Out of the Zoo: “The Age of Hamilton”

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English major Rachel Hungerford, theater major Brooklyn Duttweiler, and history major Chloe Kauffman strike a signature Schuyler sisters pose before “Age of Hamilton” on Monday.

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about her “Age of Hamilton” class at Messiah College. 🙂  –JF

I remember the first time I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack in the fall of 2015. It was my sophomore year, and I was deep in the throes of my musical theater phase. During this unique period of my life I exclusively listened to show tunes, spent all my money on seeing musicals, and obsessed over all things Broadway. Into this era of my life entered Hamilton.

If I remember correctly, I first discovered Hamilton on Instagram when a promotional video for the show popped up on my explore page. After watching Lin Manuel Miranda and his cast of diverse founding fathers hip-hop dance across my phone screen I turned to my mom and told her excitedly, “I think there’s a new musical about Alexander Hamilton!”

I spent the entirety of the next day listening to the soundtrack non-stop. Soon enough I knew all the words by heart, and couldn’t resist bursting into song whenever someone mentioned the show or said anything that remotely reminded me of it. A year later, I even got the chance to see the musical in Chicago, the day after Donald Trump claimed the presidency (my sister wrote a reflection on our experience here). With the passage of time, though, the Hamilton lyrics I memorized gradually faded back into the recesses of my mind–that is, until I registered for Professor Fea’s “Age of Hamilton” course.

As I entered Frey 241 last Wednesday, I soon realized that “Age of Hamilton” might be the most diverse upper level history course I’ll ever take at Messiah. Usually, non-history majors and minors steer clear of challenging history classes, but this course proves an exception. While a little over half half of those I observed in class on the first day were history majors, seats were filled by students from across the academic spectrum–some were theater majors, others study English or Biblical and Religious Studies, still another is pursuing a future in athletic training. Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, now everyone loves Alexander Hamilton–not just the history majors. I anticipate that our class discussions will be deeply enriched by the variety of perspectives students bring to the table.

The second day of class we discussed Hamilton as a form of “people’s history.” As a preview to his lecture Professor Fea showed us a YouTube clip from the 2009 White House poetry jam, during which Lin Manuel-Miranda performed an early version of Hamilton‘s opening number. My friend Rachel and I smiled sheepishly at each other when we heard Miranda’s unique voice ring through the speakers. Immediately several students began to mouth the lyrics to each other, and soon enough the entire classroom burst into song.

It still baffles me that students from across disciplines will gather every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to learn about the United States’ first secretary of the treasury. Who knew that, because of a musical of all things, so many people would be able to rap about Hamilton’s immigration from the West Indies to New York. Soon enough though, our class will be able to do so much more than spout off song lyrics about Alexander Hamilton. Instead, we will gain a deep and thorough understanding of who he really was. While we will certainly continue to discuss the Hamil-mania that has swept the nation, we won’t be satisfied by a staged portrayal of his existence. Rather, we will read Hamilton’s words, discuss them, and wrestle with the complexities that defined his life. This class will surely broaden all of our horizons.

“Hamilton: The Exhibition” Comes to an End in Chicago

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“Northerly Island, though, proved farther than the Hamilfans were willing to go.”

I guess the popularity of Alexander Hamilton and the musical named after him only goes so far.

Here is a taste of Chris Vire’s piece at Chicago Magazine:

Jeffrey Seller, the producer behind both the 35,000-square-foot attraction and the massively successful musical from which it spun off, said the exhibition would close August 25, two weeks before the initial end date of September 8. Tickets already sold for the final two weeks are being refunded. And plans to tour the exhibit to other cities have been scrapped, Seller told the Chicago Tribune.

In announcing the early close, producers cited traffic-snarling events that would “complicate access” to the exhibition, which is housed in a giant shed plopped in the middle of Northerly Island. Among those events: the North Coast Music Festival at Huntington Bank Pavilion on August 30 and 31 and a Bears preseason game at Soldier Field on August 29.

Neither of those events is exactly a surprise. North Coast’s move to Northerly Island from Union Park was announced in April, weeks before the Hamilton exhibition opened. And the Bears’ Thursday night matchup with the Titans isn’t even their first home game of the season; that would be next week, when they host the Panthers on August 8.

Read the entire piece here.

