“A hero and a scholar, the ten-dollar founding father without a father:” the opening lyrics of Hamilton, the new rap-based musical phenomenon penned by Lin Manuel-Miranda. The famed, young Broadway composer and actor found his inspiration for the historical-based musical in Rob Chernow’s biography about the United States’ first Secretary of Treasury, and the rest is history.
Miranda’s musical has taken audiences by storm. He calls it the “telling of America then by America now.” This is because the factual story about Hamilton’s life and death is shared through unforgettable rap-based showtunes and a multi-racial cast. Yet, the plot, characters and information are completely accurate and shed much-deserved light on an often forgotten figure who shaped American history.
I am lucky enough to be a current junior, who is working diligently in AP US History (APUSH), as well as a self-proclaimed musical theatre fanatic. As Hamilton’s wife Eliza sings “look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
Hamilton is a musical theatre masterpiece, but its layers of genius go far beyond its infectious tunes. The piece of art is the most unique and effective learning tool I have yet to encounter. As I mentioned, I was very fortunate that the cast album came out the very week that we were studying the Founding Fathers in Mr. Miller’s period two APUSH class. Yet, the textbook barely talks about Hamilton and, in fact, barely touches on any of the founding fathers’ complex backgrounds.
In its 46 tracks, Hamilton is able to teach students, and everyday citizens, about the first Secretary of Treasury’s upbringing, relationships, death, AND what he contributed to the United States. The textbook only touches upon the latter, and barely goes beneath the surface of those important details.
I asked my grandmother, a college graduate, if she had any idea who Hamilton was, or what he had been instrumental in creating.
“Isn’t he on the ten-dollar bill?” she said. That was genuinely all she knew.
The show examines Hamilton’s early life, with an emphasis on the trivial knowledge that Hamilton (played by the immensely talented Miranda) was, in fact, an immigrant from the British Indies. He was orphaned after his father abandoned him and his ill mother. He was a gifted writer and used that skill to gain passage to America, where he joined the revolutionaries. The show highlights Hamilton’s relationship with fellow Federalist George Washington (Christopher Jackson). Hamilton is referred to as Washington’s “Right Hand Man” throughout the musical, but his nemesis Thomas Jefferson lets him know that he is “nothing without Washington behind him.”
On a recent trip to New York City, I was gifted with the unbelievably special chance to see the show, with the original Broadway cast. The musical opened on Broadway in August, after a wildly successful off-Broadway run, and has been the hottest ticket on the Great White Way in decades, if not ever. I went into the show knowing every lyric, already infatuated with both Hamilton’s story and the way it was told. I also knew that it had helped me on my history final just weeks before, when a question arose about federalism versus anti-federalism, and my knowledge of the subject was so much deeper that textbook definitions thanks to the show.
Hamilton’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson (hilarious newcomer Daveed Diggs) was always hostile, despite the fact that they worked on the same staff as Secretary of State and Treasury during Washington’s candidacy. The show’s “Cabinet Battles” focus on the disagreements between Federalist Hamilton and Democratic-Republican Jefferson. They hold different ideals and have a distinctly opposing point of view when it comes to economy and what affairs the country should get involved in. By the middle of act two, however, Hamilton is supporting Jefferson’s campaign strictly because he does not want to see the moral-lacking Aaron Burr (the astounding Leslie Odom Jr.) as president of the United States.
The most important focus of the nearly three-hour long show is the relationship between Hamilton and his longtime enemy, Aaron Burr. Burr is the first friend Hamilton has upon arriving in America, being that they were both orphaned and incredibly bright. However, Hamilton quickly comes to realize that Burr will do whatever it takes to rise to the top. Thus, the two become fatal foes. Eventually, Burr changes parties and becomes a Democratic-Republican. He defeats Hamilton’s father-in-law for New York senate. When the pair duels in New Jersey and Burr murders Hamilton, he quietly sings “death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints” and says “now I’m the villain in your history books.” This portion of the show is divided between the perspective of each man. The duel is staged on a turntable stage, and the tension that was building between the two men for decades visibly explodes, in a way no history book could describe.
Hamilton’s “skill with the quill” secured his legacy in a myriad of ways. He was able to write the Federalist Papers, which were a remarkably defended the Constitution. He penned many of Washington’s addresses. He also, however, wrote about his torrid affair with Maria Reyonolds (the flawless Jasmine Cephas Jones), the country’s first major sex scandal, which prevented him from becoming president. The latter half of the second act allows audiences to wonder how the country would differ if Hamilton had been given the chance to grow old and possibly take office, in turn, keeping the Federalists alive. The whole show portrays Hamilton as an ambitious, stubborn and desirable genius.
There is also historical context about Britain’s relationship with America before, during, and after the Revolution. King George III (the marvelous Jonathan Groff) makes several appearances during the show to discuss where Britain stands with America, and acts as British villain of sorts.
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is the finale of the show. It is far from a typical show-tune ending with tap shoes and a shiny smiles. Rather, it shares the consequences of Hamilton’s death and the way he forever impacted America. His wife, Eliza (the spectacular Phillipa Soo in her Broadway debut), who plays an important role throughout his life in keeping Hamilton grounded, shares how she kept Hamilton’s legacy alive, being that she lived 50 years longer than him. Even though Hamilton was unfaithful to Eliza, and her sister Angelica (“angelic” Renee Elise Goldsberry), began the country’s first private orphanage in New York City in honor of Hamilton. Although Hamilton wrote “like he was running out of time,” his written work and his political and economic genius have made him a historical legacy. Finally, however, the spotlight is (literally) shining on him.
The lyrics and score are purely genius. All facts are historically accurate, being that expert Chernow worked closely with Miranda throughout the process of creating the show. There are thousands of crucial words crammed into two astonishingly entertaining, and informative, hours. The multi-racial cast completely enhances the performance, for it truly represents what America stands for. The talent is breathtaking and brings the important material to life in an enticing learning experience. The finale states: “every other founding father’s story gets told, every other founding father gets to grow old.” Now, Hamilton’s flame will forever be ignited as this brilliant musical accentuates his story and changes musical theatre history.
While I admit to being both a history and theatre buff, these are not my only reasons for being so adamant about the advantages of bringing this show, or any, into the classroom as a teaching device. It brings a topic to life, and allows students to make a connection to a potentially uninteresting topic. Every history teacher and student should be exposed to this brilliant show, and hopefully it will inspire more artists to produce works that can be beneficial learning instruments. Bringing artistic elements into a classroom open up a plethora of new learning opportunity, from being more inclined to dig deeper into a topic’s meaning, to being inspired to create art of our own based on academic subjects. Hamilton presents facts and figures, but also leaves audiences pondering about Hamilton’s deepest regrets, and the legacy he left behind. As young people, these questions deepen our appreciation of the art, while, of course, managing to give us an edge up on the AP exam, at university, and beyond. To all the APUSH teachers out there: “history has its eyes on you.”