Marge Sexton rehearsed diligently before debuting a sample of the opening rap from Hamilton at her Jenkintown book club meeting. She did the same preparation prior to a virtual talent show at the Philadelphia Protestant Home, where she and her husband reside.
So by the time Sexton went into a recording studio in August and in front of a videographer’s camera on Independence Mall in September, she’d spent countless hours mastering the exuberant Broadway tune’s signature spoken wordplay.
The 77-year-old grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of two felt ready to offer the world her septuagenarian interpretation of a quintessential Black art form. She made the effort in memory of her late son, Ron.
On Christmas morning in 2015, Ron Silberstein, the older of Sexton’s two sons by her first husband, died by suicide. Every year since, her family — including her husband Tom, 81, and her younger son Joe Malachi Silberstein, 51 — tries to do something special together in memory of Ron as the anniversary of his death approaches.
In 2018, they traveled to New York to see Hamilton. A lifelong student of song lyrics, Sexton was smitten with the show even before seeing it. She read historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and immersed herself in the score of the musical it inspired, which was created by and starred Lin-Manuel Miranda. She saw the touring version of the show when it played Philadelphia’s Forrest Theater as well.
“I love the opening song because it’s triumphant,” she said. And Hamilton, she noted, knew what it was like to lose a son.
“Rap has its own brilliance and I wanted to learn from it, and honor it,” said Sexton, whose video is playing on YouTube and Facebook. “The music in Hamilton is a new way of hearing history. I connected with the show on so many levels, and seeing it on Broadway with my family was a spiritual and healing experience for us.”
A Montgomery County native and Abington resident for most of her life, Sexton worked as a marketing professional and in 1995 founded Journeys of the Heart. It’s a nonprofit provider of nondenominational officiants for weddings, funerals, memorial services, and other ceremonies. Sexton served as its executive director and retired in 2014.
After her son’s death, the longtime progressive activist launched a blog called griefwarrior, where she continues to process the subject of loss, and the Ron S! Charitable Fund, which supports causes that were dear to Ron’s heart. She also established a support group — called Moms Rising Together — for mothers who have lost children to suicide.
“I’ve just always been so damn determined to survive,” said Sexton, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just four months after her son’s suicide (she’s counting days until a five-years-clear-of-cancer milestone in 2021). She lost her mother when she was 8 years old and her father when she was 18.
“I’ve survived because of being there for other people who grieve,” said Sexton. “I’m determined to live my life — and this is true — in service to others.
“At first I didn’t believe the human heart could carry both grief, and joy. But it’s possible.”
Seeing Hamilton back in 2018 planted a seed that “just kind of grew organically” into her recording its blockbuster opener, Sexton said. She and Tom, a retired Cheltenham High School teacher and coach, and Silberstein, a longtime music producer and educator, “just wanted to do something fun during the pandemic,” she said. “We went into it without expectations.”
Will Brock didn’t have much in the way of expectations, either, when his friend Silberstein asked him to record and produce the vocal track of Sexton rapping the song.
“I didn’t expect any kind of performance — just someone who wanted to have fun,” said Brock, a veteran Philly-based producer, keyboardist, and vocalist who has recorded albums (with DJ Sumsuch) as Mega Jawns. “But Marge came in super-prepared and super-excited. So I put her through the paces.”
“Will told me to ‘bite’ the lyrics,” Sexton said.
“It means enunciating to the extreme and being really intentional about how you shape your mouth and how much energy you put into your face,” said Brock. “The body follows, and [the performance] comes to life.”
The result is a confident, guileless performance. Sexton, clad in a Hamilton ‘Rise Up’ tee, capri pants, and comfy shoes — performs the lyrics with warmth and conviction —and just a trace of a Philly accent.
Sexton “absolutely” delivered, Brock said: “She brought something more to the session, and it was my job to shape it. She did all the work.”
The video was directed, shot, and edited by Jay Yachetta, a frequent Silberstein collaborator. “The first time I met Marge was when I shot her speaking at the women’s march in Philly a couple years ago,” he said. “Joe sent me the Hamilton song and I was really impressed. I didn’t know that Marge could rap.”
The single-day video shoot Sept. 23 — “no crew, just me and Joe and Tom,” said Yachetta — featured the performer lip-synching outside Independence Hall, Carpenters Hall, and the Constitution Center.
“We wanted to keep it simple, something that represented the song well and showcased the performance. We could tell Marge was having a blast and we all did, too,” said Yachetta.
Watching the video makes Tom Sexton cry. “She’s done things with her grief that are pretty amazing,” he said of his wife. “I’m so proud of her.”
The video is dedicated to Ron. While making it, “we always felt Ron’s presence guiding us,” Silberstein said.
“Ron was my best friend, and losing him was really traumatic,” he added. “Our experience with Hamilton has been part of the grieving and healing process.”
The vocal track was recorded at Silberstein’s private studio in Germantown. He tapped professional associates and friends like Brock and Yachetta “so my mom can present this best she can. I felt my brother’s hand working through us to make this great experience possible.”
As Sexton put it: “The day I went into the studio in August really was one of the most fun days of my whole entire life. I was in front of a microphone and getting to be a diva.
“I see people my age who think they’ve already done everything in their life that’s going to be interesting. But I don’t feel that way.”
And then Sexton quotes a line from the song she’s made her own.
There’s a million things I haven’t done / Just you wait.