I won the Hamilton lottery! Here is the story.

The Broadway gods smiled upon me Tuesday night, and I won the lottery for Hamilton. I had a front-row seat to the show I’ve wanted to see for a year, and I’m now living in its glow.

I’m not a theater critic, so I’ll leave it to Ben Brantley to tell you how marvelous Hamilton is as a show (note his first line). Yet while I’m not qualified to tell you how Hamilton is changing the American musical, I can at least explain what it meant to me, as a history nerd, theater lover, and someone drawn to works of art that are totally and completely new.

Since winning the online lottery Tuesday (a complete out-of-body experience, by the way…I’ve definitely gone back and re-read the email even after the fact since I’m not totally convinced it happened), I’ve been trying to re-assemble the timeline of my Hamilton obsession. It started last spring, when I began hearing buzz about its run at the Public. At that point, I don’t think my interest went much beyond general intrigue. I think often about how history might become more accessible for the general public. What would get people, especially young people, interested in those topics that seem dry on paper? I loved the idea that a musical about one of the Founding Fathers was actually really good.

Last summer, when the show transitioned to Broadway, it crossed over into phenomenon phase. Tickets were impossible to acquire (or afford) and each time I played the lottery outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, thousands of other fans were playing, too, so chances of seeing it that way were slim.

For awhile, my desire to see the show was driven by my desire to be part of the conversation; it was less about the show itself. Even in the summer, I knew little about it, minus the names of a few of its stars, but my interest in the show and its creator/star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew even larger after a New York Times Magazine story from July, which was the first place I read about how the show portrayed Hamilton: It wasn’t a straightforward retelling of what happened in America’s early days, but a meta-narrative, exploring Hamilton’s place in history, how he and other founding fathers considered the ways they’d be perceived in future generations, and how their stories were carried forward.

That concept has long fascinated me; I thought most about it when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and learned how Lincoln was so concerned with doing something important enough to be remembered, because the idea of an eternal afterlife wasn’t comforting; he needed to do something that would make his name indelible on earth. Hamilton doesn’t present its titular character as having quite the same motivation (and I haven’t read the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda to create the musical) but I see parallels. It’s that layer of historical perspective that makes the show so fascinating to me.

What Hamilton really comes down to for me, though is Lin-Manuel Miranda. The man’s a genius. He read the Chernow biography and saw something in it no one ever noticed: Alexander Hamilton embodies hip-hop. (Watch the snickers he gets when he explains that to an audience at the White House when he first performed what became Hamilton’s opening number there in 2009.) More than that, he created an entire musical out of it, and not a cheesy song-and-dance, which I’m sure it could have become if treated by less capable hands. It’s a feast for your ears and eyes, on top of being a fresh presentation of history.

To watch Hamilton in the theater is to know you are witnessing something new and different. You have never seen a musical like this. You have never learned about history like this. It pays homage to its predecessors across musical forms, but in channeling them all, it becomes something they were not. Lin-Manuel Miranda created this whole thing – the concept, the music – and as you sit in the theater, knowing this man playing Alexander Hamilton conceived the whole idea, you realize it is extraordinary.

Now that Hamilton is such a phenomenon, actually seeing the show is a meta experience. You’re there to see Hamilton, but you’re also THERE TO SEE HAMILTON! I’ve never seen a show with such an engaged audience. And since all the lottery winners sit in the front row, it’s obvious to everyone else in the audience that you’re one of the lucky 21 who had their name picked. Who got to see the show just by chance. When I handed the usher my ticket, she shared in the excitement, saying “Oh my gosh, you won the lottery, congratulations!” That made it fun. I also treated myself to an adult beverage because I was going to have myself a night (and I wanted the souvenir cup).

Now it’s annoying for me to say, “oh, you just HAVE to see it” because I know that for a lot of people, it’ll be impossible to see this show unless they suddenly fall into wealth, or they get lucky like I did and win the lottery. It’s true, though. There’s an energy in the theater you simply won’t get just listening to the soundtrack. The cheers start when the lights first go down, and the clapping and hollering never let up. Of course at other shows, certain lines will get a laugh, but at Hamilton, “immigrants, we get the job done” gets straight-up applause.

Something unique about the performance I attended: It happened the day after the cast was all over the news for performing at the White House. Even that morning, Lin-Manuel had been in DC with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. I remember noticing his tweet early in the day, replying to a fan and confirming that he would be performing that evening. Little did I know.

