On the train to New York, woods, towns, water are all a blur. I am listening to the Hamilton soundtrack – we are going to see it tonight. It’s very difficult not to rock out to the music, even though I’m in the quiet car. Every so often, I start a little rhythmic shoulder-rolling or head-bobbing because I can’t help myself. I remember once when I was a teenager, my mom danced up the aisle at a movie theater. “Omigod, mom, please stop before I die,” I inwardly cringed. But John, seated with me as I pop and sway, seems nonplussed.
Listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack (it’s not the first time; the girls are OBSESSED), I am awed, entertained, educated, thrilled. I think of Horace’s Ars Poetica, which I read as a college English major: the aim of poetry is to instruct and delight. By that standard, “Hamilton” is clearly poetry. You get it all: revolutionary war history, monetary policy, political philosophy, lessons on love and fatherhood, obsession and loss. All packaged in stick-with-you melodies, kickass raps, and sick beats that I dare you not to groove to, even though you’re on the Amtrak and there’s a tired-looking executive across the aisle giving you funny looks.
And did I mention that this amazing concoction of music, poetry, and history is also a moving piece of social commentary about insiders and outsiders, performed by a rainbow cast of predominantly brown actors who represent the America we have become, a country of immigrants, a kaleidoscope of races and creeds that within forty years (and perhaps sooner) is projected to see whites outnumbered by people of color? “Immigrants,” proclaims Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. “They get the job done.” It’s thrilling because it’s so true to our evolution.
Speaking of evolution, we live in a time of great scientific genius, with groundbreaking discoveries coming at a breakneck pace, whether in sequencing genomes or detecting gravitational waves. While I’m awed by the extravagance of our human intelligence in these advances, they do not move me as does “Hamilton,” a Billy Collins poem, a day at the museum, or even Lady Gaga singing “Til it Happens to You” at the Oscars. I feel cracked open by Art, as if I have a small flock of doves in my chest; their beating wings make me breathless, a pain rises in my throat and my eyes sting. I’m embarrassed when this happens to me, as if it’s a flaw in my character that I am so affected by the soaring vision of a creative imagination.
When we were visiting colleges with Mia this past year, it was all STEM, STEM, STEM. Every tour guide, every brochure and website seemed primarily devoted to sciences and tech. And why shouldn’t they be, since these fields offer the best job prospects for a generation of debt-laden graduates? Yet I am proud that Mia wants to embrace the “Arts” in “Liberal Arts,” as did Nate (an English major) and Lucy (a Drama major). These studies help us understand our humanity in ways that writing code or performing lab research do not. Through the arts, we plumb the depths of our hearts, our souls, our society. Will engineering driverless cars deepen our sense of purpose and vitality? They may move us around, they may even move us forward, but will they move us?