Actor, playwright, composer
This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life.
Thank you, President Gutmann, MC Provost, Board Of Trustees, Faculty, Family, Mister Vice President, Undergrads of the 4 Penn schools of Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor, and dear exhausted, exhilarated, terrified graduates of the class of 2016.
I begin with an apology.
I am the writer of Hamilton: An American Musical. Every word in the show—and there are over 22,000 words in the show—were chosen and put in a really specific order by me. So I am painfully aware that neither Philly nor the great state of Pennsylvania is mentioned in Hamilton, with the exception of ONE couplet in the song Hurricane, where Hamilton sings:
“I WROTE MY WAY OUT OF HELL
I WROTE MY WAY TO REVOLUTION,
I WAS LOUDER THAN THE CRACK IN THE BELL.”
That’s it! One blink and you miss it Liberty Bell reference!
I am also painfully aware that this commencement address is being livestreamed and disseminated all over the world instantly. In fact, “painfully aware” is pretty much my default state. “Oh yeah, that’s Lin, he’s…PAINfully aware.”
So, with the eyes of the world and history on us all, I’d like to correct the record and point out that a few parts in Hamilton: An American the Musical actually took place in Pennsylvania.
The Battle of Monmouth, wherein General Charles Lee, in our show, “S’ed the Bed” and retreated against Washington’s orders. According to Lafayette, this was the only time he ever heard George Washington curse out loud. That’s right, the father of our country dropped his choicest profanity and F-bombs in Pennsylvania.
The Constitutional Convention, wherein Alexander Hamilton spoke extemporaneously for 6 hours in what is surely the most un-Tweet-able freestyle of all time, happened right here in Philly.
In fact, Alexander Hamilton lived at 79 South 3rd Street when he began his extramarital affair with Mariah Reynolds, creating the time-honored precedent of political sex scandals and mea culpas.
You guys, The Good Wife wouldn’t even EXIST if Hamilton hadn’t gotten the ball rolling on this dubious American tradition, right on South 3rd street, right near the Cosí.
Finally, I need to apologize on behalf of the historical Alexander Hamilton, because if he hadn’t sat down to dinner with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, desperate for support for his financial plan, Philadelphia might well still be the U.S. Capitol.
Hamilton traded Philly away in the most significant backroom deal in American history. As the guy who plays Hamilton every night, let me get into character for a moment and say, “My bad, Philadelphia.” Thank you.
But take the long view, Motown Phillly. Who really won that deal in the end? Look at D.C: it’s synonymous with institutional dysfunction, partisan infighting and political gridlock. YOU are known as the birthplace of Louisa May Alcott, Rocky Balboa, Boyz II Men, Betsy Ross, Will Smith, Isaac Asimov, Tina Fey, Cheesesteaks, and you can have SCRAPPLE, SOFT PRETZELS, and Wawa HOAGIES WHENEVER YOU WANT.
YOU WIN, PHILLY. YOU WIN EVERY TIME. WATER ICE.
The simple truth is this: Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life, without ever overlapping incidents. For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are ten I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. James Madison and Hamilton were friends and political allies, but their personal and political fallout occurs right on our act break, during intermission. My goal is to give you as much as an evening as musical entertainment can provide, and have you on your way at home slightly before Les Mis lets out next door.
This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life. Don’t believe me? Think about how you celebrated this senior week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.
Penn, don’t front. You’re a Playboy Magazine ranked Party school—you KNOW you did things this week that you’re never mentioning again. I know what you did this summer!
I’m going to tell you a story from my twenties today—a story I’ve never told in public before. I’ll tell you two stories actually. It’s my hope that it’ll be of use to you as you stare down the quarter life marker.
I am 20 years old, finishing my sophomore year at Wesleyan, and my girlfriend of four and a half years is home from her semester abroad. I cannot wait to see her again—she is my first love. I dread seeing her again—I’ve grown into my life without her. In her absence, with time and angst to spare, I have developed the first draft of my first full-length musical, an 80-minute one-act called In The Heights. I have also developed a blinding pain in my right shoulder, which I can’t seem to stop cracking. My girlfriend comes home. I am so happy to see her, even as my shoulder worsens. My mother takes me to a back specialist, ranked in New York Magazine, so you know he’s good.
He examines me, looks me dead in the eyes, and says, “There’s nothing wrong with your back. There will be if you keep cracking it, but what you have a nervous tic. Is there anything in your life that is causing you stress?” I burst into tears, in his office. He looks at me for a long time, as I’m crying, and get this—you’ll appreciate this Renee—he tells me the story of Giuseppe Verdi. A 19th century Italian composer of some note, who, in the space of a few short years, lost his wife and two young children to disease. He tells me that Verdi’s greatest works—Rigoletto, La Traviata—came not before, but after this season of Job, the darkest moments of his life. He looks me in the eyes and tells me, “You’re trying to avoid going through pain, or causing pain. I’m here to tell you that you’ll have to survive it if you want to be any kind of artist.”
