Teaching Hamilton: An American Musical as Contemporary American Drama

PALS Note: This week PALS is pleased to present a series of posts with reflections on teaching approaches for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical in various classroom contexts. We hope that these posts are a fruitful spark for continued discussion on ideas for teaching Hamilton in the classroom. (Here are the links to the other posts in the series: Early American Library History and Digital Humanities Using Hamilton, Teaching Revision through Hamilton: An American Musical, and Teaching Hamilton: A Wrap Up; and, here is the initial post that inspired the series: Teaching Hamilton, the Musical.)

In the second post for the series, Sunny Stalter-Pace, an associate professor of English at Auburn University, shares experiences with teaching Hamilton in a course on contemporary American drama. Stalter-Pace’s post adds to the ongoing conversation on teaching Hamilton by situating the musical within the context of a contemporary American drama course.

When I started thinking about how to teach Hamilton: An American Musical, the first models I found came from historians. (I only recently came across a blog post discussing strategies for incorporating Hamilton in several theatre classes, from an introductory level to an honors seminar.)  Scholars of early American history were early proponents of the show; writers for The Junto group blog managed to see its summer 2015 run at the Public Theatre and previews at the Richard Rodgers. Plus, Hamilton arrived at a particularly fruitful time for contemporary playwrights of color reckoning with U.S. history: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (2014) riffed on the Dion Boucicault play from 1859, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home for the Wars trilogy (2015) mashed up the Odyssey and the Civil War for the Black Lives Matter era. Miranda’s work is not just an example of American musical theater but one of theater concerned with what it means to be an American.

I try my best to fit at least one local live performance on to every drama course syllabus. A play on the page is one thing; a play on the stage is quite another. In 2015-2016, our university’s theater department had a particularly resonant season for pursuing questions of history and storytelling in the United States, with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins mid-semester and an original documentary drama called The Integration of Tuskegee High School near the end. The official title for the course was “Studies in Drama: Contemporary Plays & the Problem of Historical Representation,” though if I had a chance to retitle it now, I’d call it “American Theater + History,” or maybe “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Our Story.”

The class was smaller than our usual undergraduate seminars, with only 14 students. Their majors ranged across the spectrum of liberal arts: literature and English education, theater, history, sociology, media studies, and global studies. Some students knew every word of the show; others needed a plot summary even after listening to the original cast recording. Even the most popular of popular culture gets transmitted unevenly; just as we do our students a disservice when we assume they are digital natives, we do the same by assuming they are fluent in Beyoncé or The Hunger Games.

To complicate matters further, even the students who knew Hamilton varied in their knowledge: wide-eyed superfans who knew every word of the show sat next to savvy Tumblr users already invested in critiques of the show’s representational politics. But as I found when discussing Miranda’s footnotes to his own lyrics (first available on RapGenius.com), this is a show that addresses many audiences. Discussion would thrive when the musical theater geek, the hip-hop fan, and the history buff could each contribute pre-existing knowledge to the class’s conversation.

Ham Book Cover

The biggest risk I took had to do with the course text. Hamilton: A Revolution (known to fans as the Hamiltome) was released late in the semester when the course was offered. There would be no hiding the fact that I read the book at the same time as the students. I had to keep that part of the semester open-ended, unsure about what themes specific to the book would resonate within that semester’s discussions. But the ways it used Ron Chernow’s presence to excuse historical inaccuracies added an interesting twist to our discussions of history and narrative. Even the way that Gchats and emails and Instagram-worthie selfies with celebrities were part of the text gave the students a lot to talk about in terms of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s manipulation of current tropes of online celebrity.

Hamilton: A Revolution has its drawbacks: songs from the show appear sequentially at the end of each chapter, with the preceding context illuminating something about the song. One illuminating example was a discussion of set design before the lyrics to “Hurricane,” where props whirl around Hamilton. This format helps students think about text and context in dialogue, but it undercuts their ability to think about the narrative arc of the show. The original cast album is the primary text, supplemented with YouTube videos of the original cast performance that help us talk about the production as something happening in space and time.

Miranda’s footnotes, expanded in Hamilton: A Revolution, helped the class think about the show as a constructed dramatic narrative, not merely a biased or accurate reflection of history. Most revelatory were his discussions of point of view and authority in songs. A footnote to “Say No to This” observes, “Hamilton’s the only one who can narrate the song at this point in the story: It happened to him, in secret, and we don’t know Maria or James Reynolds yet. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to storytelling: The person closest to the action addresses the audience.” To sing about an event, we might say, a character must have been in “The Room Where It Happened.” And Eliza has the last word in the musical because she had the last word in life, living fifty years after her husband’s duel with Burr.

Discussing Hamilton late in the semester meant we had several texts that made for interesting comparisons. As a musical, Assassins provided a rich source for considering genre conventions in American musical theater. We could see how the environment and style of the show was established in the opening numbers, how songs allow characters to express their desires in a different way than straight dialogue, and even how a song sung by a narrator – the Balladeer for Sondheim, Burr for Miranda – gives the audience a kind of ironic distance from the proceedings. The documentary dramas we’d read just before HamiltonTwilight: Los Angeles and The Laramie Project – heightened our awareness about how source material was employed in Miranda’s play.

Hamilton: An American Musical may be the ultimate crowd-pleaser in an American drama class. It is contemporary, popular, accessible to students. But as a teacher, I particularly appreciated that there are ongoing and legitimately unresolved critical conversations about it. These will only develop as the show tours and more people can talk about it as a theatrical experience. Hamilton is not just about history; it’s about theater and American identity. I hope I’ve given some other folks a framework for bringing the show into their courses.

Contributor Bio:

Sunny Stalter-Pace is an associate professor of English at Auburn University.   Her review of the Hamiltome can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is writing a biography of vaudevillian Gertrude Hoffmann. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.

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