Interview with musician Will Wells (of Hamilton, Imagine Dragons, Logic, and more) [Part 1 of 2]
I can’t believe what just happened.
I’m crying on an airplane, face pressed against the glass of the window after 24 hours in New York City for my 29th birthday.
I’m half hoping the guy next to me can’t see me crying, and half feeling like “It’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to!”
The sky is a kind of orange I’ve never seen before – two long streaks of fire racing across in tandem, surrounded by the darkening sky but refusing to apologize for their brilliance. For a second it looks like the dark is squeezing them out, but then I realize they are the ones piercing through.
We fly over the freedom tower and the empire state building and instead of thinking about the things that happened in New York that are making me cry, I begin to think about the things that happened in New York before I was born: I think about my grandma, Isabel, coming to this city from Puerto Rico, without knowing English. A maid. A seamstress. A reader. A dancer. A dreamer.
She gave me a card a few years ago when I graduated with my master’s degree that said, loosely translated, “Aim high.”
She died shortly after.
I have continued to aim high, to not stop after the master's degree. To keep going, reaching, dreaming, trying.
It’s been killer.
Grandma – why didn’t you tell me that when you aim higher you fall farther? Did you know this when you came to this city? What did you do when you fell? When you felt ignored? When the days seemed long and the Bronx felt unsafe? Did your hands ever tire from the cleaning and the sewing? Did you ever feel broken? Did you ever wonder if striving for the places where you don't belong is even worth it?
What kept you riding the subway even though you didn’t understand English? What kept you trying again when you got lost? I still haven’t even attempted the subway yet – the colored lines don’t help me. My brain doesn’t get those maps yet. I feel like I need someone to teach me.
Or maybe I just need to give myself time to get lost.
I’m on this plane coming home to Florida after 24 hours in New York, a solo trip I took for my birthday, April 13. My face is still pressed against the glass. Crying.
Rewind. Rewind...(If you haven't listened to the Hamilton or In The Heights cast recordings yet...first of all, WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?! And secondly... references like these will become clear).
Twenty-four hours ago:
It’s April 12th and I am on a flight to New York City, a look in my eyes that makes you know I have no idea what is about to happen before I turn 29. I have no idea how different I will feel on the flight home.
But right now I'm totally ignorant of what's coming, happily letting my iTunes shuffle along, excited to land in New York soon. Right before we touch down in La Guardia a Mumford and Sons song fills my brain - the line, “Press my nose up, to the glass around your heart” races down and punches me in the gut. It's reminding me of the things I was hoping New York would help me forget, or at least, ignore for 24 hours.
Nose up to the glass is exactly how I have felt recently, pressed against a clear impenetrable ceiling. I’ve punched it, tried to disintegrate it with my tears, hoping it might melt, wicked-witch-of-the-west style. But nothing. Just a whole lot of aiming, shooting, and missing. Over and over again.
Worst of all, I started to think the glass was only an illusion I was creating in my head. That the barriers are not real. That the problem is me. I began to suffocate under the pressure, the pressure I was turning inwards instead of towards the glass.
I thought maybe I should turn back. Go back to grad school.
Now for some, getting a PhD IS breaking through glass, but for me, school has been the easy thing. The thing I know. Certainty. And there are scholarships and fellowships meant for those behind the glass. I know where to find them.
But pursuing art? Writing? Sticking with a huge book project? There is no syllabus. There is no clear path. There are no professors believing in me, urging me on. There are no scholarships. It is only me and my work. And I've been suffocating beneath it. Unsure of what I'm doing, but most of all, unsure of my own ability to do anything of worth at all. Wondering if my dreams are only creating a ceiling of delusion.
I land in New York City and snap into "New York" mode. I focus in a way I do not have to focus in Florida. I'm alert. I try to find a path amid the empty spaces in the crowd so I can move forward. I love it.
I tell my taxi driver I'm going to "midtown" and remember the first time I stood in the taxi line, terrified of what I would say when they asked me where I was going, feeling like I needed that app someone who visited China once told me about, where he could just type in an address and it would translate it into Chinese characters and he would simply show the driver his phone and the driver would know where he needed to go.
The first time I came to New York I needed that. I did not understand any of it, despite my grandparents and father living here. My dad grew up in the Bronx and Staten Island, but left for Florida before I was born and loved driving in his own car with his coffee and radio (instead of his two-hour ferry commute) so much that he never looked back.
