“Hamilton” and 40

It all comes back to musical theatre, in the end.

I’m here and it’s about 11 pm on a Wednesday and I have work tomorrow and I pretty much don’t care. I used to get this a lot, that feeling that there’s something in my mind and it hurts like a splinter and I need to let my fingers run over the keyboard lest I scratch my cranium so hard my cerebellum would spill onto the floor. I used to have that all the time. Over the years, less so. Now? Barely ever.

But I’m listening to “Hamilton” as I have done for the last few weeks and I’ve had a few beers and I’m turning 40 on Sunday so the itch is back, so the writing’s back.

I’ve been thinking over the past week that I’m Aaron Burr, in some way, shape or form, since I’m certainly not Hamilton, or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author/composer/actor of the new Broadway musical that’s blown away everyone that has come into contact with it. It’s been a good way to kickstart the mid-life crisis that I couldn’t have because I’ve been too busy to have it, not too busy doing the things I’d like to do or want to do but the things I need to do. Miranda mentioned in one recent interview that Hamilton spoke in paragraphs, and to that I can certainly relate, in that I used to speak in exactly the same way, albeit not quite as eloquently or with equal impact. (To say the least!)

In “Hamilton,” Burr is the consummate person that sat on the sidelines while someone else took life by the horns, and while I don’t want to paint my life as anything remotely tragic, I do often think about timing, and how it’s something we rarely can control, and that certain people find themselves in a certain place in a certain time and there’s a door available where there wasn’t one before and may not be again. I was born in 1975, and I’ve I’d been born say fifteen years later, maybe I’d be happy scraping by in a Brooklyn apartment, whereas now I’m fine (more than fine) with a mortgage in the suburbs with a back yard and off-street parking. Seriously, a driveway is bae, you don’t understand, unless you do, in which case you’re probably not reading this anyways. You’re definitely not up at this time anyway, and you’re not listening to “The Schuyler Sisters” blasting through the speakers while you’re writing something eight people will read.

Back in college, I thought I’d grow up to be a lighting designer for a rock band. That was going to be my life. That came at the end of about seven years in which I threw myself into learning as much as I could about tech theatre. I wasn’t a good actor. I couldn’t build any sets. Lord knows I couldn’t do costumes. I did sound design on a production of “Into The Woods” when I was a sophomore, which essentially meant I played a sound effects CD when the stage manager told me to do so. I couldn’t even do that right: on the matinee, the script called for birds to pluck out the eyes of the evil step-sisters. I pressed the button in the sound-proof booth. The actresses sold their terror like never before. I learned later that I had not switched CDs, and in fact I had sent seals from the sky to blind them. No wonder they were so scared.

Eventually, I stumbled into lighting, and I wasn’t horrible. I actually had something of an affinity for lighting dance and musical theatre, since I didn’t have to light anything realistically but simply react to the emotive quality of the music and movement. It was the only thing I was good at in this realm I loved so much, but I didn’t despair over that which I couldn’t do. To this day, I get jealous of people who can act/sing/dance, but not in an unhealthy way: I think it’s so cool that they can do something I absolutely, positively can’t. There’s no competition, as anyone who has heard me earnestly (if amateurishly) perform karaoke.

But writing? Writing’s something I can do, and have done, for the last ten years. I’ve probably written a half million words, and you kind of have to get better with that much practice. And that’s where “Hamilton” cuts so deep: It’s not just about raw talent, but the relentless deployment of it. I had that drive for a decade, and I don’t anymore, and while that’s probably extended my overall life expectancy, I still feel the sting if someone who has more time drops something I wish I had written, but it straight up pains me if it’s because someone with more drive than me does the same. I spent most of my thirties working 100 hours a week to get to a certain place, and it wasn’t enough.

That’s not to say that my current place is bad. It’s just different than where I thought I’d be. The lighting design dream died before I started writing, and the writing wasn’t initially anything beyond just filling the time previously filled trying to figure out how to best visually create Havana in “Guys In Dolls.” I thought that there would be a few years of dues paying, and then a chance, and then the rest of everything else. Instead, those few years turned into a few more, and I got older, and the industry started to shrink, and I got older, and ultimately the desire to keep pushing myself conflicted with my body’s desire to fucking sleep once in a while and my mind’s desire to actually interact with people beyond blogs and Twitter and podcasts, and the world just moved on as it should, and here I am, “Helpless” as a Schuyler sister.