I also realized it was the first time I’d sat in the front row at any show. I got to see the spit and the sweat. Thanks to the proximity and the depth of emotion I could sometimes witness, I think I love songs that otherwise might not mean much, like “Dear Theodosia,” the ode Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborns. I’ll always listen to that song thinking of Leslie Odom, Jr., sitting onstage not far from me, beaming at this imaginary child. I was amazed at how easily he transitioned from rap to this gorgeous ballad.

My enthusiasm for Hamilton has not tempered since I’ve seen the live show. Now I’m hard at work memorizing the soundtrack, and I’m still soaking up every piece of information about the show and its creation I can get my hands on. It’s a fun show to be obsessed with, and I’m happy that Tuesday’s performance was just the beginning for me.

I leave you with a few random Hamilton-related clips that I hope help you fall in love with this show if you haven’t already:

A performance of “One Last Time,” which is emerging as one of my favorite songs from the show. Christopher Jackson, who plays Washington, gave probably my favorite performance at the show itself. How can a song can be so beautiful, and explain why Washington stepped away from the presidency after two terms better than any history textbook?

A #Ham4Ham performance outside the Richard Rodgers in October; the three actors to have played King George during the Public and Broadway runs perform, “The Schuyler Sisters,” one of my favorite songs (with Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays one of the sisters, rapping the Aaron Burr part):

Aforementioned clip of Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping what became the opening number at the White House in 2009:

Goddess Kelli O’Hara performing at a #Ham4Ham:

The Hamilton Cast at the Public last year, paying tribute to A Chorus Line on its 40th anniversary (it also played that theater):

 

Book Commitment Issues (Or, An Ode to Sydney Carton)

I have commitment issues. With books.

For the most part, I start what I finish, but there are certain books I just cannot get through. It’s rarely because I hate them. They might be entertaining, even easy to read, but for some reason, especially over the last few months, I’ve been having a hard time getting to the last page.

I find myself worrying an inordinate amount about this. Is my attention span too short? (Yes.) Am I coddling myself if I only read books I find personally interesting? (Maybe.) Is my inability to finish a book a character flaw? A symptom of a deeper issue? (I certainly hope not.)

I received a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit for Christmas and couldn’t wait to read it. I devoured her Team of Rivals and was excited to learn about an era in American history I wasn’t familiar with – the lives and presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The book is good! I have learned a lot. (And I’ve decided I want to be Nellie Taft when I grow up.) But it’s dense. And I just don’t find the time period or events as fascinating as the ones described in Team of Rivals. I’m beating myself up over this. All history should be interesting! Think how this knowledge will inform your understanding of other events! Character flaw!

The Bully Pulpit and I are taking a break. I know I’ll finish it eventually, but I’m pausing to revisit an old favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. I bought a cheap copy of it last week, inspired by who knows what, and I’m flying through it like I haven’t flown through a book in years.

I have some recollection of characters and plot from reading it in high school, but it’s still a breezy, lovely read. I remember telling myself after the first reading that I would name my first child after Sydney Carton (I blame my mother for this notion; she loves To Kill a Mockingbird so much that my sister’s middle name is Harper). I’ve stood by that claim over the years, but I forgot why I loved the character enough to make it in the first place. I remember his last words almost brought me to tears (spoiler alert – he loves a girl so much that he goes to the guillotine to save her family, because he is selfless and perfect!). But I read things with a more critical eye now than I did as a teenager, so I’m recognizing much more depth to the character. Lines like this – describing pre-guillotine-sacrifice Sydney’s directionless life – put a lump in my throat that wouldn’t have been there in high school:

“Sadly, sadly, the sun rose; it rose upon no sadder sight than the man of good abilities and good emotions, incapable of their directed exercise, incapable of his own help and his own happiness, sensible of the blight on him, and resigning himself to let it eat him away.”

Oh, Sydney. How you will redeem yourself.

I’m also appreciating Dickens as a writer, not only for how he crafts the broad plot, but also for how he sets a scene and describes characters’ mannerisms. Books come most alive for me when I can clearly imagine the action in my own head – when I can mentally move the characters around a hypothetical movie set. I can picture all these characters, where they live and work, how they move through the scenery and how they talk to each other. It is vivid. When I was reading the book in high school, I remember my dad telling me how much he loved it and how I should do my best to enjoy it. “Just bask in the presence of the master,” he said. With the added perspective of the six years since my first reading, I finally am.

