“Hamilton” as Superb Edutainment

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Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company of Hamilton at The Public Theater Photo by Joan Marcus

Does art, no matter how powerful, change things? Did, for instance, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica have any effect on attitudes towards the Spanish Civil War or World War II? Answers vary, I assume.

Nonetheless, I’d like to think art can alter affairs substantially. As illustration, I offer an example of an art work that perhaps has the potential to make a significant change: The Public Theater’s magnificent musical Hamilton, written entirely by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler and adapted from Ron Chernow’s much-praised 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company of Hamilton at The Public Theater Photo by Joan Marcus
Lin-Manuel Miranda and the company of
Hamilton at The Public Theater
Photo by Joan Marcus

Since the production opened recently, encomia by the carload has been heaped on it. I’ll only add my kudos by suggesting Hamilton is the most important musical to issue from the Public since A Chorus Line opened 40 years ago.

Just know that Miranda—whose predominantly hip-hop tuner In the Heights established him as Broadway’s leading rap crossover figure—has taken his specialty to the next step. He’s adapted it to reporting history through rap.

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He’s done it not by pandering to audiences partial to that form of musical expression. Quite the opposite. He’s lifted it into a new realm. Think of it this way: In a note Chernow puts at the outset of his volume, he writes, “I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes.”

In his turn, Miranda has taken the liberty of modernizing it even further and directly into the twenty-first century. Though I have no way of knowing, I suspect that when he was reading Chernow’s book and picked up on complicated statesman Hamilton’s compulsively fast talk, he made the connection between it and today’s rappers.

And thus a musical was engendered that now has this Hamilton—in period dress, as is the entire cast—insisting:

I AM NOT THROWING AWAY MY SHOT
I AM NOT THROWING AWAY MY SHOT
HEY YO, I’M JUST LIKE MY COUNTRY
I’M YOUNG, SCRAPPY AND HUNGRY
I’M NOT THROWING AWAY MY SHOT
I’M A GET A SCHOLARSHIP TO KING’S COLLEGE
I PROBLY SHOULDN’T BRAG, BUT DAG, I AMAZE AND
ASTONISH
THE PROBLEM IS I GOT A LOT OF BRAINS BUT NO
POLISH
I GOTTA HOLLER JUST TO BE HEARD
AND WITH EVERY WORD I DROP KNOWLEDGE!
I’M A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH, A SHINY PIECE OF
COAL
TRYIN’ TO REACH MY GOAL. MY POWER OF SPEECH IS
UNIMPEACHABLE.

Notice that the last comment about unimpeachable speech plays right into the force of the best hip-hop culture—in hip-hop’s attitude towards the power of rapid, rhymed, discursive speech. Also keep in mind that throughout Hamilton, the title character is the one hewing to rap, not others who often sing in different modes. Along with Miranda’s other achievement in the two-act work, he makes a subtle case for rap being Hamilton’s mode of expression were he alive now.

In order to get to my case for art affecting life rather than only the other way around, I’ll skip lengthy raptures about director Kail’s and choreographer Blankenbuehler’s contributions being so uniformly stylish that it’s impossible to tell where one stops and the other picks up.

I won’t dwell too long on the large cast’s superlative, committed performance, led by Miranda (who also worked on the spanking-bright arrangements with Alex Lacamoire), Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry as Schuyler sisters Eliza and Angelica, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison and the scene-stealing Brian d’Arcy James as George III. Nor will I linger over the designers David Korins, Paul Tazewell, Howell Binkley, Kevin Steinberg and Charles LaPointe.

What strikes me as crucial about Hamilton is how it might be employed as an educational tool. During the intermission, director Kail told me that patrons have stopped him to say they wish they’d been taught history in this manner.

They’ve got something there. Not only are arts programs regularly dissed in education budgets, but history is also trivialized. Students today appear to have extremely little interest in the past. It sometimes seems as if anything that happened up to the hour before today’s young people were born couldn’t have less appeal for them.

Now comes Hamilton, which looks as if it has the weight to enthrall kids—not simply because it talks to them in their language (not all grade school, high school and college students are devoted to hip-hop), but also because it’s rousing entertainment that imparts fascinating information.

(And not, by the way, through homogenized versions of American and European history. Along with Hamilton’s accomplishments, particularly with banking, Miranda—in keeping to Chernow’s lucid narrative—reports on the man’s all but ruinous sexual entanglement with the eventual blackmailing couple Maria and James Reynolds.)

While I watched Hamilton in an advanced state of awe and appreciation, I imagined school groups enjoying it as well, young people not only being versed (pun intended) about a period of American history but being excited enough by it to want to know more, to want to study it closely. It occurred to me that Hamilton is more than a good night out. It offers an opportunity to help change the widespread perception of history as dull and plodding.

Whether this will actually happen is a gnawing question. Advance word about Hamilton was so enthusiastic–cf. a New Yorker profile of Miranda that seemed like an early rave—that the Public Theater run was extended even before the premiere and then extended again until May 3, which seems to preclude an earlier Broadway move that theater wags are claiming could happen.

So the announced complete sell-out (I tested it by trying to pick up two seats for a friend and couldn’t) precludes any kind of school-group outreach downtown, unless it’s already underway but as yet unannounced. If not, the obstacles presented by added, perhaps underwritten, performances, would be many, not the least of them standard Actors Equity requirements. An inevitable uptown transfer, whether before this Tony season ends April 23 or the next one begins, could also be prohibitive as a result of going-rate ticket prices for a smash hit, which Hamilton looks about to become.

Whatever happens, here’s hoping it will involve educators seeing the value of Hamilton as a teaching supplement and of an ensuing cooperative effort with the Public Theater (paging Oskar Eustis) and private investments. Corporations—those enthusiastic, altruistic persons—like to make a show of supporting the arts. Here’s something that really deserves examination. Attention must be paid—and paid.