That doesn’t mean no one showed up to change my life. I’m married and I have a house and dog and all of that’s great and none of this is a cry for help to get out of any of that. But if I wasn’t really jealous of those who could belt out a solo in “Into The Woods,” I am painfully, woefully, pathetically jealous of those who get to write for a living, especially when they spend more time complaining about it than actually doing it. I can easily and honestly say I value a 401(k) over a huge salary reduction and more uncertainty in another part of the country. But that’s almost-40 year old me. 25-year old me in 2015 probably doesn’t give a crap and would enjoy the same type of struggle the real 25-year old me had, when I budgeted $30 a week for food, stayed in the theatre until 11 pm each night, drank until 1 am each night, and then did the same thing the next day with no wear or tear. I was “Satisfied,” even though clearly I wasn’t.

There’s nothing really to wait for now, so I shouldn’t be all about Aaron Burr these days. But I respond to the restlessness in “Hamilton” as much as I respond to the lyrical, musical, and structural genius of the score. I still write occasionally, and I podcast when I can, because the idea of just NOT DOING THAT ANYMORE feels more like death than death itself. I think I’m good at doing it, even if I wasn’t good enough to transcend beyond doing it as anything but a side gig. I’m in a position in my “other” life that means I come home exhausted, and all the energy I used to have to write pretty much is good. I used to be able to do both, and while I’d love to say age has slowed me down, I’ve a sneaking suspicion it’s all mental. There’s nothing more than this, when it comes to this, which means it takes a mid-life crisis and Lin-Manuel Miranda to shake me from my stupor to even jot down thoughts that aren’t attached to a freelance paycheck. I’ll work as hard as anyone when it comes to achieving a goal. But when the work is just a pathway to more work, it becomes Sisyphean, and suddenly motivation is a lot harder to find.

It means that I see a lot of thoughts that I have written by other people, and I can’t get mad even though I had them first because I didn’t write them down. I either went to bed or I had a beer or I went to see my nephews or anything that normal fucking people do when they aren’t at work, but I don’t feel normal because I have to be doing things at all times since doing nothing feeling like failure. It’s a vicious circle, since OF COURSE family and friends are important but it’s hard to have either when you’re working 100 hours a week and you barely see your wife never mind anyone else. I can’t “Wait For It” if I’ve always 15 minutes or 15 hours or 15 days behind everything else that I have to do. There’s always a screener to watch or a show to livetweet.

I don’t think any of this is going to propel me into a workaholic attitude in my 40s. If I look back, I can see that I wasted a lot of time in my 30s on this, even if I’m proud of what I produced. Hopefully the next decade is about bettering the balance, something I’ve been trying to do already for about two years since truly realizing writing was going to be something to peripherally nourish rather than centrally satiate. It’s a great problem to have, and I realize that, even if what’s keeping me from writing has also kept me from really counting down to turning 40. Trying to get through every day as its own entity makes life really long AND really fast all at once. I don’t recommend trying it. But I do know that the year between 39 and 40 went by faster than any other I can remember, and “Hamilton” is a reminder to make those fleeting moments count as best we can. Listening to it slows things down for me, and gives me the beautiful pain that musical theatre has been giving me since I was 15.

I can’t sing a note, but I can hear the melody all the same. What that melody means keeps changing, but I’m going to keep listening as long as I’m alive. Life without music doesn’t seem like much life at all.

2 Comments

  1. Sheila
    Posted November 17, 2015 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Very nice essay Ryan. I hear the yearning in your words. I can empathize with you. Keep it up!

  2. Andy
    Posted November 18, 2015 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ryan,

    I just wanted to comment that I’ve loved reading your reviews and blogs, and you’re not blogging into a complete vacuum at least!

    I always enjoy your not so traditional reviews (eg “getting to yes”), as the one thing that I find quite annoying about the whole TV blogosphere, is that there is so much monotony! Everyone posts a pretty similar review of the show that just comes out. I appreciate when you do things differently!

    Andy