Thank goodness, we’re almost through the lull in Hamilton news. After the multi-week coverage of its record number of Tony nominations and many wins, we had extensive coverage on the early July departure of Lin-Manuel Miranda and others from the original cast just a few weeks after the Tony Awards were handed out. While there has been some coverage of the new members of the Broadway cast and the soon-to-open Chicago company, the recent headlines don’t match the volume of the heady press attention the show received May through July. The next wave of attention will focus on the October 21st premiere on PBS of the Great Performances documentary Hamilton’s America – a behind-the-scenes look at the making of this landmark Broadway musical. The program kicks off the PBS Arts Fall Festival, hosted by none other than Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I, for one, couldn’t be happier that we’ll be seeing more Hamilton news, since I’ve evolved into a #Hamilnerd of the first order. I’m happy to fill in the remaining gap in coverage with my own appreciation of both the work and its creator.
The roots of my appreciation of this musical milestone go back to when I was in college. This would be back in the late ‘60s, when I got into a spirited discussion with one of my professors. He had been bemoaning the fact that there were no works of dramatic art that captured the lives of our great American heroes like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, et al. that could compare with Shakespeare’s royal plays.
Well, I pointed out, that’s because Shakespeare’s plays are filled with blazing personalities, passions galore, murder, duplicity, treason and the like. The American heroes he cited were merely cardboard cutouts to us students, given the stories presented in our schoolbooks. It would be hard to make theatre about cherry trees and wooden teeth, scholarly pursuits and lightning rods. Drama needs to be hot-blooded and these men seemed to have been formed out of marble.
I thought about this conversation again back in February, when I listened to the entire original cast album of Hamilton An American Musical for the first time and was overwhelmed with emotion. Reading the libretto while I listened, I was transported to the 18th century as I followed along with the aspirations, triumphs, betrayals, heartbreak and tragedy that comprise Hamilton’s story. If I could have time-traveled back to that classroom conversation with my prof, I would have said “This is what I was talking about.”
So that’s the first of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s many accomplishments: he’s made American history hot-blooded again.
Theatre and history were two of my passions when I got to college, and it was a toss-up as to which would be my major. Theatre won.
But history remained a passion for me, and I was particularly struck, in this year of so many dazzling awards and prizes, when Miranda received the George Washington Book Prize; an honor normally reserved for literary efforts offering ‘a fresh perspective’ on our founding era. This was the first time the award went to a theatrical work.
I’m such a #Hamilnerd that last December I watched the award ceremony on C-Span (I’m a bit of a political nerd, too) and I got teary as I watched and listened to historians and teachers of history also getting teary over the contribution that Mr. Miranda had made. That didn’t surprise me, however, since I had followed the show’s off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre, and one of the anecdotes I read has stayed with me. One history teacher ran into another in the lobby of the Public and said to her colleague (also a bit teary-eyed, as I recall) ‘This is the best opportunity for teaching history we’ve had in the last half century.”
Now add to the mix the efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York City Public Schools (and soon the Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D. C. schools) to bring 100,000 high school students to see Hamilton at special matinees that include Q and A sessions with the actors. These special performances also offer the chance for students to present their own artistic interpretations of the founding era, with some amazing results, including musical presentations on the Boston Tea Party, the Whiskey Rebellion, the election of 1800, and the ‘family values’ of Thomas Jefferson.
The availability of the original cast album with the complete lyrics has allowed teachers across the country to take advantage of this educational adrenalin. Students in California and Oregon have written and performed rap battles on the legacy of Chief Justice John Marshall, the make-up of the Revolutionary Army, and the contributions of Henry Knox, Washington’s first Secretary of War.
Let that sink in: high school students creating music and dance projects on those topics. Talk about a revolution!
So that brings us to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second huge accomplishment: at the same time he made American history hot-blooded, he’s also made it cool.
Next: exploring the other jewels in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s crown of achievements in Why Hamilton is Historic: Part II.
** FEATURED PHOTO: Daveed Diggs as Lafayette, Okieriete Onaodowan as Hercules Mulligan, Anthony Ramos as John Laurens and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. (Photo by Production images by Joan Marcus – © Broadway.com) **