What Hamilton Taught Me About Religion

Wednesday, September 20, 2017 - 3:00 pm

What Hamilton Taught Me About Religion

I am obsessed with Hamilton: An American Musical, it’s true. My daughters and I walk around the house singing Hamilton songs. We have a game to see who can sneak in more lines into everyday conversation. It’s our own secret language. And we burst into giggles whenever some unsuspecting soul around us mentions one of the lines from the play: “awesome, wow,” “let’s go,” “satisfied,” and so on…

I could write about how Hamilton restores my faith in America, but that would be a separate column. Here, I want to talk about something completely unexpected that I have learned about religion by (finally!) going to see the musical.

For Labor Day weekend, I saved up for a long time, and at a bargain price of an arm and a leg, took my daughter to see Hamilton on Broadway.

For two years, we have downloaded every song, memorized every word. We probably know the lines at least as well as some of the backup actors. Having listened to the lyrics approximately 5,673 times, in our heart’s memory the characters and the actors who play them have merged into one. Lin-Manuel Miranda is Hamilton. Pippa Soo is Eliza. Daveed Diggs is Jefferson/LaFayette. Christopher Jackson is George Washington. These characters have entered my spiritual, moral, even political imagination. Even in talks that I give about the fate of America, I talk about how the way that I want to see America is through the characters as depicted by these actors. I want a President who is Christopher Jackson’s George Washington:

“We are outgunned
Outmanned

Outnumbered
Outplanned

We gotta make an all out stand

Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man”

When I think about the American Declaration of Independence, I think of it through Daveed Diggs’s sassy singing:

“’Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ’em
Don’t act surprised, you guys, cuz I wrote ’em”

When we made our way to Richard Rodgers Theater and lined up with 1,319 of our fellow Hamilton-obsessed new friends, each of whom loved the show as much as we do. I have rarely been to an event where there was such palpable love in the air. You could tell. For the majority of the people there, this was the first, and only, time they would get to see the show.

Then, when the show started, it was the oddest experience: hearing the music and lyrics that are so much a part of my heart and soul coming from the outside. Usually in listening to music, a movie, or theater, we hear it from the outside and then we take it in. Here, it started out in reverse: The music was already a part of my blood, my heart, and I was hearing it from outside.

I knew all the words (as did everyone in the audience). I knew how they were “supposed” to sound in my head, and it was a bit jarring at first to hear the words I know and love so well come through the mouth, the voice, the body movements of others. The original actors who had played these roles had departed, and new equally talented actors had taken their place. It took me about two songs for my ears to adjust, for my heart to adjust. In some ways the more I cared about the characters, the harder it was to adjust. “Oh, that’s not the lovely Pippa Soo singing Eliza, it’s someone else.”

The new actress, Lexi Lawson, was amazing. Great voice, super talented. Just not Pippa Soo. The new person doing Hamilton (Javier Munoz, nicknamed by fans “Javilton”) is amazing. Dare I say it, vocally he might even be better than Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Lin-Manuel, of course, is a god among men in his lyrical genius, humor, wit, charm, all that. If he had only done Moana, as they say, “that would be enough.” But he also did Hamilton. And he will do Mary Poppins. And more.) It’s just a matter of separating Alexander Hamilton from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lin-Manuel Miranda from Alexander Hamilton.

It was especially a challenge for the songs that have entered my blood, my heart, my soul. To hear Eliza singing “Burn,” and the lyric that has become my life’s mantra (“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now”). These have become part of the anthem of my own heart. The songs have been committed to my heart exactly as the original actors sang it. Even the place that their voice cracks or goes into a falsetto. And when the new actors sing it, even if their voice is strong, naturally it was inflected differently.

I never got to see the original broadway cast (OBC) of Hamilton on stage. Oh, I have looked for every illegal website, every YouTube clip, the PBS special, every #Ham4Ham link, and every Twitter tease there is. But for all practical purposes, the performance on September 1, 2017, was my first time seeing the show. And there was so much that stood out about the whole performance more than the songs I had listened to on my phone. The dancers. Oh my goodness, how expressive, how much they add to the whole experience. The lighting, the turning stage. All of it sheer genius. And the humor of the actors, like King George (having gone from the amazing Jonathan Groff to the sublime Euan Morton) stomping his foot in frustration.

So the new actors are not merely replacing the original giants. They are adding their own genius, interpreting it through their own bodies, and casting it in their own light. These actors were not there to simply conform to my mental image of the songs as sung by the OBC. They were reimagining, reliving, breathing new life into these roles in a way that was truly, fully, authentically their own.

And since Hamilton is a religious experience for us, we treated it like a proper religious experience. The next day my beautiful daughter and I went on a pilgrimage, as do hundreds of other Hamilton fans: We went down to Trinity Church to pay our respect to Alexander Hamilton, Eliza, Angelica, Phillip, and Hercules Mulligan. <3 We put down flowers on their graves and said a prayer for these beloved figures who speak to us even now, through the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. I see my own beloved partner through the love of Eliza and Alexander.

Which brought me back to something about religion…

All of the great religious traditions had their original cast. Here there was a Moses, there was a Jesus. Here a Buddha, there a Muhammad. Of course they are “perfectly cast.” It’s hard to imagine Islam without a Prophet, hard to imagine Buddhism without the particular experience of the Buddha. And it’s true that all of the subsequent luminous souls in each tradition bear the fragrance of the “original” cast. Rumi carries the scent of Muhammad’s love, St. Francis carries the fragrance of Jesus.

It’s also true that each of these later saintly beings have to be allowed to be their own person, embodying the tradition in a way that is truly their own. In some cases, it may depart from the original in certain ways. These latter saints are not merely “cover acts,” but in each case an old wine in new skins, a new breeze from the same garden.

And we, too, each of us, we are ongoing actors in this amazing cosmic play. Each of us sings these songs in our own voice.

We each have to embody these ancient melodies and dances in a way that resonates today. We can only read about the original cast, though we detect their fragrance all around.

May we be both timely and timeless, today, in our own age.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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