The New York Times recently reported that the Rockefeller Foundation would be paying for 20,000 eleventh graders to see the musical “Hamilton,” the Broadway phenomenon that tells the story of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. Perhaps they should consider buying tickets for younger kids, too.
For the past couple of weeks, my house of tweens has been booming with the original Broadway cast recording of the show. “Hamilton” has become the soundtrack to breakfast, homework time, dinner, and every car ride where the kids have control over the radio.
The music of “Hamilton” comes with a “Parental Advisory for Explicit Content” so I listened through it before playing it for my kids. If “Hamilton” were a movie, I would rate it as PG-13 for a few swear words, some violence and revelations of adultery. The “explicitness” of the sexual content are comparable to the innuendos in an episode of “Modern Family.”
I knew the tradeoff for this explicit content was in my favor when I quizzed my son and daughter on what they’ve learned about American history. Who was the Frenchman who helped the Americans win the revolution? “Lafayette.” What kind of person was Hamilton? “Arrogant, cocky.” “Ambitious. A writer.” We talked about the early American electoral system and about the constrained lives of women in Colonial times.
How long was the American Revolution?, I asked. My wife and looked at each other; we had no idea. “Well, it depends if you start from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 or the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775,” my son reasoned. “Yorktown was 1781,” my daughter recalled from a song, and we estimated the war lasted about 6 years (the National Park Service website lists the years between Yorktown and the peace treaty in 1783 as the “Aftermath”).
If you’ve got parents or aunts and uncles or grandparents who embody that immigrant work ethic, it’s hard not to get swept up in Hamilton’s victories.
“Hamilton” will be for my kids what “Schoolhouse Rock” was to my education: a foundational earworm that can be recalled when certain facts are needed. Liz Covart, a PhD in Early American History who produces the “Ben Franklin’s World” podcast, notes that the show is “steeped in primary sources, documents created during Hamilton’s lifetime.” Furthermore, it gives insight into how historians work. Covart notes that there are no notes from the closed-door meeting in which Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison decided to situate the nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C. The show describes this incident from Aaron Burr’s point of view, as he wonders aloud about what it would be like to be in “The Room Where It Happens.” “Just like historians, the audience must use the context provided by the show to craft their own interpretation as to what happened behind those closed doors.”
I should also note that for potential listeners who are wary of the musical’s description as “hip-hop”: the musical is full of tuneful, singable songs, songs about falling in love, missed connections, and about grief. There are raps, too, about dueling or finding a suitable husband, powerful speeches full of clever turns of phrase and multiple internal rhymes backed by acoustic instruments.
Being a sap, my eyes well up with tears at a lot of the songs, and also at some of the raps. The kids know my favorite is when the Caribbean-born Hamilton and his French ally the Marquis de Lafayette meet up before the Battle of Yorktown and offer this couplet:
Hamilton: Finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run.
Together: We get the job done.
Those lines remind me of my own family’s immigration story with pride. And no wonder, the idea of Hamilton as a hard-working immigrant was one that drew show creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda to the character: “I didn’t know Hamilton was an immigrant, and I didn’t know half of the traumas of his early life. And when he gets to New York, I was like, ‘I know this guy.’ I’ve met so many versions of this guy, and it’s the guy who comes to this country and is like, ‘I am going to work six jobs if you’re only working one. I’m gonna make a life for myself here.’” If you’ve got parents or aunts and uncles or grandparents who embody that immigrant work ethic, it’s hard not to get swept up in Hamilton’s victories.
“Hamilton” sets the Revolutionary War in Act I and the work of establishing governance as the main subject of Act II. In the last song before intermission, Hamilton invites his legal associate Aaron Burr to join him in defending a new client, the not-yet ratified US Constitution. Burr demurs, but then explains that Hamilton teams up with Madison and John Jay to advocate for the Constitution:
“The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months.” Jay and Madison wrote 34 essays. The music swells as he announces: “Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one.”
My daughter and I jump up and down in our kitchen, pumped as we marvel at the Federalist Papers! I’m thrilled that my daughter — who is studying the US government in fifth grade — is so impressed and enthused about someone writing 51 essays about the US Constitution.
Sometimes it takes an immigrant’s perspective to recognize what is truly great about the American experiment.