But this time, I know where I'm going. I know the cross streets. I know the lingo. And I can't help but feel thrilled by it. Me, the girl who just a few years ago was terrified at the idea of staying in a hotel by herself the night before a big speech.
I love when people find out I am going to New York by myself and seem surprised. I hold that look in their eyes so close, a reminder that despite feeling stuck like a streetlight, I am moving forward.
I slide into the taxi and check my email and see that someone from the university where I’d recently been accepted into a PhD program needs to know immediately if I’m going to accept the offer and award. Even though I know I’m going to get carsick from using my phone in the taxi, I quickly type out my response: please give the award to another deserving student. I am not going to be attending.
To my surprise, I feel lighter, despite the fact that I now have no idea what I’m doing with my life.
But somewhere along the lines I stopped believing anything I was doing was a "real" job. None of it carried the weight of "PhD" or "Legitimate Grown-Up." But surprisingly, as I quickly punch out my reply in the bumpy taxi I don't feel a sense of loss, or the familiar void of uncertainty that has weighed on me this past year. Only a sense of a clearing. Of possibility.
The next thing I do is check my email to see if the Hamilton lottery has closed yet. The whole reason I’m taking this trip is because of how much I’d been inspired by the musical, or rather, the people who made this work of art. While I couldn’t afford the resell tickets, I figured I’d try my chance at the lottery.
I know the chances are slim, but I’m feeling hopeful, that somehow the impossible can happen. A miracle.
But of course, I’m not counting on it. My real goal for the trip is to get inspired to continue with the book I’ve been working on about dreams for the past two years, and to write a little bit of it from The Drama Bookshop, the place where Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote his first Tony-award winning musical, In The Heights. The PBS documentary based on the play that showcased Lin and many of the other artists who made it possible touched me deeply, and the song "Breathe" from the In The Heights soundtrack was something I played for my husband and said, simply, this explains everything - why these past two years have been so confusing, why getting rejected from Harvard after getting so close was still weighing on me.
The song opens with the character, Nina, remembering all the hope she had when left for Stanford, from where she's recently dropped out, and then swells to this crescendo: “When I was a child I stayed wide awake, climbed to the highest place on every fire escape, desperate to climb, I got every scholarship, saved every dollar, the first to go to college, how do I tell them why - I’m coming back home, with my eyes on the horizon.”
There is something about the writer of these words, Lin, that keeps my eyes on the horizon, "that line between the earth and sky," and not the ground. Something about his art, something he seems to know about ambition and time, and something about his dedication to craft that I feel like I need to learn more about. I don’t even understand it. I just know I need to write from The Drama Bookshop on my birthday.
And in my constant research for inspiring people to interview, a few weeks before my New York trip I find an incredible musician based in LA who did some work on Hamilton, Will Wells. I find him when trying to learn more about the artists who made this thing that has moved me so much, and when I hear some of his original songs on his website, especially “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay,” I know he’s someone I want to know. He graciously agrees to do a phone interview.
Until I find out he recently finished the Smoke + Mirrors World Tour with Imagine Dragons and will actually be in New York the week of April 12th to record. We’re not going to do the interview on the phone after all - we're going to do it on my birthday, Wednesday morning, April 13th, in New York City.
But today is April 12th, Tuesday, and I’ve just arrived in New York and all I know is that I need to buy the new Hamilton book that came out today at The Drama Bookshop and then go see the Richard Rogers theater (the 'room' where Hamilton is currently happening). I just need to see it.
I drop off my luggage in my hotel and as I begin my walk to my first stop, The Drama Bookshop, I think about how almost exactly a month ago I took a break from work to watch some of the Hamilton cast perform at the White House – Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, Anthony Ramos, Leslie Odom Jr, Okieriete Onaodowan, Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jasmine Cephas Jones. When Anthony Ramos starts off “My Shot” I unexpectedly start bawling my eyes out in front of my computer. If you'd asked me then, "Hey, Isa, why are you blubbering like an idiot in the middle of a Monday sitting on the floor working on your coffee table?" I would not have been able to tell you. I'd heard this song many times. It wasn't even one of the sad ones.
What's going on? What is this? I wonder.
But I don't worry. I just enjoy the moment, trust the tears.
The song continues, more voices join Anthony's, and I begin wracking with sobs. The reason starts to take shape. I slowly start to understand why I’m torn up in the most beautiful way.
