Shakespeare. He’s required reading for most curriculums, and far too often it’s not taught in an effective way. Shakespeare, in his hey day, was pretty current and relatively inappropriate, but students don’t get that impression today. Too often do parts of our curriculum that were at one point on the cutting edge and exciting get drowned out by textbooks and unimaginative assignments. Another common victim is the American Revolution. I love history now, but in elementary school I didn’t enjoy it. The American Revolution in most textbooks and in the classroom is an unimaginative retelling of an amazing story.
Part of this is hindsight. My grandma who lived through WWII often mentions how now the war is looked at with the knowledge that we won. But back then, when she was a little kid, they didn’t know the outcome. They didn’t know the the Allies were going to be victorious, just like the revolutionaries didn’t know they were going to beat the British. When this was happening, it was huge. A group of revolutionaries from a colony went up against the largest empire in the world, and won. A group of underdogs, some from incredibly difficult circumstances, beat all the odds.
One of these underdogs is the star of one the new Broadway musicals, Hamilton: An American Musical. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, a native New Yorker who has roots in Puerto Rico, this musical has been thrust into the spotlight (tickets are sold out through September and some of the seats are being sold on sites like Stub Hub for over $1000). Hamilton is unique in two ways: almost the entire cast is made up of people of color and almost all of the songs are rap or hip hop. Which is amazing, a musical style that traditionally made by people of color being performed by people of color about a time in history that’s overall romanticized and to some degree white washed.
Miranda performed an early version of one of the songs at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009. It outlines the beginning of Hamilton’s life:
This musical is so inspirational. It’s the story of a desperate, passionate, orphaned immigrant who fought his way to the top. It’s a story that is ignored all too many times when we talk about the Founding Fathers. It’s a story that is so relatable to students struggling in our schools today. It has the potential to bring the life back to the story of the American revolution, and in a way that’s appealing and fresh.
It’s easy to suck all the drama out of political history, especially as time passes. I enjoy politics, but the idea of watching C-SPAN isn’t appealing. Some politics are very dramatic with lots of personal attacks, and so Miranda decided to portray the cabinet meetings as rap battles. I had never been able to really become interested in the Federalist vs Anti Federalist debate, but it’s a lot easier to see how high stakes and important that was through this portrayal of it.
There’s so many different literary devices that could be analyzed in conjunction with learning about the early American government and Congress. These songs in Hamilton add the drama back into the late 1700’s.
Now, I did say that “almost the entire cast is made up of people of color and almost all of the songs are rap or hip hop” and that’s because there’s precisely one exception: King George. King George is played by Jonathan Groff and all of his songs are in the style of British pop. This creates a sharp contrast to the rap and also will get stuck in your head 100% of the time.
The main problem with Hamilton is the accessibility. There’s no recordings available to the general public and right now the only way to see it is to be in New York City. While there is going to be a national tour with performances in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Fransisco, tickets are still next to impossible to acquire and expensive when you do. Right now, Hamilton is for a lucky few, however it’s impact is what’s important. A musical with a cast featuring almost only people of color and rap songs doing so well is promising for the future of musical theater. It provides a new script full of poems for students to analyze and relate to. I could only find one full length performance on the internet:
Hamilton, for now, isn’t available to everyone. But it’s success is promising and makes me hopeful for better representation moving forward. It’s edgy and fresh, like Shakespeare’s plays once were, and I hope that it can encourage a love of history and musical theater for a much wider audience in the future. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s story of an orphaned immigrant making a mark on the world through hard work is a pretty good example of the American Dream. It also shows how media prominently featuring people of color can be successful. It shows the demand for representation that exists and I’m so glad that kids today have a musical that shows people like them and their success.
But what does this have to do with reading? What does this mean for education? I think it shows a great potential for future curriculums. New musicals are coming to Broadway, and a lot of them are very, very progressive. I focused on Hamilton due to personal affinity and national success. If you’re interested in other diverse musicals, George Takai’s Allegiance tells the story of Japanese Americans and internment camps in World War 2, Fun Home features a main character struggling with her sexuality, The Lion King retells the classic story while featuring a cast mainly made up of people of color, and Southern Comfort is about the lives of a group of transgender people living in Georgia.
Plays, musicals, and even individual songs are often used in English classes to help provide context for concepts from plot arcs to irony to metaphors. Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets will likely continue to be used in curricula because of their status as classics, but innovative and diverse newcomers will hopefully make it into the classrooms too. Hamilton is especially well suited because of the intersection between the American Revolution, a huge topic in History classes, and it’s use of elements of rap, hip hop, and classic theater ballads which creates an interesting product perfect for literary analysis.
While I don’t know if Hamilton or Lin Manuel Miranda’s other play, Into the Heights, will reach the status of Shakespeare, there is some level of similarity. An article in the New Yorker details the similarity:
What Lin is doing is taking the vernacular of the streets and elevating it to verse. That is what hip-hop is, and that is what iambic pentameter was. Lin is telling the story of the founding of his country in such a way as to make everyone present feel they have a stake in their country. In heightened verse form, Shakespeare told England’s national story to the audience at the Globe, and helped make England England—helped give it its self-consciousness. That is exactly what Lin is doing with ‘Hamilton.’ By telling the story of the founding of the country through the eyes of a bastard, immigrant orphan, told entirely by people of color, he is saying, ‘This is our country. We get to lay claim to it.’
While Hamilton is no means a direct retelling of what actually happened, with some elements beings dropped, added or changed to make it a more smooth production, it’s still a good retelling. A Slate article perfectly sums up what’s successful about Hamilton:
The past isn’t an exact fit for the present. But Hamilton isn’t about that exact fit. It’s about making that past inclusive and empowering, humanizing and energizing a subject—the nation’s founding—that all too often seems carved in stone. It gets at the spirit of that past with rap music that blends bravado and a sense of urgency, capturing something of the uncertainties, fears, and hopes of America’s early decades, restoring a sense of contingency to those decades in the process. And in breathing life into Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda transforms a historical figure of great contradictions into a man whose striving spirit speaks to us today.
I ask the people who create curriculums and lesson plans, consider incorporating Hamilton, or one of the other new musicals, into your curriculum. They have incredible potential for making learning an incredible and relatable process that school curriculums are really lacking today. Tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, an orphaned immigrant who made his impact on the world through hard work and lots and lots of writing. Give your students characters they can relate to.