Ask fans of musical theater to name the best musical of all time, most will quickly say Gypsy. This 1959 musical is the penultimate stage mother story, led by a pedigreed creative team that included Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Jerome Robbins and a brassy-voiced lead, the singular Ethel Merman. In the story, Rose raises her children in show business, pushing her daughter June so forcefully and relentlessly forward that June eventually abandons performing and her mother. Rose is left with her less favorite daughter, Louise, who is shy and reserved. Never-the-less, Rose forces her out front and commands her to project with the refrain, “Sing out, Louise!” While this line is indelibly linked to terrible parenting, I recently had an experience that put those words into a whole new context.
As an avid musical theater fan, I was all over Hamilton: An American Musical from the time it’s writer, Lin Manuel Miranda, began tweeting years ago that he was writing music inspired by the life of America’s first Treasury Secretary. I had purchased a single ticket to see the show in 2016 and the show did not disappoint at all. I was awed by the clarity of the narrative, the incredible choreography, the simple yet multidimensional set, the powerful emotional arc, and the singular artistic vision. But once was not enough, there was so much to take in. So when I received an email in September, 2016 that a new block of seats were going on sale, I immediately purchased two tickets to attend on my birthday in the summer of 2017, figuring I would have no problem getting a second person to take the second seat. After all, this was the hottest musical of the century. But through as series of life events and plans, the ticket passed among the hands of several family members who each in turn had to then give it back. Okay world, I get it; if I can’t even give it away, why don’t I just give it away?
A former graduate school professor was able to get me in contact with Lin’s alma mater, Hunter high school, which is a merit-based public school for the top echelon of the intellectually gifted in New York City. Many of the students who attend are from financially privileged families, some are not. With a Hunter education, these lower income students have the opportunity to move their families up the socioeconomic ladder and live the American Dream. With the assistance of the school Principal, Dr. Tony Fisher, I was able to gift the ticket to a Hunter student who otherwise wouldn’t have access to attend. The only cost to him would be having to sit next to me during the performance.
On the show day, this young man arrives at the theater, tall, well-spoken, quiet, and reserved. I worked hard to engage him, curious about his career aspirations and his expectations for the play. He shared that he has heard some of the music, which he liked, and had watched their performance on the Grammy Awards. He sheepishly told me he has never been to a professional production, a conversation which pulled him out a bit as he asked some great questions about show etiquette. “Do you clap after they sing?” “Do people put away their cell phones during the show?” “Do folks in the audience sing along?” At this, a lady in front of us turns around in her seat and says to this young man, “I didn’t pay $500 a ticket to hear other people sing.” It had been all I could do to pull this young man out of his shell and then she abruptly shuts him down while also rubbing it in that she has money to burn. And at a show about how an immigrant and orphan, read anyone, can make it, the American Dream. I felt that she was shutting down his voice.
Alexander Hamilton’s story is, in many ways, the titular immigrant story. The lyricist/composer (and original Hamilton star) Lin Manuel Miranda relates to that narrative. As he has shared, his parents came from Puerto Rico (technically a U.S. territory, but still gave them the immigrant experience due to language and cultural issues) to the mainland to create a better life for him and his sister. Through their hard work, education and opportunities, they raised up their children on their shoulders. The results are evident. Lin was recently a guest on what the cast of Hamilton refer to as the “official podcast” of the musical, The Hamilcast. Host Gillian Pensavalle and episode co-host (and husband to Gillian) Michael Paul Smith asked Miranda to settle a minor dispute they had about whether or not it was permissible to sing along during the show (you can listen to the wonderfully entertaining and informative episode and the other 89 episodes at The Hamilcast). There are two instances during the show when characters seemingly invite the audience to sing along, once when the young John Laurens, drunk and high on potential, implores, “Everybody sing!” and again when King George invites/commands “Everybody” to “Da da da da da” along with him. Miranda’s response to their question about whether or not to sing along? He says, “Absolutely”.
I don’t typically enjoy hearing people besides the actors singing but, in this case I, and, as it turns out, Lin Manuel Miranda, make an exception. So to this young man, who so graciously sat next to me to experience something new, I say, grab your future. To this young man I say, create your American dream. To this young man I say, use your voice. To this young man I say, “Sing out, Louise!”