Almost all of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakthrough Broadway musical about the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, is set in New York City — or, as the musical calls it, “the greatest city in the world.” But Philadelphia is mostly absent from the show, except for one reference to the Liberty Bell in the song “Hurricane.” So when Miranda gave a commencement speech to the University of Pennsylvania’s 2016 graduating class on Monday, he started with an apology.
“As the guy who plays Hamilton every night, let me get into character for a moment and say, ‘My bad, Philadelphia,’” Miranda said. “But take the long view, Motown Philly. Who really won that deal in the end? D.C. is synonymous with institutional dysfunction, partisan in-fighting, 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 … You win, Philly. You win every time.”
Miranda then took his storytelling choice and turned it into a life lesson for graduates by noting more of the historical events he left out of Hamilton.
“Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative,” Miranda said. “One could make five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s singular American life without ever overlapping incidents. 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 … 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 celebrate your Senior Week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.”
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Miranda later told two stories from his youth about romantic choices and his first musical, In the Heights, before finishing with an inspirational crescendo that used the message of Hamilton to underscore the importance of stories, immigrants, and youth.
“Stories are essential,” Miranda said. “Don’t believe me? In a year where 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.”
Watch the video below. His speech starts around the 2:30:50 mark, but it’s worth watching the provost’s rhyming introduction of Miranda just beforehand.