Recently Read: “Team of Rivals” and “The Art of Fielding”

In college, I did a really terrible job of reading for pleasure. After poring over tons of books and articles for class, reading more books didn’t seem like an appetizing way to spend my free time. I read plenty of magazine and news articles, but read very little in the way of actual, honest-to-God books. I did alright during summers, but after graduation, I decided it was time to step up my game, book-wise.

Now, books are an escape, not a chore. While I’m trying to make up for lost time and read as many as I can, I don’t want everything to go in one ear (eye?) and out the other, so I’m writing little “debriefs” for everything I read this year.

I’ve finished two books so far in 2013 (though the vast majority of the first was read in 2012), and here’s what they taught me.

Book One: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I blogged a little about this book as I was reading it, and now that I’m through, I wish I was taking some class that required me to write a whole research paper on it. As terrible of a student as this will make me sound, I took more notes on this book than I did on a lot of books I read in college. Reading it without an assignment hanging over me, I was able to take it at my own pace and soak it in as a whole, rather than thinking about bits and pieces that might somehow fit into a paper.

It is a tremendous work: 754 dense pages about Abraham Lincoln, his four primary rivals in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination for president, his cabinet once he did become president, and how he worked with and maneuvered around all those people to lead the United States through the Civil War.

Throughout the book, I found three elements of Lincoln’s personality and character most fascinating: Lincoln as storyteller, Lincoln as a PR man and people manager, and Lincoln as a man obsessed with the way in which he was perceived. (I suppose those are the main points of that book report I’m not required to write.)

First, Lincoln as storyteller: I wrote about this a couple months ago, when I had just started the book, but if you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, whose screenplay is based on Team of Rivals, you probably laughed out loud at the story Lincoln tells about Ethan Allen seeing a portrait of George Washington hung in an outhouse. I know that story doesn’t make sense out of context for people who have not seen the film or read the book, but Daniel Day-Lewis’ timing and delivery of the story provided me with one of my favorite moments in any movie. Team of Rivals is full of references to Lincoln’s gift for storytelling, molded when he was a boy as he listened to his father tell stories to travelers and pioneers who spent the night in their Kentucky home.

Then, Lincoln as a PR master. Honestly, the man was a public relations genius, especially when it came to the internal PR he had to conduct in order to keep all his cabinet members, friends, constituents and military leaders happy.

In my eyes, though, his greatest PR gift was his ability gauge public sentiment, and wait until it was on his side before making proclamations or taking certain actions.

“Lincoln understood that the greatest challenge for a leader in a democratic society is to educate public opinion,” Goodwin wrote. She then shared what might be my favorite Lincoln quote from the entire book: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions (p. 206).” (The bold and Italic emphasis is mine. That quote completely blows my mind because it holds true in every era, and so perfectly embodies Lincoln’s strategy for waiting until the public was willing to accept something before he acted on it.)

This sensitivity to public sentiment was never clearer than when Lincoln was preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He waited until the North was ready to fight for the abolishment of slavery – not just for the preservation of the Union (p. 502). The same went for his proposition to let blacks enlist; he waited until public opinion was strong enough on his side, and likened the situation to a man waiting for pears to ripen. “A man watches his pear-tree, day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process, and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at length falls into his lap (p. 502)!” He would act when the public was ready to willingly support his decisions, and not a moment sooner, avoiding personal embarrassment, and, worse, the failure of key measures like the Emancipation Proclamation that helped facilitate the war’s end.

Finally, Lincoln and perception. As a young man, Lincoln took very little comfort in the idea of heaven or an afterlife as something to live for; in his eyes, this life was all he had, and he was obsessed with doing something great that would cause him to be remembered and celebrated in future generations. “Like the ancient Greeks,” Goodwin wrote, “Lincoln seemed to believe that ‘ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him'” (p. 100 of Team of Rivals, quoting William G. Thalmann’s The Odyssey: An Epic of Return).

After he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he recalled suffering depression two decades earlier, and remembered thinking at the time that the only thing keeping him from wanting to die was knowing he had done nothing “to make any human being remember that he had lived (p. 501).” With the passage of the Proclamation, he believed his “fondest hopes [eternal remembrance in history] will be realized (p. 501).”

