Benjamin Reiser hears the message of Hamilton loud and clear.
Benjamin Reiser listened intently as his 1L Constitutional Law professor, Catherine Powell, raised his favorite subject—the smash Broadway musical Hamilton—during her spring 2018 course overview. When Powell surveyed the room for fellow show attendees, students to Reiser’s left and right turned their gaze toward him. Among his peers, his obsession with the groundbreaking rap musical about American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is legend: He has seen the show 10 times, peppers conversations with choice quotes from the musical, and authored both his law school personal statement and undergrad thesis on the cultural phenomenon.
Reiser’s presence in the classroom—and ability to hear Powell’s inquiry—is itself a stirring tale of triumph against monumental odds. The 23-year-old was born with severe-to-profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, and audiologists said he would never develop meaningful, intelligible speech. His journey from “tiny baby with gigantic devices” on each side of his head to Fordham Law School J.D. candidate is one of self-advocacy, hard work vis-a-vis 10-plus years of speech therapy, and proactive parents aggressive in equipping him with the best available technology.
“I am grateful to be at a point where my hearing impairment is not something that defines me every day,” says Reiser, who today wears a small black Phonak Naida hearing aid in his right ear. His professor’s speech is wirelessly transmitted, crisp and amplified, into that ear via a mic attached to her shirt and an FM system clipped to her belt. Reiser credits his professors and the Office of Student Affairs with accommodating his classroom needs, and fellow students for clarifying classroom discussion points when need be.
Reiser received his hearing impairment diagnosis when he was 3 months old, after his parents observed he did not respond to the sounds of the doorbell ringing or the dog barking. Shortly thereafter, he became the first infant worldwide to use digitally programmable hearing aids.
As Reiser moved through elementary and middle school, he met with speech therapists several times a week to learn how to properly perceive the sounds different letters make. (The “s” sound in slippery proved particularly challenging.)
Outside of school, he would read all kinds of books with his grandmother and bask in his family’s love of language, determined to make it something he could “conquer and have mastery over.” Through Reiser’s teenage years, assistive hearing technology continued to advance, giving him more access to classroom learning and making his hearing devices ever smaller.
Reiser discovered his love for the law during a mock trial in his eighth-grade social studies class. Preparing for the trial—scrutinizing pieces of evidence, developing arguments and rebuttals, practicing how best to articulate his client’s interests—was a singular moment in Reiser’s life when everything just clicked, he recalls.
“I think part of me was inspired to become a lawyer to prove that I could overcome the ‘limits’ resulting from my hearing impairment,” says Reiser. “Ironically, the communication skills that were expected to be my greatest weaknesses became my very strengths and are valuable skills for a successful law career.”
Reiser’s newfound interest in law impacted his government studies in high school and college. “Now that I am at law school, it’s amazing to get down to case law and study actual procedure, as well as concepts of jurisprudence that I’ve been thinking about for 10 years.”
Whereas his eighth-grade social studies class inspired his legal pursuits, Reiser pinpoints Aug. 17, 2015, as the date he recognized his life’s mission. Then a Georgetown University junior double-majoring in government and American studies, Reiser first experienced Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton that evening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The show, which had opened on Broadway just days before, filled Reiser with patriotism, stimulated his intellect, drained his emotions, united him with his 1,300 fellow theatergoers, and exhilarated him like none of the 200 Broadway performances he has seen before or since. In particular, the rousing ensemble piece “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” with its dazzling choreography, lighting, and music, served as a personal “crystallizing moment.”
“I have been infatuated with Broadway theater since childhood, but in that moment, I understood with complete clarity what the medium of theater could do,” he wrote in his Law School personal statement. As he watched Hamilton, inside him “grew an insatiable desire to understand each and every gear that makes the watch of a Broadway show tick.”
After the performance, Reiser’s quest to explore the nuances of the legal and business sides of the theater
industry began in earnest. He pored over contracts on the Actors’ Equity Association website and took classes on theater business at the Commercial Theater Institute in Manhattan. Through this type of engagement, Reiser discovered entertainment law—the legal field that melded his skills and passion.
Although Reiser is leaving open for the moment in what capacity he will practice entertainment law (as in-house counsel for Broadway productions? as a producer of shows on the side?), he is certain about his commitment to the field.
“I am determined to make entertainment law my life’s work,” he says. “I want to devote my time and talents to supporting theater people, who undeniably inspire me, as they endeavor to do their best work.”
Reiser selected Fordham Law School to pursue his dream of becoming an entertainment lawyer, he says, because of its proximity to Broadway, its ability to offer every relevant course he “could imagine in this field”—intellectual property, copyright, trademark, and labor—and its Network Effect’s “alluring” potential to connect him with industry leaders. In addition, participating in the Law School’s Media and Entertainment Law Society offered a “thrilling opportunity to explore the field outside the classroom.” Off campus, Reiser is eager to explore professional experiences within the commercial theater industry; in fact, he has accepted an offer for an externship in the business and legal affairs department at Disney Theatrical Group this fall.
If you attended My Fair Lady this spring at the Vivian Beaumont Theater across the street from Fordham Law School, chances are you saw Reiser, having finished a long day of classes, selling show merchandise during walk-in and intermission in the lobby. During the performance itself, you would likely find him behind his kiosk with an open casebook and laptop, the one with stickers featuring the Schuyler sisters—including Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, the focus of his undergraduate thesis—and the words “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” from Hamilton’s Act 2 song “The Room Where It Happens.”
The day after his last spring final, Reiser plans to celebrate at the now-familiar Richard Rodgers Theatre, with his eleventh viewing of Hamilton. This is one shot, as his friends and classmates know, he is not throwin’ away.