Stay with me for the backstory: February was Black History Month.
My son, Randy, is the Director for Feinstein’s at the Nikko, a nightclub at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. Randy seeks the talent for the weekly shows, produces the events and manages the staff on performance nights to ensure each attendee enjoys every minute of every top-notch show.
(Some of you Easterners may know of Feinstein’s/54 Below along with Los Angeles music lovers being familiar with Feinstein’s at Vitello’s as a cabaret and restaurant where acclaimed featured artists entertain with a variety of music that includes musical theater, bands, jazz and opera. The owners partnered with artist and pianist Michael Feinstein to bring back the intimate nightclub atmosphere of the 1950s.)
The show Hamilton is on its second tour and into its second year in San Francisco before moving on to Los Angeles. As a past Broadway producer, Randy is always reaching out-of-the-box for new and innovative entertainment. His latest creation is an original series of concert evenings, Monday Night Off! that features cast members from visiting Broadway shows around San Francisco, to perform live at the Nikko! on their only night off !
Back in fall 2019, Randy and Hamilton actor Christopher Young collaborated with an idea that came to fruition during Black History Month, at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, and I was privileged to be in the audience for one of the most heartfelt, tear-dropping, non-scripted performances I’ve ever seen!
Inspired by Young, the evening celebrated the music of the African-American songbook of our past to the songs of today, from gospel to pop, from Broadway to opera. Six Hamilton cast members, four men and two women, shared their life-experiences in relation to growing up black in America as a future artist, then sang several songs that were their inspirations to never give up their dreams of performing. The music came from the bottom of their souls, while singing their hearts out and gave the audience insight to the lives of young black people who have given talents but must endure tremendous obstacles to achieve their goals.
As I sat and listened to the stories, as a Jew I could relate their journeys with our Jewish history. Both our cultures have suffered from the hands of others. But as the stories continued, I realized the difference was that these young people were talking about the present, not the past! Our personal tragedies go back a generation or two but these 20somethings were talking only about a decade or so ago! I put the Jewish story aside and ached inside for their realities, not so past but very present.
Every one of the six had a narrative that involved a family member or friend that was murdered in a gang-related incident, killed in a family dispute or via a police incident. The descriptions of the events were not related in a blame account but in a factual/emotional tone. And each actor had a song to relate to the lost loved one that inspired them to never give up their battle for success just because they were black.
One of the women grew up being told there would never be enough story lines for her to succeed as a black woman on Broadway. Her drama teachers continually told her, “Get a degree where you can make a living and do community theater for fun.” The other female actor was told her big, black kinky hair would rarely get her an audition. Today, she thanks Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton, for making her dream come true, a sentiment from all the actors.
Another story came from a young man, obviously from the hood in his home state, who lived among gangs with violence as a part of their everyday life. It wasn’t until his cousin was killed that he decided to take his talents and fight for his place in his high-school-for-the-performing-arts, and “Worked my butt off” to finally getting his acknowledgment by making his way to Hamilton. He talked like a street fighter and sang like an angel, with an original song for his cousin.
Christopher Young approached the microphone with his not-so ordinary story, in comparison to the others. From his appearance, speech and class, and a degree from USC, he had a middle class upbringing, but still with its struggles. He remembers his parents sitting him down at 12 years-old for “The talk!” The audience giggled until he waved his finger and said to us, “Not that talk!”
As he looked back on that day, he realized the complexity his parents had to imbue upon him of the difficulties growing up as a black man in America. “Without a second thought, whether you are right or wrong, NEVER argue with a police officer, do as they say, keep your arms up high, be a gentleman, comply with their wishes.” It took a while for him to understand the deep fears they had for him.
He went on to say that he recently got engaged and his parents and his white fiancée’s parents came to San Francisco to see Hamilton. “When the six of us sat at dinner, his white mother and my black mother exchanged the problems of raising their gay sons. My mother explained how the hardest thing was to keep me safe as a black kid, a gay black kid, out of the reach of gangs, problems with the police and anyone making fun of my talents. I watched my future mother-in-law react with horror and say, ‘I had to worry about my son falling off a tree and skinning his knee!’ Do you see the contrast of our childhoods? Our mothers were both scared for our safety but for very different reasons. And yet, we both grew up in America, but in different parts of the country.”
