Finals week always brings looming deadlines: projects and papers, revisions of a co-authored journal article, and grading final projects submitted by my undergraduate students. When I volunteered several months ago to write this blog post, I planned to write about some in-progress research on climate change communication. Like I’ve done so many times this year, I turned on the Broadway musical Hamilton to listen as I started writing.
A fellow T&T student introduced me to Hamilton when NPR made the album available in September 2015, and I’ve been listening to it “non-stop” ever since. As I finish my coursework and head into the next phase of the program, preparation for comprehensive exams, storytelling has been on my mind as the subject of one of my dedicated reading lists. It is also one of the musical’s reoccurring themes; the plot and lyrics raise questions about the multitude of minority voices that dominant historical narratives fail to record.
But Hamilton is not just about telling history. The musical combines the language and rhythms of rap and hip-hop with the country’s dominant vehicle of theatre, Broadway. Furthermore, by casting mostly actors of color, Hamilton calls attention to the white male hegemony dominating Broadway and historical narratives themselves.
Perhaps most importantly, the musical has sparked interaction with history among students, and has made efforts to be accessible to young people with discounted tickets and special student showings. Lin Manuel-Miranda, Hamilton’s writer, admits to taking liberties with some of the historical facts (such as the number of siblings his bride, Eliza Schuyler, had). However, by focusing on understanding perspectives and the experiences of characters, the show demonstrates the type of historicism we need to embrace if we are to amplify underheard voices.
Hamilton makes history emotional. It uses musical traditions of sampling and borrowing (for an example, see the Rap Genius annotations on “Satisfied.”) to rewrite textbook American history. Like the history of rap and hip-hop, national history becomes a conversation in which everyone has a story to tell.