On growing up poor and the importance of ‘Hamilton’

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 12:  Lin-Manuel Miranda of 'Hamilton' performs onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)
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NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 12: Lin-Manuel Miranda of 'Hamilton' performs onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions)

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Six years and two weeks ago,  I moved to America after a lonely childhood in a working-class town in rural Australia, so far from the world that it took three months for the “Teen Vogue” magazines I obsessed over to reach us.

A week ago, I ate a Vegemite and cheese sandwich on a plane headed to New York.

There: That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. A sentence that felt impossible, long before Lin-Manuel Miranda stood onstage at the White House and, opening with the now-famous words “… It’s a concept album about someone who I think embodies hip hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” started changing the limits of what we define as impossible.

Increasingly, my life is full of sentences I never thought I’d write, things I’d thought were completely impossible: I live in America. I went to New York — just for a weekend. Just to see a musical.

And yet, here they are. Here I am.

But before I tell the story of how “Hamilton” tells mine, let me note: I can turn to any channel or stage to find entirely white families, colleges, and towns that look like me, even if we don’t share the same story. It is paramount we do not stop talking about the power of the representation of people of color in “Hamilton,” whose bodies and stories have been silenced so consistently and violently in the grander American narrative.

Having started working as a shop clerk at age 12 and having left for America at 15 to get an education, reading everything I could get my hands on, making a proper group of friends for the first time, and writing essays that earned me a full scholarship at a good college, “Hamilton” meant a lot. Having grown up with a single mother, in a house that only ever had one room heated in the winter because any more was too expensive, on a mostly-deserted desert island in the middle of the South Pacific — well, getting to see someone else’s story, a story in its early stages not entirely unlike mine, was a big deal.

And getting to see that show on Broadway, in New York — even though it meant working two jobs for months and taking out an extra loan and selling half my possessions to pay for a ticket —  the last day Leslie Odom Jr. played Aaron Burr, Phillipa Soo played Eliza Hamilton, and Lin-Manuel Miranda played Hamilton himself?

It was a really big deal.

Saturday came and 500+ people waited outside the sidewalk of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, queueing eight people deep just for the chance to get a glimpse of Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Anthony Ramos — anyone. A young woman near me said she’d been there since dawn on Friday morning.

Half a dozen cops tried to control the crowd. Two fans were drawing a portrait of Miranda across the street in chalk on a 10-by-4 blackboard they’d brought just for this purpose. The queue started to move, and in a blur of nerves and with a shaking hand, my ticket scanned — another shock of surreal joy in a huge weekend of it. Even though I’d bought it and paid for it and it really was a proper ticket, I fully expected to be turned away  for no other reason than things like this don’t happen to kids who grew up in tiny isolated towns and worked full-time alongside their junior year of college to support themselves and their single mothers.

I’d only told a few friends I was going to New York because when I’d gotten to the airport at 5 AM the day before, I’d expected to be turned away at the gate for all the same reasons, and I didn’t want to have to face the embarrassment of explaining to everyone that it hadn’t worked out. But to my continuing surprise, they let me through security, through the gate — and finally, through the theatre doors.

The next day, a good friend and I boarded a ferry for Staten Island, watching the Brooklyn Bridge slip past us as we slowly made our way into the Upper Bay.

I ate a $1.20 can of cold black beans for dinner as we looked back at Manhattan. As we sailed past the Statue of Liberty, we talked about how much we loved our mothers, and how we felt growing up with very little had actually given us a lot: our resilience, our ambition, our empathy. Ourselves.

Getting closer to the famous symbol of hope, I realized the fact that the Statue of Liberty is holding the torch in one hand and some writing in the other is a pretty important detail, actually: there are so many of us like her, moving forward with some words and our ambition burning like a torch to light the way. It feels like Miranda understands it, the way he puts it down in words and sings it — the first time I’d heard a story so close to mine reflected in someone else’s. We wrote our way out.

Tyler Adams covers music. Contact her at [email protected].