It's something about their faces in the White House, taking part in something that has enamored me since I was a four-year-old telling my mom to constantly rewind The Little Mermaid so I could watch it a bajillion times in one day – a musical.
And if I do say so myself, I had great taste as a four-year-old – I learn later in life that The Little Mermaid was the brainchild of Howard Ashman, a man who saw what no one else could see – that animation and Broadway could go together. More than twenty-five years after The Little Mermaid, Lin has done the same thing, only instead of combining Broadway and animation, he’s combined it with hip-hop. But there’s something else here too - even bigger than that. Something that includes everyone who has worked on the show. I start to understand what is making me weep so much:
These people have “opened doors that were previously closed.”
I'm crying because I know the glass is not an illusion. I know it is real. I know it's greatest power of preservation is its ability to disguise itself as illusion, farce. Its ability to turn me against myself instead of towards my work. It's ability to make me feel like the real reasons for being stuck are that, really, you are not enough. You are not worthy. Its quiet battle cry:
You do not matter.
Representation is powerful. Underrepresentation is painful.
This video at The White House strengthens a desire I did not know could be stronger: I want to see the original cast perform Hamilton. I want to be IN the room with those faces that made me cry, I want to hear their voices reverberate off walls that I can touch. I want to see the shine, the ambition, the hunger, the fight in their eyes for myself – the sum of the ups and downs they've endured to get them to this moment. I know with all my heart that every single person involved in this work has at one point had their faces up against glass. There’s something in me that wants to get closer just to see if I can get a better understanding of what they did to keep fighting – what they did that helped them break through.
Deep down I know this dream is an impossible one.
But for some reason I haven't learned my lesson. I still pursue the impossible, LeVar Burton's words ringing in my ears: What if?
I finally turn left on 40th and see The Drama Bookshop sign come closer into view and feel like I'm five-years-old again and am just catching my first glimpse of Cinderella's Castle in Orlando. I take a few pictures of the sign and then stop and stare into the window at the Hamilton display behind the clean glass window. There’s a costume from the play displayed. Playbills and books everywhere. I take more pictures and stare. I’m here.
I finally go in and see a tiny dog roaming around, as if to say, this is an independent bookshop, in case you didn't already know. I make eye contact with the fluffy dog and smile.
I walk into a kingdom of light wood and words and pages.
I try to restrain myself from buying anything else but the Hamilton book that was just released, the one that is going to share more about the people and creative process behind this work – the book I came here for. I will not buy anything else right now, as I really want to just focus on this book right now. One book, Isa. One book. (spoiler alert: the next day I return and buy eight books). I pay for the #Hamiltome as Lin calls it and find a chair, wondering to myself where is this basement exactly where Lin wrote In The Heights.
Before I start reading I check my phone for the lottery. Wouldn’t it be so cool if I found out I won WHILE I WAS IN THE DRAMA BOOKSHOP, my crazy brain dreams. My practical brain says no that kind of thing does not happen.
My practical brain is right.
I find out that I did not win and my heart sinks into the basement of The Drama Bookshop.
I check the resell tickets to see if maybe they went down because it’s the day of the show.
Reality hits: I’m not going to see the Hamilton original cast perform – ever. This sounds dramatic, but really, when will I be able to come back, especially before the very talented cast start to trickle away to do new things? I know I will love seeing it when it comes to the performing arts center in Florida. I know I will love the very talented people who will be hired to bring this show to the rest of the country.
But that doesn’t change the sinking feeling. A weird sense of loss that I will never be in the room with these particular people. That I will never see this particular show. That I will not get any closer to this particular moment. It will be lost to me.
Grandma - why aim high, exactly? Why enter the proverbial lottery? Why get your hopes up? Why? This feels dumb. Wouldn’t I have been better just staying in Florida? Not entering the lottery? Just watching the #Ham4Ham videos from my computer and the soundtrack in my car? Why didn’t I just ‘wait for it’ to come to Florida?
I’m an idiot.
This all happens in about five seconds, sitting in a ripped up chair in The Drama Bookshop.
Then my rational brain speaks up:
You ungrateful brat you are in New York City in the DRAMA BOOK SHOP and you just bought a book you’ve been excited about for months and did I mention YOU’RE IN NEW YORK CITY?! Pull yourself together!!!!! So what you didn’t ‘win the lotto.’ You are HERE! And you’re DOING THIS! Okay? That’s cool and you should be proud of yourself that you hurl yourself into these situations. Don’t miss what’s right in front of you.