Alexander Hamilton Chats With John Adams

Actually, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man who played Hamilton on Broadway, had a chat with William Daniels, the man who played John Adams in the 1969 musical 1776 (and the 1972 film). I assume that if you are reading this blog you know something about Miranda.  But you may also recognize Daniels for his role as Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere and Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World.

Here is a taste of a Playbill-hosted conversation between the two founding fathers:

Before we get too deeply into ticketing, I want to talk a bit about 1776. Today we think of it as being in the pantheon of great musicals, but in the 1960s, the show was so unconventional that Sherman Edwards had a hard time getting it produced. “Some of the biggest [names] in the theatre,” he recalled, “looked at me and said, ‘What, a costume musical? A costume, historical musical?’” Mr. Daniels, do you remember your initial reaction to the idea?

WD: I read the script with a bunch of people at somebody’s apartment. Sherman Edwards was a former schoolteacher from New Jersey, and he had written not just the songs, but the script. It was a little stiff; I remember thinking, We’re in the middle of Vietnam, for Christ’s sake, and they’re waving the flag?I really had to be talked into doing it. At any rate, when the script came back to me, Peter Stone had taken ahold of it, and he’d gone back to the actual conversations in the Second Continental Congress. He had written them out on little cards and injected them into the script, and it made all the difference in the world. It added humor and conciseness and truth.

LMM: I love that anecdote, because it gets at something that I discovered in writing Hamilton: The truth is invariably more interesting than anything a writer could make up. That Peter Stone went back to the texts written by these guys, who were petty, brilliant, compromised—that’s more interesting than any marble saints or plaster heroes you can create. And the picture you all painted together of John Adams was so powerful; in the opening scene, he calls himself “obnoxious and disliked,” which is a real quote. We don’t have a John Adams in our show, but we can just refer to him, and everyone just pictures you, Mr. Daniels.

WD: Really?

LMM: Yeah. 1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books—if not the best—ever written for musical theatre, in that you long to see them talk to each other. Which almost never happens in a musical. Most musicals, you’re waiting for the next song to start. That book is so smart, and so engaging.

Read the rest here.

Ron Chernow Kills It at the White House Correspondents Dinner

As many of you know, the White House Correspondents Association chose historian Ronald Chernow to be the keynote speaker at this year’s annual dinner, a responsibility that normally falls to a comedian.

Whatever you think about Chernow or his work, the celebrity historian who wrote the book that inspired the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton” was excellent.

Watch:

Who says historians can’t be funny?

I lived tweeted the talk.  Here are some of my tweets:

Saving the Humanities

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Humanities related subjects–history, English, art history, philosophy–seems to be in decline in the academy.  But these humanities subjects also seem to be thriving outside the academy.   Broadway shows, television, Netflix, movies, museums, music, and podcasts all turn to the humanities for content.

Over at the New York Review of Books, Michael Massing argues that the humanities will survive as long as they adapt to our “brave new world.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

Overall, arts and culture contribute more than $760 billion a year to the US economy—4.2 percent of GDP. Compared to the tech industry, that may seem modest—Apple’s revenue alone totaled $265 billion last year, and its market capitalization is about $900 billion—but arts and culture employ nearly 5 million people in communities across the country. Moreover, the value of the liberal arts to society extends far beyond the numbers. They incubate ideas, provide ethical standards, and raise questions about the status quo—functions that are becoming ever more important as the tech world, ridden by scandal and crisis, faces a moment of reckoning.

A good place to begin in chronicling the material benefits of the humanities is the musical Hamilton. It began as a 900-page biography by Ron Chernow (who studied English at both Yale and Cambridge). At an airport while on vacation, Lin-Manuel Miranda (who studied theater at Wesleyan) bought a copy. Several chapters in, he got the idea for a stage adaptation. After a two-and-a-half-month sold-out run at the Public, the show moved to the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and its vision of America as a nation of hard-working, striving immigrants has been playing to packed houses ever since. Ten months in, The New York Times offered a breakdown of its finances headlined “‘Hamilton’ Inc.: The Path to the Billion-dollar Broadway Show.” The Hamilton album had by then sold 428,000 copies, and a companion book sold more than 100,000 copies in less than two months. In 2017, the show began a national tour that took it to more than a dozen cities, creating jobs for thousands of actors, dancers, choreographers, costume providers, set designers, stage managers, lighting and sound engineers, and agents. Chernow’s book, meanwhile, has sold more than a million copies—a bonanza for his publisher, Penguin.