I have dozens of other Post-it Notes and highlighted paragraphs littering my copy of Team of Rivals, but those were the three elements of the book and Lincoln’s life that stuck to me. If you have any interest in American history, or just want to read a thoughtful, well-researched book, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Two: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

It seems like this book was on everyone’s “Best of 2011” list, so I’m behind the curve, but I did read most of this during Christmas break of 2011 before abandoning it once classes picked up again. I must have read more than I remember, because I was probably three-quarters of the way through before I started hitting material I hadn’t already seen.

I don’t think I liked it as much as I thought I would (or should) – I started out loving it, hated it (or at least found it a little tiresome) in the late-middle, but felt satisfied with the ending. Maybe that makes no sense, but hey, I’m not a professional book reviewer.

Even if I didn’t like what some of the characters did at times (a large chunk of it just wore me out, because all five main characters more or less hit rock bottom at the same time; turn the page, another character makes a bad decision and starts some long journey back to reality), I loved the way they were developed. Each main character had a rich backstory that was described upfront and used as the foundation for his or her actions throughout the book.

There were a lot of moving parts that all came together in the end, which was what I loved most about this book. My copy included a “Reading Group Guide” in the back, which featured a Q&A with the author. He likened weaving five stories together and leading them to a satisfying conclusion to completing “a humongous math problem.” Borrowing that analogy, finishing The Art of Fielding was like solving a complicated algebra problem, then checking your answer in the back of the book to find you actually did it right.

On top of it all, Chad Harbach is a gifted writer. The book is smooth. His characters talk and think like normal people talk and think, and he describes their actions in a way that allows you to picture how they are moving. If I ever write a debut novel someday, I’d hope it’s as well-written as Chad Harbach’s.

Book Three

Book Three of 2013 is Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, by Jeff Himmelman. Most of what I know about Ben Bradlee is shaped by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, but I’m about a third of the way through this book, and already my perspective has shifted dramatically. Bradlee seems to be the personality of all personalities, and it’s a pleasure getting to know him. More to come.

My Feelings Exactly

To the Strand Bookstore employee who wrote this recommendation for Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

photo (8)

Those are my feelings exactly.

I am well over 100 pages into the book (701, to be exact), but that’s still how I feel. It may have taken me a few months to get there (I’m a slow reader already, and 750 dense pages don’t help speed things up), but I’m almost finished, and while I want the satisfaction of saying I read the whole thing, I really don’t want it to end. Like the Strand employee, I still want to spend all of my free time reading it. I still want my arms to hurt from holding it on the subway (slow reader, out of shape…the fun never stops here).

I know finishing a 750-page book is no accomplishment in the grand scheme of reading, but even more than being able to check this work off my list (by the end of this week, I hope), I feel as though I’ve come to know Lincoln, and some of the “rivals,” like William Henry Seward and Edwin Stanton, very closely. I’ve come to understand a time period in a much deeper and more complete way than I ever would have through a high school or college textbook.

Fifty pages from now, the book will be over and Lincoln, who seems to be in his prime right now as he starts his second term, gets the Thirteenth Amendment passed and starts working on a plan to negotiate peace with the Confederacy, will be gone. I only wish I was that Strand staffer who is just starting out.

P.S. – If you’re in New York, the Strand has several sparkling new copies of Team of Rivals just begging you to buy and read them. Do it!

New Year, New Job, New Subway Commute

The New Year began with one big change for me: I started a new job at the Rachael Ray Show as its Publicity Coordinator. Wednesday was my first day, and while I’m still getting the hang of things, I can tell it’s going to be a fulfilling experience. I already feel very lucky to be part of that team.

After working as a temp in Sports Illustrated‘s communications department for four months, it became clear that there might not be a chance for longer-term employment there – not for any bad reason, but just because that’s how things go sometimes in a down economy. But, I felt encouraged and grateful for the support of my bosses, who assured me they were in my corner as I looked for a new position. One of them had a connection to the show, knew they needed a new Publicity Coordinator, and I was lucky enough to get the job.

Aside from the work being rooted in public relations and social media, nearly everything about it is different from previous positions I’ve held. After thinking for most of college that I wanted to work in sports, I’m really enjoying the shift to the entertainment industry (if I’ve learned anything since graduating from college, it’s that you shouldn’t be surprised if your idea of a perfect career radically changes). My passion for sports – as a fan – has not dulled, and I’m not ruling out a return to the field somewhere down the road, but having a new focus is refreshing.

I’m also in a new part of the city. My new office is in Chelsea – a departure from the fast pace of Midtown. It’s a painless commute, although a bit longer, but that just means I’m finishing three to five more pages of Team of Rivals each morning.