I listen to this.
I breathe. Straighten my spine. Open the Hamiltome book.
My nose gets stuck in it, Belle style.
I inhale it. Jeremy McCarter writes with the kind of effortlessness that only comes after years and years of effort – its perfection almost tricking you into thinking writing is something you can do in your sleep.
Lin’s annotations – his invitation into his brain, a place I’ve tried to learn so much about, feel like tiny precious Christmas presents.
There are stories of the people - Alex Lacamoire and Tommy Kail, David Korins, Jeffrey Seller, Oskar Eustis - who got this whole thing started. I bask in their taste, their instincts, their sense of what if. There are pictures of the ensemble, their expertise evident in the movements and expressions captured, as is the artistry of the costumes and stage design. The book is an invitation: we want you to be a part of this.
I read, read, read. I underline. I annotate. I think.
I’m ready for my next stop: The Richard Rogers theater. If I can’t be in the room where it happens, I decide, I at least want to see its walls. I think I can emotionally handle it. That seems really really cool.
I walk the few blocks to the Richard Rogers and my pace quickens when I see the familiar yellow and black paint, Leslie Odom Jr.’s silhouette.
I smile. Big.
I take a few pictures and breathe.
This is really cool.
I decide to get creative and really enjoy this. I pop in my headphones, play the first song in the Hamilton soundtrack and start walking around the building, listening to the music, imagining what it’s like inside.
I walk around the building three times, smiling, subtly singing along. It almost feels like I’m inside.
I gear up for my very last walk past the front of the theater, planning to walk past it one last time on my way back to my hotel; my phone is about to die and I’m starving. It’s time to say goodbye.
I make my last round, “The Story of Tonight” playing in my ear buds, as I pass the yellow and black paint of the stage door to my right, and then my eyes glance left and I see a familiar face and shoulder almost brush mine coming towards me, going towards the Leslie Odom Jr., silhouette door. I stop. No. It couldn’t be.
But sure enough I turn around and I see.
It’s Daveed Diggs (Jefferson/Lafayette).
He signs a poster for this one guy who is standing a respectful distance from the stage door. But other than them and me, no one else is around. The show starts in an hour or so.
I just stand there, by a trash can, and watch him walk through the stage door, just another guy in New York City going to work.
Did I mention I share a birthday with Jefferson?
I don’t move.
Soon after I see Chris Jackson (Washington). And Sasha Hutchings (ensemble). Tommy Kail (Director). Javier Muñoz (Alexander Hamilton u/s), Karla Garcia (ensemble), Anthony Ramos (Laurens/Phillip), and Leslie Odom Jr (Burr).
One by one. Faces that have made me weep. Real people. Going to work.
I just watch. I don’t want to bother them. It’s not how I’d want to meet them; I wouldn’t be satisfied with a signature or a picture. I’d want a conversation - not a moment but a movement.
I know that’s impossible. But since it is, I’d rather just watch, see these people move with intention. See them go to work. That’s what I’m enamored by. That this is their job. That they have worked for this moment. That they have earned the right to go through this door.
They’re stylish too. And beautiful. BEAUTIFUL. These people are gorgeous. I’m in awe.
The stream of awesomeness begins to dwindle and the security guy who showed up about thirty minutes ago to let people in starts walking towards me and I blanch. He opens his mouth to address me and I’m terrified of what’s about to happen. Embarrassed.
“Are you waiting for someone?” he asks.
“Oh n-no,” I stammer. “I’m just watching,” I say kind of like a sad puppy who just lost the lottery of her dreams but is trying to make the best of it but now feels hot shame and wants to crawl into this trash can she’s standing next to and die.
But then he looks almost confused and I realize he actually was just caring about me, totally fine with me just standing there, but making sure there wasn't anything he could do to help, wondering if I was associated with the show in some way or had a ticket and a question about where to go next.
Actually, where to go next is exactly what I’m trying to figure out right now. I almost want to ask this man to help me with that, but I just smile and thank him, feeling relieved.
But then I feel kind of stupid again.
It’s time to go.
But before I can take two steps towards my hotel a giddy pair of girls with tickets for tonight’s show ask me to take a picture of them in front of the theater. I instantly perk up and take a few shots, thrilled to be a part of their moment, to be in a moment with people who are just as excited about this theater sign as I am.