Thanks in part to Hamilton, the 2018 season was Broadway’s best ever, with more than $1.8 billion in revenue and 14.37 million attendees. Other fixtures include The Lion King, now in its twenty-second year, which was created by Julie Taymor (who studied mythology and folklore at Oberlin); Wicked, now in its sixteenth year, which is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire (who studied literature at the State University of New York and Tufts); and Frozen, which is based on the 2013 Disney film whose screenplay was written by Jennifer Lee (who studied English at the University of New Hampshire and got an MFA from Columbia). No algorithms were used in the making of these shows.

Read the entire piece here.  (Thanks to Scot McKnight for passing this piece along).

“Hamilton” Finds Its Way into My U.S. Survey Course

As I posted earlier this week, I am teaching a course on the “Age of Hamilton” in the Fall.  We will be discussing the history behind the Broadway musical “Hamilton” and I will be making extensive use of the soundtrack.

As I prepare the course, I have tried-out a few Hamilton songs in my United States Survey to 1865 course this semester (Spring 2019).  For example, I used the song “You’ll Be Back” to introduce my students to the deeply embedded royal culture in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution:

We are now covering the 1790s in the course.  On Wednesday I used the soundtrack to help my students make sense of Hamilton’s debt assumption plan and the Jefferson/Madison opposition to it.  These two songs were very helpful:

I will probably use one more Hamilton song next week when I lecture about U.S. foreign policy in the late 1780s and 1790s:

Not all the “Hamilton” songs work well in a U.S. Survey course (largely because many of them are historically inaccurate), but I have found that several songs bring to life the debates between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans and help my students make sense of this material.

I Think I Have Hamilaria

On Friday, in a discussion of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography in my U.S. Survey course, I told my students that Philadelphia, not New York, was really the place where “you can be a new man.”

Yesterday, in a lecture on the end of the French and Indian War, I told the same class that the Anglicization approach to early British America serves as a counter to the “when are these colonies gonna RISE UP” view of American history that they learned in school.

Last week in my Pennsylvania History class, while talking about the Philadelphia’s role as the United States capitol between 1790 and 1800,  I could not help but mention that the capital would eventually move to Washington D.C. because Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton struck a secret deal in the “room where it happened.”

In a recent lecture in Greenville, South Carolina, I was talking about how Anglican clergy who were Loyalists used Romans 13 to oppose the American Revolution.  I quoted Samuel Seabury and actually said “For Shame, For Shame!

Yes, I think I have a bad case of Hamilaria:

I am afraid this is only going to get worse once my survey class moves into the age of the American Revolution.  I need to call the Weehawken Institute.

Trinity Church’s $6 Billion Portfolio

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Trinity Church in New York City was formed in 1697 by a small group of Anglicans. Alexander Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler, three of the stars of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” are all buried in New York City’s Trinity Church.  Alexander and Eliza baptized five of their children at Trinity.  John Jay was also a parishioner.

Today, Trinity Church is very wealthy.  Over at The New York Times, Jane Margolies writes about the church’s real estate investments in the city and its own construction of a $350 million glass tower.  Here is a taste:

While many places of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their congregations and buildings, Trinity is a big-time developer itself.

The church has always been land-rich. And it has long had its own real estate arm, which controls ground leases and office space rentals in the buildings it owns. But now it finds itself with a newly diversified portfolio worth $6 billion, according to the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer.

After being instrumental in changing the zoning laws in Hudson Square, a neighborhood between West Houston and Canal Streets, Trinity Real Estate has entered into a joint venture that gives it a majority stake in 12 buildings that contain six million square feet of commercial space. A lucrative deal with the Walt Disney Company, valued at $650 million, was signed just last year.

And as it builds its glass tower — which will house administrative offices, public gathering spaces and, yes, commercial tenants — Trinity is also renovating the interior of its historic church, which is expected to cost $110 million.

Trinity has been able to do all this because it’s been a savvy manager of its resources. It is also, as a church, exempt from taxes.

But some wonder about the ethics of a religious institution being such a power player in the world of New York real estate.

Read the entire piece here.

I Knew It! The British are Behind the Mueller Probe!

If Christian Right radio and television host Rick Wiles is correct, this song from the Broadway musical Hamilton explains everything:

That’s right. The British let the colonies go and they are still angry about it.  They are SO angry that they are secretly working to undermine Donald Trump.  (HT: Kyle Mantyla).

