Hamilton on Broadway: History With a Beat
A MiddleWeb Blog
The Rockefeller Foundation and the producers of the incredibly successful musical Hamilton have announced that they will be reducing the prices for tickets to the show so that students and schools can come see it.
This is a wonderful opportunity for history students to be able to connect to the past in a contemporary context and to become engaged with the content they are studying in an exciting way. We’d like to see it, we would LOVE to take our students to see it…but…we are in California.
So the next best thing is that we can use it in our classrooms. To quote Jimmy Fallon in a conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton’s creator and star actor): “How many history teachers are like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever?!’” We are, Jimmy. We are.
While some educators might approach this musical with a raised eyebrow for a number of reasons, it really does pay off. Historically, if accuracy is what the educator is concerned about, it is pretty close to spot on. Ron Chernow, the author of Alexander Hamilton, the biography upon which this musical was based, served as a consultant to Miranda.
And to those who might think a musical about the lives of the founders might be a bit dry, Miranda has infused his retelling of history with hip-hop, rap, and pop, and has given life to a story that, for many, has been difficult to relate to in the modern era.
Moreover, Miranda’s historically valid choice to emphasize Hamilton’s status as an immigrant wanting to make a name for himself in his adopted country has made the story even more relatable to students today.
“The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him, another immigrant, comin’ up from the bottom. His enemies destroyed his rep. America forgot him.”
from CBS Sunday Morning
Some concerns about explicit dialogue and lyrics
The themes that ring out in the show are arguably more important than the specifics of the actual history presented as they are the contextualizing anchors that bring in the listener/audience, make the history relatable, and bring the rawness of the characters in the American Revolution and the first throes of America’s governance to the forefront in a visceral way.
“I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot,” says Hamilton in a theme that repeats throughout the show. And for those who know the end of this story, this ambitious line has a haunting foreshadowing.
This rawness is echoed in some of the explicit lyrics, which could be problematic for some teachers, families, and students. Miranda did say on Twitter that he was planning on releasing a non-explicit version, but as of now this isn’t available. And unfortunately some of the most historically interesting songs do have the explicit tag.
Beyond the Explicit Language
If it’s possible for your school, do what you can to get around this; the music is worth it. The language, while problematic in some ways, allows students get to know characters from history on a more personal level, and using today’s vernacular, as well as a more musically accessible format, allows students to relate more than ever. This applies to all the language used in the show, not just the explicit language, though the explicit language is likely more historically accurate than we imagine.
Students will find not just the language accessible, but also the way that the songs present content. For example, in our classrooms we have always taught that the Declaration of Independence was like America’s breakup letter with England, which puts the events in terms that middle schoolers relate to well. Hamilton takes it up a notch and has England respond to America’s declaration as a controlling, scorned lover might.
The theme of who tells the story – who “owns” the narrative – is another that follows throughout the show. The casting of actors of color as Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Burr, Lafayette, Angelica Schuyler, and Madison to name just a few, is a way of taking back the narrative. Miranda also reminds the audience of the plight of the slaves while dealing with the major players of the dominant narrative (Hamilton was an abolitionist and therefore this theme is historically accurate as well).
Encountering America’s Contradictions
As history teachers, we have had a struggle to reconcile teaching that this country was founded upon principles of freedom and equality while knowing that people of color, women, and the poor did not have a voice at America’s inception. Hamilton does not shirk from acknowledging the underrepresented populations yet also presents a proud history that celebrates the ideals of this country. It is challenging to find resources that achieve this.To hear the lyrics that were actually spoken at the time – from primary sources – in this context is both jarring and moving. George Washington, lamenting his lack of supplies, men, and money, sings/speaks “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?”, a sentiment he uttered during the Landing at Kip’s Bay.
Parts of Washington’s Farewell Address, written with/by Hamilton, are repeated word for word. The history we want our students to understand – the attenuation of the British army in the success of the Revolution, Lafayette and the French’s role in the victory, the purpose of the Federalist Papers, cabinet meetings that deal with America’s financial future, as well as a rousing song about the closed-door deal that resulted in moving the capital to the Potomac – are all rendered in the most attention grabbing, most vibrant way possible.
This is a current and exciting opportunity to be able to make our students connect with history, to help bring it to life. And we’re holding our breath until the show comes to California.