I vicariously live through their joy at actually getting to go inside. I joyously say afterwards “enjoy the show!” as if I’m a Richard Rogers employee hired to pump everyone up (Hey! Richard Rogers – I’ll totally do that!). I then blurt out, “I’m so jealous” in a tone that also says “But I’m truly so happy for you and was so happy to pretend for a moment I was going inside too and please enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience!” Because I am. I’m so glad this show exists. I’m so glad people get to go inside. Even if those people aren’t me.
The girls smile so sweetly and say “aww” in a way that makes me know that everyone who loves Hamilton could be my friend, in a way that makes me know they would stick me in their clutch if they could. I instantly love these girls.
But when they walk away something surprising happens. I feel my eyeballs moisten as a thought clutches me:
Why do you torture yourself like this? Why are you so stupid? Why are you here? By yourself? For your birthday? You’re such a loser.
I try to stand still and upright. I fight this with everything I have.
The water dissipates and I take another picture for a couple as they stand in front of a silhouette of Chris Jackson.
I do my “Enjoy the show!” and we have a moment and I am satisfied. This is cool. Really cool.
It’s time to go. My phone is about to die and I need to charge it because I still can’t get around New York without a maps app.
I walk away and get a text from Will Wells, the musician I’m interviewing tomorrow for Creative Teacup. We had texted once I arrived and he knew I was going to the Richard Rogers to check things out even if I didn’t win the lottery (though he’d sent me his hopes that I would).
I get a text asking if I want to say hi that evening before the interview tomorrow because he’d just had dinner with a friend near the Richard Rogers theater. Yes! I think. I want to say hi. I’ve been alone all day.
When I tell him I’d just been watching the parade of people go through the stage door he texts back that I must have seen him! He was just finishing up backstage, talking to “Lac” (Alex Lacamoire, music director and orchestrator of Hamilton) and would be out soon to say hi. “Well color me jealous!” I text back with a smile. I’d just read an article on the Berklee college website about “Lac” a few days ago, “Lac” becoming another very inspiring person in my life with quotes like “I feel like those who are hungry are the ones who succeed.”
I turn back and walk towards the entrance to the Richard Rogers to say a quick hello to Will before I need to head back to charge my phone.
I text Will that I’m wearing a long black jacket.
He texts back that he’s a short black man.
I laugh out loud and wait underneath the Richard Rogers entrance, the bulbs overhead.
We see each other, light up, and instantly hug like we have been friends our entire lives. I can feel it the second I see what’s behind Will’s eyes that meeting him is going to be worth the trip alone.
We talk for a second and then start to walk a little. I tell him my phone is about to die but I’m so glad we got to say hi. And then he gets this look in his eye, as if he can see behind my eyes too, and walks closer to the yellow and black walls and says "follow me, I need to use the bathroom."
We get closer to the Leslie Odom Jr. silhouette door. The stage door.
I’m walking through it before I even know what's happening, faster than you can say “shot.”
My favorite song from In The Heights is racing through my head, but this time, as a mantra: Breathe.
And then another refrain locks into my brain like a background track:
Be cool, Isa. Be cool. Be cool. Be cool. Be cool.
I exhale and walk and try to hold it together. What is happening? I should be waiting by the trash can. What is happening?!
We walk through small corners and costumes and equipment that I recognize from the pictures of celebrities with cast members that I’ve seen on Twitter, and from the many news interviews and features I’ve watched of the show.
I try not to hug the walls.
Be cool. Be cool. Be cool.
Will brings me to a small table with a monitor of the show overhead. There is cake on the table, and sitting at it currently is a girl with short dark hair and really pretty teeth, working on a laptop, and a man I recognize instantly as Javier Muñoz, the understudy for Lin/Alexander Hamilton. The day before I had actually been looking at a documentary project Javier was creating and to my surprise Will introduces me to Javier and we shake hands and I start to talk to him about his mini documentaries and Creative Teacup and how hard the rejection and uncertainty of creativity can be and he confirms that indeed, it is, but you do it anyway, because why not?! I can feel his fire and joy. I ask him about what he does on a night like tonight from this table, what it’s like being an understudy, always having to be prepared, and yet not always getting to practice every night. How do you learn it all, stay on top of it all? It’s so much. I’m in awe of it. He tells me what it’s like and it takes everything in me not to sit down in a chair to talk to him for the rest of the evening.
My phone might even be dead by now. But I don’t care. I will sleep on the streets if I can’t find my hotel.
