I think my friends are secretly a little concerned about me. I’ve been to Hamilton six times (so far) and my Facebook feed — real estate usually reserved for pictures of my daughter and my beagle — is full of #Hamilgeek posts. While it might feel like everything rhapsodic that could be said about the show has already been said, the truth is we all bring our own backgrounds, stories and emotions to art and — as a result — see and experience the same exact thing in different ways. It’s probably time for me to try to explain myself to my friends.
Hamilton officially opened at the Public Theater on February 17, 2015. That week, as a show about our Founding Fathers began to shift the tectonic plates of musical theater, 280 miles south I was standing in a hospital room with my father and sister holding my mother’s hand as she took her final, labored breaths. She had been in the hospital for only ten days — going in for what she thought would be a routine hysterectomy. It was only after she died that we learned she had had ovarian cancer — an insidious disease which masks itself behind innocuous symptoms and is often only discovered when it’s too late — or, as in my Mom’s case, after it had already stolen her from us. This was not the long, painful battle so many people fight against cancer. It felt more like a car crash — with no warning and no goodbyes.
My Mom was my best friend. As children, my sister and I were loved and encouraged; and my parents were there for us — physically, emotionally and spiritually. There were no angsty teen years of estrangement. Ours was a happy home. Most nights meant the four of us eating dinner together around the table — and then sitting there long after the food was consumed talking about our day and laughing ourselves silly. Our relationship only strengthened in my adulthood. We spoke on the phone every day, and even lived together again — by choice, not economic necessity! — during my early thirties.
But the story of my Mom’s life isn’t just that of a loving mother and devoted wife. For you see, my Mom was a teacher — an amazing teacher. For hundreds of kids, she was that teacher who changed your life. It wasn’t just about the scholarship — though every one of her students will tell you she was unbelievably demanding and expected you to do your very best. It was that she lived her life with the mission of helping each and every student in her classroom envision and then reach their God-given potential.
Within hours of her unexpected death, her Facebook page became an overwhelming memorial, with decades of students sharing their broken hearts and changed lives. Here is just a small slice of what was posted — and what helped us put one foot in front of the other that week:
“Mrs. Brown gave me a love for history. It was because of that love that I also got into teaching. She had a way of making history come alive.”
“It’s impossible to place value on a life well lived, a life dedicated to mentoring, serving, and pouring into others. Jane, I hope you now realize the impact you’ve had on us. We can’t help but read these posts and hope we spend our lives even half as well as you did.”
“I can honestly say I don’t know where I’d be today if not for Jane Brown. At a time my family was falling apart as a young teenager, Mrs. Brown made school my family.”
The first time I saw Hamilton, I sat in the Richard Rodgers Theater completely transfixed but also thinking, “I can’t believe my Mom will never get to see this. She would have LOVED this.” Hamilton was that very first thing after her death that I hadn’t been able to share with her. She was there for the birth and toddler years of my daughter, had visited her school, seen our new apartment. But this was that first real “I can’t believe she missed this” moment for me.
Probably as a consequence of this fresh wound, much of what moves me about this musical is completely intertwined with the mourning that I am still doing. Listening to “One Last Time” makes me cry — not just because of the selflessness of George Washington giving up power for the greater long term good of our democracy — but because I think about how my Mom only had one short year to “sit under her own vine” after retiring. As Eliza Hamilton sings the closing number about how she spent the years following her husband’s death, I cry thinking about my father, who is still with us but without the love of his life, trying to figure out his new purpose.
But the greatest emotion I feel is hope — something in short supply this political season. My Mom changed lives in the way she taught history — she planted many, many “seeds in the garden she will never get to see.” And I believe that is what Hamilton is now doing for us. This memorable telling of our nation’s origin story and its reminder of the fragility of what we inherited is important during a time when our politics actually feel beyond scary. Let’s all hope more good young men and young women will be inspired to rise up.
Just as my Mom used her history classroom for bigger things in her students’ lives, Hamilton is using our history to tell the universally relevant story that even if someone is born into poverty, parentless and surrounded by despair — putting their mind and heart into something with a ton of hard work can be their deliverance. The message of Hamilton is pretty much the opposite of Everybody Gets a Trophy.
Through a private donation, 20,000 New York City public school children will have an opportunity to see Hamilton this year; and this will happen in other cities as the show begins to tour. Sometime down the road, it will be licensed for school performances around the country. There is no telling the impact this could have on our national psyche. Art has the potential to change us at an almost cellular level in a way that school lectures and mere words cannot. I’m so sorry my Mom missed the chance to experience this, but I know she was a part of the continuum on which Hamilton: An American Musical lies. No musical can heal the hole left in my heart with her passing, but it’s left me humbled by a deeper understanding of the true legacy of a teacher.