood something that other people eventually caught on.
But this also fosters a sense of resentment. You’ve loved this thing authentically and deep-down for years. Whether or not deserved, you felt a sense of ownership on this thing. Seeing these bandwagon-hoppers pour praise on your beloved thing starts to feel like sharing a girlfriend with thousands of other people.
It feels like they’re taking something uniquely yours, and, by normalizing it, minimizing it. There’s no value in defending your stance of loving this thing, because everyone does, so it’s an obvious and non-noteworthy opinion. You find yourself trying to explain that you’re different, that you loved it before it was cool, and then — oh god — you’re a hipster.
Listen. I do not deny that these are selfish and negative feelings. I’m not proud. But this was how I felt.
It became a sore spot of regret. Why didn’t we buy the tickets before it was big? And it became an emotional elephant that I continued to ignore: My resentment and my indecisiveness (and my skittishness at dropping several hundred dollars on one play ticket) blended and grew into this big thing that I cared about and hated that I cared about in equal measures. These feelings froze me, and all of 2015 and half of 2016 passed without me ever seeing the play.
Then, one evening in May 2016, my wonderful, darling wife saw a tweet that Hamilton tickets for early 2017 had, just moments earlier, gone on sale, directly from the theater. She insisted that now was the time to bite the bullet and do it: Get over myself and go see the play that I had been anticipating for a half decade. And how do you say no to that? We picked a Friday night show in late January 2017 and bought two tickets.
I resolved three things: First, I would, at last, read that biography before I saw the musical. Second, I would abstain from listening to the soundtrack at all before I saw the musical — I wanted to experience in full engagement and surprise; unspoiled to the extent that the Revolutionary War is spoilable. Third, I was determined to read the book before seeing the play.
Getting tickets was mostly a relief. It was still also a distant dream; eight months is a long time. The date slowly creeped nearer and nearer. A couple months in, I got some news that devastated me, though didn’t surprise me: Miranda and other key players from the award-winning original were leaving the production in late 2016, before we’d see it. I’d miss Lin-Manuel, the muse who drew me in in the first place. But I knew that the substance and spirit of the play would stay intact, and even convinced myself that it would be for the better; a more traditional and technically skilled actor would take the part.
Toward the end of 2016, I had a busy couple months that completely distracted me from anticipating Hamilton. I switched jobs for the first time since graduating college — now six years ago. And my wife and I learned that we are expecting our first child. It’s hard to think about much else when you get that news.
When the date was about a month away, my wife reminded me of our upcoming Broadway arrangements. I literally gasped in delight. I had almost forgotten. I started counting down the days.
One decision I made early on Hamilton’s popularity was that I wouldn’t listen to any of the soundtrack until I saw the play. This seemed for a long time like a particularly huge sacrifice: Acclaim for the play and its soundtrack mounted. Millions, even those who could never dream of seeing the play, could experience the magic aurally. They could learn every lyric. They could know the play that I’d dreamed of for years inside and out while I sat out and wait. But I felt strongly that I wanted nothing spoiled or sullied for when I eventually saw the play.
In early January, I recognized that it was now or never if I was going to read the Hamilton biography in its entirety before seeing the play, as I’d long committed to.
With a new job and a long commute, I decided to get the audiobook version, but had to do a double take on the listening time. Thirty six hours!? Even if I listened every day for an hour and a half, I wouldn’t finish in time for the musical.
So I started listening at 1.5x speed, then eventually 1.75x speed. (Incidentally, discovering this trick to tear through books was transformative; I’ve already finished 18 audiobooks in 2017.) My wife agreed to join. We finished all 800 daunting audio pages a day before our bus ride to New York.
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is one of the best books I’ve ever read (or heard?). It’s exemplary nonfiction that reads like the most compelling and intricate fiction. Hamilton’s stunning rise and tremendous influence on early America is as patriotic and democratic a story as you’ll find. Chernow’s vivid details and narrative style are usually compelling; occasionally emotional. I choked up during his recountment of Hamilton’s final, post-duel hours and the effect they had on Eliza and all of New York.
The book gave me thorough context for the Hamilton musical, which I was more excited than ever to see and hear. How would they portray his relationship with Hamilton? How about his affair with Maria Reynolds, and his fallout from public grace? What could they musically capture about his obsession with mercantile policy and craft, his obsession with writing? Would Hercules Mulligan be included as a character?
During our bus ride up to New York, a buzzing excitement built in me. That night, we had tickets to see Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Could it possibly live up to its destiny?
[Part 2, my review of the musical, is coming soon]