Then I hear a familiar string of intro music and I turn around to the monitor behind me and see the opening number begin. I wish suddenly that I’d brought travel size super glue in my purse for the black wedge tennis shoes I’m wearing. I want to glue them to this spot.
I peel myself away and look to Will as I know we’ll surely be leaving soon.
But apparently what I’ve walked into is a kind of family reunion. People in costumes who I follow on Twitter start walking by and hugging Will with a kind of instant recognition and joy that confirms that he is as special a person as I thought.
And he introduces me to people, in a way he certainly doesn’t have to. In a way I definitely was not expecting. I would have been happy to just be invisible, to just be there. I would have not thought it rude at all if he did not introduce me to anyone and no one talked to me. I just walked into their job. They are putting on a show that people have paid a lot of money to see. I do not want to intrude.
And I’m flabbergasted that no one makes me feel like I’ve intruded at all. They seem curious, happy even, to see me there. Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica) passes by in costume and looks me right in the eye, smiles. She sees me in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been seen before. She’s gone before her and Will can chat so we don’t talk, but the way she looked at me sticks inside somewhere and waits patiently for me to process later.
More people start roaming around, many in costume. They hang out for a second, some grab a slice of the cake that’s on the small table. It’s like a water cooler. I'm not exactly sure where I am, but I decide to call it the cake room.
It’s as normal as people at their job. Hangin’ out. The only difference is they’re wearing costumes and it’s not Halloween. This is for real. And while it seems casual, one minute someone like Jasmine Cephas Jones (Peggy) gives Will a big hug but then before I can blink she's behind me - on the monitor as if she never left the stage. These are pros.
Will then introduces me to Carleigh, an ensemble member who sings and dances and smiles at me the same way Renée did. Before I know it she too is back on the monitor, dancing perfectly.
Anthony Ramos walks by and gives Will a hug before going back on stage.
Then Chris Jackson walks in in full Washington costume and hat, and pauses by the cake. Will introduces me to Chris and Chris shakes my hand and looks me in the eye and I can feel the movement.
Before I can crumble to the ground this composed part of me takes over (thankfully) and I hear myself telling Chris how much I was moved by the section of the In The Heights documentary that featured him and his son. He brightens and tells me how he misses those years when his son was tiny like that - now he’s 11 years old. I’m blown away at how time passes, and at how long Chris has been working at this.
I tell him about my recent In The Heights soundtrack binge and how his voice is on another level of greatness that I’d never heard before; he thanks me genuinely and then we talk about how when you listen to In The Heights you can hear the seeds of Hamilton sprouting. He says goodbye to me and to Will, as if there was no where else he wanted to be, and slowly walks off with the precision timing of someone who does this eight times a week. These artists are athletes, I think.
My Be cool. Be cool. mantra becomes Stay upright. Stay upright.
I keep my spine straight. I breathe.
Will says his final goodbyes as most everyone is on the stage at this point and we turn to walk out, and as we do I realize I’ve also, in between conversations, just seen the first four numbers of Hamilton on a monitor.
But something else has shaken me to my core that I can’t quite put my finger on yet. It doesn’t hit me until I’m on the plane home; it’s what makes me cry in the airplane the next day.
Will and I make one last stop before going back outside – he introduces me to a bright and smiling young woman with blue hair and a friendly face who I learn is Anna-Lee Craig, and I ask her more about she does here and she points me to a bunch of intricate sound monitoring equipment and I can tell this woman knows her stuff; she delights in showing me what she does.
We say goodbye and hers is the last face I see backstage, and something about it sums everything up, makes me glow, as if I’d just seen the whole show.
But before I have time to process everything, Will and I step into the brisk New York City air - it's even colder now as the sun is beginning to set. I'm so inspired by what just happened that I’m not hungry anymore. I ask Will about the recording session he's going to next that he’d alluded I could observe and ask if there will be a place to charge my phone. He says yes and I decide to change my plans.
We walk to a recording studio and I start asking Will questions about himself. I don’t even know how we get here, but five minutes into our walk-and-talk he tells me about what it was like to listen to Lin's demos of Hamilton in 2011; Will was one of the few people who knew in 2011 what most of us wouldn't know until 2015 - that something like nothing we've ever heard before was about to "blow us all away." Thinking about those first demos five years ago reminds me how long this show took to make, and it starts to shift something in me. It feels something like hope.
