This is the story of how I made this.
I never saw “The Producers” with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick onstage. I never saw the original casts of “Spamalot,” “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon,” or any other Broadway sensation of the 21st century. I waited until the traveling version came to town, or missed out entirely.
I knew “Hamilton” was different. Months in advance, I bought a ticket to a Saturday matinee on a non-holiday weekend in February. I flew to New York on a red-eye and didn’t even stay the next night; unlike anyone else you know, I have this year both made my pilgrimage to “Hamilton” and not slept in the New York tri-state area.
I saw it. I saw Lin-Manuel and the rest of the cast. I found myself uproariously laughing during many parts of the show, to the consternation of some 10-year-old kid sitting in front of me. Get over it, kid. Not all of us get to Broadway as often as you.
After I got home, the wonderful lyrics kept spinning around in my head, along with the knowledge that Lin-Manuel Miranda is younger than me. I could have written something like that, I thought. I should have, I thought. It’s in my wheelhouse, I thought. History, hip-hop. I had written an entire historical novel that had many of the same themes, even scenes.
Like everyone else – right? – I hear melodies in my head that I half-pretend no one has ever heard, half-reassure myself that they already exist as songs. Sometimes I hum them into the voice memos of my phone. For someday.
After “Hamilton,” someday felt closer. After “Hamilton,” life’s callings felt more urgent. After “Hamilton,” re-appropriation seemed (re) appropriate – right?
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? Right, but who lives, who dies, who continues the “Hamilton” story? Obviously, Lin-Manuel should do a sequel. Henry Clay’s redemption is long overdue. But what can I do? Certainly not a full-fledged musical sequel. But maybe the next chapter?
There was one tiny problematic thing about “Hamilton.” I loved the cross-casting, but it left unasked and unanswered: what did whites and blacks really think of each other then? A few times, the show mentions slavery as something they’ll have to take care of, but it feels put off, postponed, delayed, no doubt a reflection of the ruling class in Washington’s time.
But what if my next chapter took that on a little more forcefully?
In the show, Jefferson says to his offstage inamorata, “Sally, be a lamb won’t you and…” What if I wanted to give Sally a little more agency than that?
And then I thought of her holding Jefferson responsible for all his failures and hypocrisies. And I thought about how Jefferson did ban the slave trade in 1807. (I know things. I drink and I know things. [Copyright Tyrion Lannister]) What if the song was about Sally talking him into that?
Or even better, what if the song was more universal, about those historical moments where some people think America is ready, and some people don’t? For example, being ready for a woman President?
And the lyrics just started coming.
I wrote the song in a week. I knew the melody, basically, because the whole thing was written in meter.
But what would become of it? How would I create it? Didn’t it need to be a music video?
Could I do “Hamilton” one better by actually making a real film of a “Hamilton”-like song?
Maybe. I teach a production class, after all. The equipment was there. The help was there; they want to get As. Nothing wrong with that.
Casting would be crucial. Couldn’t go white. Jefferson should be like the Jefferson of “Hamilton,” well, with a tad more self-respect. But if Sally Hemings was really a black woman, did “Hamilton” logic dictate that the actress should be white?
Of course not. This would be Sally’s one day in the spotlight since Merchant Ivory’s forgotten 1995 film “Jefferson in Paris.” The point of “Hamilton” isn’t to “switch” races. The point of “Hamilton” is to begin to make up for all the times whites have been playing every other race (go to racebending.com).
Luckily my old high school friend Rico picked up the phone. Luckily he recommended an amazing actress named Dania. Luckily they were both willing to work for not much. I guess when you’ve got a good script (and a very small time commitment), that happens.
More than I realized. Before Rico recommended Dania, I sent the script to the agent of a major African-American actress who I’d admired from all kinds of TV work. Well, the agent loved it! I googled him, and he’s been an agent to very major people that you have heard of. He kept me hanging on for a while, even though he knew all about the microscopic budget. This deal almost happened. In the end, the actress said no.
She never could have been better than Dania, so that turned out to be fine.
Of course I don’t know how to produce a song. I called one person who did. He turned me down. I called a friend named Adam. He didn’t get back to me for two weeks, so I was thinking…I guess we’ll just do it acapella or something. In the meantime, I set up the actors on the schedule we’d need. I prepped my class; well, that is, I asked them who wanted to do what, and after almost all 16 of them got their first or second choices, we all prepped together.
About two weeks before the recording/shoot, Adam called back. I told him about our time crunch. I told him he’d need to take a Wednesday off work and drive to Fairfield. He said “We’ll just talk every day until we do it.”
Adam has been playing music for more than half our lifetimes. Now, in all those recordings, I have no idea what sort of perfectionist he was. I eventually said to him, “I don’t know that you half-ass any projects, but thanks for full-assing this one.” He smiled. He worked like a monster on this thing. He was up late into nights, trying different ways of backing up the vocals. He probably tried a hundred things on each part of the song. How great to have a creative partner who took the project as seriously as I did.
So…it all happened. We extensively planned, and there were very few hiccups. Rico came up from L.A., so we wanted to crunch everything into two days. Day 1 was costuming and recording vocals. It all went fine. Dania was outstanding. If we had had another hour it might have been nice to have gotten Rico’s voice saying the lines slightly differently. But he was wiped by the end of the day, and it was what it was.
Day 2 was the shoot. I planned every shot in advance. I knew I had to be clever. Dolly shots, rack focus shots, birds-eye view shots. Two cameras. Make Rico traipse around like Yul Brynner in “The King and I.” Make Dania hold her place, hold her power. Props mattered. It all worked. Normally production class was from 1-4, with an hour lab. That day call time was 12, and we planned to stay until 8. We shot until 8:30. That’s really not bad, as anyone who has done production can tell you. We got all our shots.
One problem was that the cameras weren’t set to the same color balance at the outset. I thought they had been, but I was wrong. So we spent a while in post color-correcting, but any professional can tell. I hope it’s not distracting for the less professional, but again, it is what it is. And it isn’t what it isn’t.
And I’m proud of what it is.
I’m realizing it’s hard to light the internet on fire when no one knows who you are. Yes, random nuttiness like lonelygirl15 can happen, but it’s rare. While it’s true that Lin-Manuel Miranda has extolled the virtues of re-appropriation, I can’t exactly expect him to recommend the video.
But in this life, it’s not only about getting people to notice you. It’s also about being happy with what people see when they do happen to notice you.
And with “They’re Ready,” I feel very happy and ready to be noticed.