And while everything about the challenge and promise of a new job is great, there’s another benefit: This is a full-time, real-person, big-kid position. I’m no longer a temp or an intern. It gives some degree of permanence to my time in New York City and a bit of an accomplished feeling, in that I landed a job in my dream city and desired field. Obviously, I still have a lot to prove, but I’m proud of having taken the first step.

Not much else is new for me in the new year, but the job change and a wonderful week home in Portland for Christmas have me looking at NYC in a different light. It’s only January 5, but 2013 is already giving me a lot to love. I hope it’s doing the same for you.

Brief P.S.: I typically can’t keep a New Year’s Resolution past the third week of January, but I’m seriously resolved to write more in 2013. So many thoughts pop in and out of my head on a daily basis, and I’d like to develop many of them more fully right here. We’ll see how it goes.

Lincoln, Perception and Storytelling

After months of anticipation, my sister and I saw Lincoln this past weekend, taking advantage of the movie’s early release in New York City theaters. While I’ve always taken a particular interest in the Civil War when it comes to studying American history, Hope is the real Civil War buff and had been beside herself with excitement for weeks at the idea of seeing her favorite time period gloriously displayed on screen.

To our surprise, she was underwhelmed, while I absolutely loved it. Sure, it dragged a bit at the end, and I found the opening scene (in which Union soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln during his visit to a battlefield) to be a little cheesy, but I just couldn’t (actually, still can’t) get over Daniel Day-Lewis’ tremendous performance as the president. Not to go all Roger Ebert here, but I have never been so convinced that an actor really was the person he was portraying. Obviously, there is no way of knowing whether he’s doing a spot-on impression of Lincoln’s voice, gait and mannerisms. But assuming tremendous research went into making it as accurate as possible, I don’t know how someone couldn’t be blown away by how real it seems.

Prior to seeing the movie, I decided to start reading Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book upon which much of Lincoln‘s plot is drawn. I still have a ways to go with it, but I’m glad I read a little before seeing the movie (for, say, some background knowledge on characters like William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State) and am finding it easier to digest with some mental image (albeit not the “real” thing) of characters and places described in the book.

I’m on page 142 of 754 so there’s still a lot to digest, but I have been struck by two facets of Lincoln I never knew existed:

  1. Master storyteller. If nothing else, Lincoln is worth  it for the scene in which the president tells a story about Ethan Allen and a George Washington portrait in an outhouse (just trust me). It’s not just worth it because the story is laugh-out-loud funny; the way Daniel Day-Lewis delivers (and, I want to believe, Lincoln delivered) it – timing, emphasis, everything – is riveting. And as I read the book, I’m intrigued by all the mentions of Lincoln as a masterful storyteller. He grew up listening to his father regale friends, neighbors and travelers who boarded at their Kentucky home, carefully remembering every detail and re-telling the stories for his own friends the next day. Goodwin called it a “passion for rendering experience into powerful language.” From what I can tell so far, nearly everyone who made contact with Lincoln was smitten by his stories and the way his face lit up as he told them. I suppose I always thought of Lincoln as a no-nonsense, serious man, but I like knowing he was much more than a stoic face looking back at me from a Mathew Brady portrait.
  2. Savvy PR man. Lincoln believed you only are that which you are perceived to be. No matter what’s on the inside, people will like or dislike you (or vote for or against you) based on who they think you are, not who you think yourself to be. To me, this is a huge part of why companies invest in public relations: They want to control how they are perceived. To Lincoln, it was a driving factor in his political pursuits, primarily because he desperately wanted history to remember his name (mission accomplished), and knew that wouldn’t happen unless he made a name for himself in modern times. He seemed to believe, writes Goodwin, that “ideas of a person’s worth are tied to the way others, both contemporaries and future generations, perceive him.” I love that quote. Whether or not that’s how it should be, that’s how it is, and Lincoln played the political game with that in mind. I really don’t have much interest in modern-day politics, but I’m eager to learn more about how Lincoln’s rise to the top was aided by his deep understanding of perception’s importance.

My copy of Team of Rivals is already littered with highlighter marks and Post-it notes as I organize my thoughts, but I might turn here in the coming days and weeks in order to archive and consider them more fully.

And just for kicks: The Lincoln trailer, if you haven’t already seen it; background on how Lincoln came to life in the movie, from Diane Sawyer’s interview with Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis; and if you need to be convinced that this movie is worthy of your time, Ebert’s review.