By the way, the 1960s “British invasion” is also part of this.

Here’s Wiles:

Do I Feel a Revival of the Virtual Office Hours Coming On?

Maybe it is time to revisit our old You Tube series the Virtual Office Hours.  After watching Seth Rudetsky’s deconstruction of “The Schuyler Sisters” I thought we might be able to revive this series to correspond with my “Age of Hamilton” class in the Fall.  (Of course our videos would be mostly historical rather than musical–I don’t have Rudetsky’s skill).

I should also add that my Pez dispenser collection has grown.

Here are our most watched episodes:

“Age of Hamilton” Course

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My department chair has assigned me an upper-level “topics” course for the Fall 2019 semester.  I am seriously considering taking advantage of the popularity of the Lin Manuel-Miranda musical by offering a class titled “The Age of Hamilton.”

If you have taught a similar class that draws upon the musical or the soundtrack, I would love to hear from you!

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Exhibit Will Open in Chicago

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It is scheduled for November.  Here is a taste from Chris Jones’s reporting in the Chicago Tribune:

“Hamilton,” the phenomenally successful musical written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, brought so much posthumous celebrity to Alexander Hamilton that America’s first secretary of the treasury kept his fragile spot on the front of the 10-dollar bill. But Miranda and his producer, Jeffrey Seller, are not yet done giving their man his shot after shot after shot.

Bowing this fall on Chicago’s Northerly Island: “Hamilton: The Exhibition,” an interactive, immersive, one-of-a-kind, only-in-Chicago attraction designed to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of America.

“People want to learn more,” said Miranda in an interview Sunday at Tribune Tower. “It seems that two hours and 45 minutes of a musical were just not enough for them. I know from my Twitter account.”

Read the rest here.

OAH Dispatch: Historians on “Hamilton”

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The editors of Historians on Hamilton sign books! (From Rutgers University Press Twitter feed)

We are happy to have Julianne Johnson writing for us this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Sacramento.  Julianne is a Ph.D student at Claremont Graduate University and Assistant Professor of History at College of the Canyons in San Clarita, California.  Enjoy!  –JF

Friday morning’s 8am session Historians on Hamilton at the OAH conference was uncharacteristically full.  Scholars Patricia Herrera of the University of Richmond, Claire Bond Potter of The New School and Renee Romano of Oberlin College led a panel discussion surrounding their contributions to a new book from Rutgers University Press titled Historians on Hamilton; How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s PastRomano and Potter are both editors of, and contributors to, the book.  The panel discussion approached the phenomenon of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton The Musical by interrogating how the show has been received, how the show is revolutionary, and what historians can learn from the show about how to communicate the past to popular audiences.

All three panelists challenged the audience to consider how Hamilton The Musical does history.  Renee Romano, Professor of History, Comparative American Studies, and Africana Studies at Oberlin, considered Hamilton in the context of historical memory and what she describes as a “new civic myth.”  Romano questioned whether Hamilton The Musical is expanding the circle of “we” for Americans by offering young people of color a sense of belonging and challenging white audiences to accept minorities in the roles of our founding generation.

Patricia Herrera, Professor of Theater at the University of Richmond, told a heartwarming story of her experience listening to Hamilton The Musical with her children while taking a road trip throughout our nation’s national parks.  Her young daughter’s desire to be Angelica Schuyler for Halloween pushed Herrera to interrogate how Hamilton The Musical conflates the historical figure of Angelica the slave owner with the beautiful African American actress playing her on stage.   For Herrera, the national parks and the musical perform a similar function.  The parks represent beautiful democratic vistas and leisure for white Americans on the backs of a tragic narrative for Native Americans.

Finally, Claire Bond Potter, Professor of History at the New School, discussed her interest in Hamilton The Musical and Miranda from a social media perspective.  Her chapter in the book, “Safe in the Nation We’ve Made,” looks at how the musical reaches a large audience on social media, allowing for a more authentic connection and turning fans into cultural investors.

Palpable throughout the panel discussion was the historians’ respect for Miranda’s work and a hope that other historians will use the musical as an entry into teaching and talking about history. At the end of the session, the line in the exhibit hall to purchase the book had the Rutgers staff sweating.  I secured my copy and am happily reading it now.