Teaching Revision through Hamilton: An American Musical

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 Hamilton: An American Musical as Contemporary American Drama, and Teaching Hamilton: A Wrap Up; and, here is the initial post that inspired the series: Teaching Hamilton, the Musical.)

In the series’ third post, Caitlin Kelly, Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University and frequent PALS contributor, shares approaches to teaching Hamilton as a way to highlight for students the processes of writing and revision. Kelly’s post furthers the conversations regarding the musical by showing how it can be paired with the HamilDemos and the Hamilton Mix Tape in order to illustrate for students the revision and writing practices of successful writers.

Update: PALS is pleased to have Caitlin on board as a full-time contributor!

This spring I taught Hamilton: An American Musical in the context of an undergraduate seminar entitled “Half Truths and History in Fiction” that centers on questions about what it means to depict historical events and people in imaginative texts. As a required course in the general education program SAGES at Case Western Reserve University, the class is composed of a mix of first-year students and sophomore and juniors and the focus is on teaching general academic writing and research. Overall, I found Hamilton to be a perfect fit for a course focused on critical thinking and inquiry, research, and writing, and I am currently proposing another course on revolutions and Enlightenment in which I plan to include the musical as a core text. As I reflect on my experiences teaching Hamilton for the first time and in this particular context, one thing I’ve come to realize is what a valuable opportunity it provides for teaching revision as a recursive and labor-intensive process. Here, I offer here some thoughts about how one might do that.

To conclude our 4-week discussion of Hamilton and in preparation for the first major essay assignment, we listened to the early drafts of several of the songs from the Broadway musical. These 8 “Hamildemos” that had just been released by Lin-Manuel Miranda on the SoundCloud platform in January 2017 proved to be a great resource for teaching a lesson in revision. In preparation for our class meeting, the students had listened to the “Hamildemos” and in class, I played the first minute or so of each song and asked them to rate each on a scale of 1-10. Then, we discussed the students’ justifications for their ratings and the criteria they had used. Interestingly, in each case there was clear consensus among the 17 students. Where the crisp rhymes of “Your Obedient Servant” earned a nearly unanimous 8/10, the electronica/house style of “Satisfied” earned a 4/10 and Miranda’s torturous performance of “The Story of Tonight” received a 2/10. What their consensus demonstrated to me was that they know good revision when they see (or hear) it. The trick, then, was to help them to become aware of their own internalized criteria and how they were applying that criteria.  To begin to do that, we focused on parsing out the types of revision made visible by the “Hamildemos.”

Hamilton and the Three Types of Revisions

Our discussion revealed that there are 3 major types of revision on display in the “Hamildemos”: changes for historical accuracy, altered diction, and cuts to narrow the scope of the musical. The “Hamildemo” version of “Say No to This” is an example of the first type. As someone who studies eighteenth-century literature and culture, I found myself positively giddy when I heard Miranda pronounce Maria Reynolds’s first name “Ma-ree-ah” rather than “Ma-rye-ah” (eighteenth-century trivia FTW!). Others noticed too though and took to Twitter to find out why Miranda had made the change. As it turns out, Ron Chernow, author of the now famous biography that inspired Miranda, had brought the historical inaccuracy to his attention, prompting the change. Similarly, in the move from the draft of “Your Obedient Servant” to the Broadway version we see Miranda edit “Alexander Hamilton” to “A dot Ham” in an effort to capture practices commonplace in letter writing of the period and lend the musical a stronger sense of historical accuracy. While Miranda had his own reasons for maintaining historical accuracy, identifying these changes allows us to reveal the composition process to students and push back against assumptions that the steps in the writing process are discrete. In contrast, the evolutions of “Say No to This” and “Your Obedient Servant” demonstrate that the process is, in fact, recursive.

Mariah Tweet

Almost any of the “Hamildemos” demonstrates the second type of revision we identified— revisions for language—but consider the opening of “Your Obedient Servant,” voiced by Aaron Burr, in its draft and final forms:

How does Hamilton
An arrogant, insolent
Immigrant, orphan
Bastard, whoreson                                                                  Draft
Somehow endorse
An aristocratic, Southern adversary
Impossibly connected,
And keep me from being elected?

How does Hamilton
An arrogant
Immigrant, orphan
Bastard, whoreson                                                                  Final
Somehow endorse
Thomas Jefferson, his enemy
A man he’s despised since the beginning
Just to keep me from winning?