I ask Will more questions and hear more about his work with LMFAO. Pentatonix. His recent tour with Imagine Dragons. My night is only going to get better, I can feel it.
What happened next made the entire trip to NYC worth it, even if I’d never been backstage at Hamilton.
The rest of the story, my interview with Will, is coming in Part II. (I still have to transcribe our four plus hours of conversation.) But I couldn’t wait until then to write this part down. Because my conversations with Will also led to what is happening right now, me crying on this plane, writing this.
I am writing this to you right now, on a plane home. Crying.
The girl with the blue hair’s smile popped into my head when we took off and suddenly it all clicked and I couldn’t stop crying. As soon as the wheels left the ground the gravity of everything that just happened hit me like a bullet and I understand finally what makes me weep about Hamilton.
To my relief, it’s not what makes tweens weep in the front row of a One Direction concert. It had always felt deeper than that, but I wasn't sure. Am I just "fangirling" here? I'd wonder as I spent months listening to Hamilton and reading about the people who made it. Being a fan is a really fun thing to do. I'm a fan of many things. But not like this. This, in fact, didn't always feel fun; it made me weep. It felt more than fun. It felt important.
Or was I just fooling myself? Was this just good-old-fashioned fandom at an extreme I'd never experienced before?
But no, something in Anna-Lee Craig's smile confirmed to me that this was more important than just being a fan of something. I could feel it in Will’s hug. In Carleigh’s handshake. In the way Javier leaned across the table to talk to me. In Chris’ expression. In the eyes of the girl with the pretty teeth, who I later learn is Morgan Marcell, as she said hello and goodbye to me as we were leaving, in a way that showed she was sorry to not have met me earlier and was somehow, for some reason, glad I was there.
In this moment everything about Hamilton that has drawn me in, becomes clear, because of the people backstage. The people behind Hamilton. Their hearts and hours and hours and hours of work dedicated to their crafts. And seeing them face to face, summed it all up for me, why everything about Hamilton has moved me so deeply:
They made me feel seen – in a way I have never felt seen before.
The realization punches me in the gut at first because I’d never realized how unseen I’d felt in most scenarios I’d been in; the more ‘elite’ the room the more unseen I’d usually feel. It brings back memories I’d tried to write off as me reading too much into things. The glass an illusion.
Times when I was the youngest in the room. The only minority in the room. The only woman in the room. The times I’d felt so uncomfortable in a networking event without knowing why. The times I’d felt so ignored that it felt physically painful. The times I felt so invisible that I’d wished I was.
What struck me the most about what happened in the cake room was that I still would have thought these people to be nice even if they'd kicked me out. I didn’t expect a single look, a glance, a notice – because these people had a job to do. And, come on, these people have met a billion crazy amazing artists and celebrities. They have literally no reason to talk to me. And did I mention they are working? I’m intruding here. And ‘here’ also happens to be one of the most ‘elite’ places – Broadway. New York City.
But I am welcomed with open eyes. The kind that just say:
I see you. I’m glad you’re here.
It’s the exact opposite of the dagger that is #AllLivesMatter.
It makes me feel whole. It seals cracks. It’s a salve to wounds I didn’t even know I had. It reminds me of the way Sarah Ballard, the Harvard scientist, made me feel, a sweet ambitious woman with a Harvard degree and astronomy expertise who loved me instantly.
These people backstage at Hamilton, ones who are at a professional level to which I aspire and admire, ones whom I don’t expect to see me, who I would not AT ALL be offended if they didn’t see me (I’d just be happy to be in the same room), saw me in a way that sent me crying with my head against the glass of a Delta airplane.
And suddenly I see something through the glass, what's been all fog and thunderclap ever since Harvard said No, Thank You. There are eyes welcoming and beckoning me through, making glass splinter with their smiles and their hard work.
I know that I’ll still get cut if I try to follow their lead. I know there will still be disappointment and lottery losses and more places to feel unseen.
But those people I met backstage at the Richard Rogers theater are welcoming me into something. And all I want to do now is fly. Write. Become worthy of actually being in a cake room like that and passing along the smiles at a random person who comes through the backstage door.
I don't get to see Hamilton on my birthday, but something even better happens: 1,300 students see it for $10 as part of an education initiative sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. The artistic value of Hamilton alone, well, "that would be enough". But they're doing so much more. Things they don't have to do. Things that change trajectories. Break glass. Open doors that were previously closed.