That dialogue struck me like a ton of bricks. I see it in the news, movies, books but the dichotomy of the reality with those two families hit me in the gut. What some of us take for granted and what others have to live with as a life-or-death day-to-day existence was so visceral for me. We’re in America, not the old country where our relatives had to flee to be safe.
The interesting part of the evening was that the choice of songs from the actors were unfamiliar to the majority of the audience. Most were gospel, off-Broadway show tunes or old vaudeville but yet all inspiring with profound and deep meaning to the singer. Each in their own way, sang of hope for their Broadway future with a legacy for the black American success story. But Christopher Young sang the song that made the evening!
A Stephen Sondheim show tune from the show Into the Woods that all the musical audience cheered for, Giants in the Sky:
There are giants in the sky
There are big tall terrible giants in the sky
When you’re way up high and you look below
At the world you left and the things you know
Little more than a glance is enough to show you
Just how small you are.
There are giants in the sky
When suddenly there’s
A big tall terrible giant at the door
And you know things you never knew before
Not till the sky.
When you’re way up high and you’re on your own
In a world like none that you’ve ever known
Where your heart is lead and your stomach is stone
And you’re really scared of being alone
But free to do whatever pleases you
Exploring things you’d never dare
And you wish you could live in between
There are giants in the sky
There a big tall terrible, awesome, scary, wonderful
Giants in the sky.
We all have a giant in the sky, a giant that is good, bad or indifferent. To each his own experience and interpretation.
And in the vein of Passover, does our personal giant enslave us for living our best life? Is our emotional freedom being held hostage by that giant in our sky? Can slaying that giant allow freedom for our loved ones?
I believe that getting to know our personal giant, wherever, whatever or whoever it may be, terrible or scary, awesome or wonderful, could open the waters to our personal freedom. Whether the unknown allows us to look back down on earth, to miss all the things we’ve known, as baby boomers, it might be time to wrestle that giant and let its image and affect pass over us.
The Passover Seder could be a wonderful time to free ourselves by sharing our Giant in the Sky with our family, leaving a legacy of who and what shaped us, what we now know because of the giant, how its presence scared us and how we overcame its shadow. Exploring what you never dared, listening to others offer new alternative perspectives, finding answers and insights can bring a sense of freedom beyond the typical Passover meaning.
Once again, Hamilton has impacted my life. Blessings to the actors who performed at the Nikko with complete transparency and to the good giants who allow creativity, talent and bravery that can result in personal freedom.
Prayers for a HEALTHY, PEACEFUL and HAPPY PASSOVER….Sandy
P.S. The above was written back in February, way before the world changed and added a new plague to our Passover Seder. While sheltering-in-place (I have not been out in three weeks, lucky to have my kids dropping off groceries) and cleaning out another closet, I was thinking about my gentile, very close girlfriend in LA. For the past three weeks, every morning I wake up to a new text from her saying, “This is so horrible! I don’t know how I can do this!” “My husband and I fight all day long!” “I’m so bored, I want to cry every minute!” “I just want to go buy something new and have a nice dinner out!” The one this morning said, “There are going to be a lot of divorces after all this!”
At first I tried to say things like, “And this too shall pass,” “Read the story of Ann Frank,” “Do some cooking and cleaning!” until I realized she has never had religion in her life and could not relate to my remarks. They made her angry. My psychology degree kicked in and I changed my texts to, “You are so used to being free to do as you please and staying in must be so difficult for you,” “I feel your frustration,” “You must be so angry at him for yelling at you.” Her tone towards me changed with a “thank you for understanding.”
What I gleaned from her was how lucky I was to have Judaism in my life as a frame of reference on how it felt to be enslaved, have a loss of control, to put your family ahead of your own needs to keep them safe and out of danger. My dear friend has no historical text, no religious education, no cultural traditions to fall back on and she’s totally falling apart.
I also realized that this may be a first for many people who have not experienced terrible/awful tragedies during their life-time. We all have loss and pain, and I am not judging nor alluding that any one person’s tragedies are worse than another person’s, by no means. I have lived through the death of my parents to a drunken driver, my husband committed suicide, I lost my house during the housing market crash. I can get through this stay-at-home time (though my business has come to a halt and I have no/zero, income) but as long as my children, grandchildren, family and friends make good decisions and don’t mess with being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I can get through this horrible time with hope that it will pass over our world, leaving a trail of a coming-together as one world, one people, caring for one earth, and most importantly, loving and caring for each other.