Here we see that Miranda got rid of “insolent,” perhaps because it simply doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Hamilton; then, at the end, he opts to name Thomas Jefferson rather than list his characteristics (“An aristocratic, Southern adversary”) as he did in the early draft. Why does this matter you ask? Because these sorts of nano-revisions are generally invisible to readers (or, in this case, listeners). When we read a novel or poem it is all too easy to forget that the writer agonized over every word but with access to draft materials and an author to respond to our queries, the labor of revision is made visible. The significance of this visibility is twofold: first, it reminds us that all writers revise, and second, it gives us examples that demonstrate the power of a single word and the impact even the smallest changes can have on the meaning and effectiveness of our work. Many of these sorts of nano-revisions can be found between the “Hamildemos” the Broadway score, and identifying those moments and analyzing how they work and why they matter could make for an interesting and productive exercise for students.

Hamilton and the Power of Cutting Material

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the “Hamildemos” document the necessity of getting rid of material that has merit but for one reason or another doesn’t fit the purpose, scope, or argument of the text. Recently, Miranda revealed that he had cut a reference to his first Broadway musical In the Heights:

took one out ham

We can all identify with Miranda here—we have all had a reference or turn of phrase that we love but know deep down that it serves us more than it does our audience. Hitting “delete” in those cases is always difficult though it is necessary. Our students can identify with this too, and it is important that they see professional writers and artists (and us) going through the same process.

While it is difficult enough to part with a phrase or sentence in the revision process, in the evolution of the Hamilton score we see Miranda parting with entire songs that he has composed.

Take “Congratulations,” which was cut from the Broadway score. In it, Angelica Schuyler dresses down Alexander Hamilton for his affair with Maria Reynolds and his subsequent public admission of his infidelity in the Reynolds Pamphlet. In language that is notably less refined and sophisticated than that of songs from the Broadway production, she rails at Alexander,

You have invented a new kind of stupid
A ‘damage you can never undo’ kind of stupid
An ‘open all the cages at the zoo’ kind of stupid
‘Truly, you didn’t think this through?’ kind of stupid

The lyrics here capture Angelica’s frankness, her close relationship with Alexander, and her anger, but the imagery of wild animals running loose conjures up the children’s animated movie Madagascar more than it does the emotional pain Hamilton had caused his wife. This perhaps explains the change that was made in the Broadway score in which Angelica’s opening is cut so that the first voice we hear in response to the publication of the “Reynolds Pamphlet” is Eliza’s in the ballad “Burn.” Though only a hundred words or so were cut in eliminating “Congratulations” from the score, the revision radically changes the musical: it is significant that it is his wife, Eliza, rather than her sister Angelica who we hear after the revelation of Hamilton’s affair. Through an example like this, students can see how eliminating just a few words can radically change the meaning of a narrative or argument.

“Congratulations” even goes beyond demonstrating the necessity of getting rid of material though. I always tell students to never delete anything: instead, I tell them, move those bits into a separate file in case you change your mind or need them later. This appears to be exactly what Miranda has done with “Congratulations” and in its publication history, we see the rewards he reaps from keeping the material. Included in the score for the off-Broadway production, the song would later be performed by Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) at an August 2016 “Ham4Ham” performance outside of the Richard Rodgers Theater. Then, in December 2016, the song finally found a home as a remix performed by rapper/singer Dessa as a part of The Hamilton Mixtape. While “Congratulations” didn’t belong in the Broadway score, it found a home as a part of an entirely new text where it does work. Now, imagine if Lin-Manuel Miranda had burned his notes and deleted all of the demos?

The lesson is clear: sometimes good material just has to be cut or reimagined.  All writers do this, of course, but we rarely see the evolution of a text. Lin-Manuel Miranda has gone to great lengths to make the writing process visible though, and we can use that to help our students see themselves as writers working in the same process. While the focus on how educators can use Hamilton has focused on teaching history and identity, it also offers a great deal to writers. In tracing the evolution of the score through the “Hamildemos,” the Broadway score and its off-Broadway iteration, and The Hamilton Mixtape, beginning writers can see the recursive nature of the writing process—and what we stand to gain in embracing that process. Further, as someone who has always been remarkably open about the writing process and dedicated to making the process as visible to his audiences as the final product itself, Lin-Manuel Miranda emerges as an important model for writers. So, in addition to offering a lesson about revision and the writing process, Miranda and Hamilton also offer us a lesson about how to create a community of writers. Of course, this should come as no surprise as the musical is all about writing and narrative. After all, Alexander Hamilton “writes his way out” of poverty and obscurity, Eliza “erases herself from the narrative,” and the musical closes in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” by asking us to think of ourselves as the writers and our lives as the narratives that we write.

Contributor Bio:

Caitlin L. Kelly is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Department of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. At Case Western, she teaches courses in the SAGES program and serves as a tutor in the Writing Resource Center. Caitlin’s research interests include Transatlantic religious and print cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century, women’s experience, the novel, and digital and multimodal pedagogy. You can follow her on Twitter at @CaitlinLeeKelly.

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