In a very out-of-character move, I attended an open-mic poetry slam at the Starry Plough last week. I don’t go to poetry slams, mostly because I find them predictable to a fault — not that there’s anything wrong with being inspired by life’s usual woes, but I have trouble being engaged by them. And while many performers covered the usual range of topics, my favorite poem of the night was a man’s elegy to his tooth that got knocked out in a middle school dodgeball match. It was so out of the blue that I couldn’t help but pay attention. In a way, the poet and his earnest exploration of an off-beat topic reminded me other another artist by the name of Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Miranda is this year’s king of unexpected art as the creator, writer and star of the musical “Hamilton.” If you haven’t yet heard about “Hamilton,” first of all, the year is 2015: Barack Obama is the president, Adele recently released a new album and “Hamilton” is a show that has taken the entertainment world by storm over the last few months. It’s a Broadway play about founding father Alexander Hamilton and his rise to fame and notoriety with his authorship of the Federalist papers. The show’s original score is primarily hip-hop and R&B music, and the Founding Fathers — including Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson — are played by black and Latino actors.
I haven’t seen the show live, but I’ve been on board the “Hamilton” train ever since I first heard about it a few months ago. I’ve listened to the soundtrack enough times to now qualify as head-over-heels in love, and I harbor a mild obsession with watching and reading every interview with Miranda.
Miranda’s inspiration for “Hamilton” came years ago when he was on vacation, where, naturally, he was doing some light reading with Ron Chernow’s massive biography on Alexander Hamilton. While reading this giant tome on a beach, he began to wonder about the extraordinary nature of Hamilton’s life — an orphaned boy with a love for writing who was sent to receive an education and grew to become a respected yet infamous public figure, engaging in impassioned arguments and affairs until a fatal duel that lead to his untimely death. While reading the biography, he was struck by an “Aha!” moment to go down in history with the iconic revelations on relativity and gravity. He wondered: “Has there been a musical written about this guy?”
I love the play’s strange origin story, and like to imagine it as one does the sometimes apocryphal stories of scientific discovery. It hit him out of nowhere, a pure moment of inspiration coming from an unlikely place.
As a college student with artistic sensibilities in a nonperforming arts major, inspiration can feel hard to come by these days. Tragically, I am not currently laying in a hammock on a beach with a book of my choice. I’m at a rickety round table outside of Caffe Strada, wondering how to reach the word count for this column while calculating the time it’ll take to write two 10-page research papers. Especially when you go to the same classes, walk the same paths and talk to the same people day in and day out, one’s thoughts can be a little less than groundbreaking.
Maybe the best work comes out of looking in all the wrong places, those strange nooks and little footnotes instead of life’s standard themes. The most interesting art is what’s unexpected, at least when it comes to theater; personally, my two favorite plays are about sexually frustrated 19th century German teenagers singing rock ballads and a Romeo and Juliet story between New York street gangs.
Perhaps the point is that inspiration can come from anything, and that the more fearless one is with creative direction, there’s further to fall but also more to gain in the potential to produce great art.
Now that that’s been said, it’s time to write a research paper about Medieval literature. Coming soon to a stage near you.
Sarah Goldwasser writes the Thursday column on performing arts. Contact her at [email protected].