I break up with my girlfriend that night.
I spend the summer in therapy. I tell a lot of stories I’ve never told before.
My father asks my mother, “What the hell kind of back doctor…Verdi? Really?”
I stop cracking my shoulder.
The story I had been telling myself—happy guy in a long-distance relationship with his high school sweetheart—was being physically rejected by my body via my shoulder. I’d never broken up with anyone before—in my head, I was a “good guy,” and “good guys” don’t break up with their significant others when one of them goes off to study abroad. I was trying to fit my life into a romantic narrative that was increasingly at odds with how I really felt. In retrospect, we both were.
What about her story? Well, it’s not mine to tell, but I can share this much: she began dating one of her good friends the following year of college. Fast-forward to present day: She is happily married to that same good friend, with two beautiful kids. In her story, I am not the angsty, shoulder-cracking tortured artist. I’m the obstacle in the way of the real love story. For you Office fans: They’re Jim and Pam, and I’m Roy.
Story #2: I am out of college, I am 23 years old, and Tommy Kail and I are meeting with a veteran theater producer. To pay rent I am a professional substitute teacher: at my old high school. Tommy is Audra McDonald’s assistant. Tommy is directing In The Heights, and with his genius brain in my corner, my 80-minute one-act is now two acts. This big deal theater producer has seen a reading we put on in the basement of The Drama Book Shop in mid-Manhattan, and he is giving us his thoughts. We hang on his every word, this is a big deal theater producer, and we are kids, desperate to get our show on. We are discussing the character of Nina Rosario, home from her first year at Stanford, the first in her family to go to college.
The big deal theater producer says:
“Now I know in your version Nina’s coming home with a secret from her parents: she’s lost her scholarship. The song is great, the actress is great. What I’m bumping up against, fellas, is that this doesn’t feel high STAKES enough. Scholarship? Big deal. What if she’s pregnant? What if her boyfriend at school hit her? What if she got caught with drugs? It doesn’t have to be any of those things, you’re the writer—but do you see what I’m getting at guys, a way to ramp up the stakes of your story?”
I resist the urge to crack my shoulder.
We get through the meeting and Tommy and I, again alone, look at each other. He knows what I’m going to say before I say it.
“Nina on drugs—“
“I was there.”
“But he wants to put our show up.”
Tommy looks at me.
“That’s not the story you want to tell and that’s not the show I want to direct. There are ways to raise the stakes that are not THAT. We’ll just keep working.”
If I could get in a time machine and watch any point in my life, it would be this moment. The moment where Tommy Kail looked at uncertain, frazzled me, desperate for a production and a life in this business, tempted, and said no for us. I keep subbing, he continues working for Audra, we keep working on In The Heights for five years until we find the right producers in Jill Furman and Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller. Until Philly native Quiara Hudes becomes my co-writer and reframes our show around a community instead of a love triangle. Until Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman take my songs and made them come to life through their orchestrations. It will be another five years before Heights reaches Broadway, exactly as we intended it.
And then the good part: Nina’s story that we fought to tell, keeps coming back around in my life. It comes around in letters, or in the countless young men and women who find me on the subway or on college campuses and take my hand and say, “You don’t understand. I was the first in my family to go to college, when I felt out of place like I was drowning I listened to “Breathe,” Nina’s song, and it got me through.” And I think to myself as these strangers tell me their Nina stories, “I do understand. And that sounds pretty high stakes to me.”
I know that many of you made miracles happen to get to this day. I know that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family behind you made miracles happen to be here. I know because my family made miracles happen for me to be standing here talking to you, telling stories.
Your stories are essential. Don’t believe me?
In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.
My dear, terrified graduates—you are about to enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives.
The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children and grandchildren and therapists.
They are the temp gigs and internships before you find your passion.
They are the cities you live in before the opportunity of a lifetime pops up halfway across the world.
They are the relationships in which you hang on for dear life even as your shoulder cracks in protest.
They are the times you say no to the good opportunities so you can say yes to the best opportunities.
They are what Verdi survived to bring us La Traviata.
They are the stories in which you figure out who you are.
There will be moments you remember and whole years you forget.
There will be times when you are Roy and times when you are Jim and Pam.
There will be blind alleys and one-night wonders and soul-crushing jobs and wake-up calls and crises of confidence and moments of transcendence when you are walking down the street and someone will thank you for telling your story because it resonated with their own.
I feel so honored to be a detail, a minor character in the story of your graduation day.
I feel so honored to bear witness to the beginning of your next chapter.
I’m painfully aware of what’s at stake.
I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2016.