I wrote my way to revolution
I was louder than the crack in the bell
I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell
I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well
And in the face of ignorance and resistance
I wrote financial systems into existence
And when my prayers to God were met with indifference
I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance”
“Hurricane” from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
The Founding Fathers of the United States and the Constitutional Congress are not necessarily historical items that one would think worthy of song - but those people haven’t yet heard of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical Hamilton. The current hit Broadway musical is the perfect artistic piece for teachers to use to tackle cross curricular learning in a high school classroom. It provides opportunities for students to make connections between historical time periods and the world they currently live in. The correlation between the musical context, Civil Rights, hip-hop history and poetic instruction is deep and worthy of student inquiry. The incredible word-smithing of the lyrical genius, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was first demonstrated in the musical In The Heights and also early in the pre-musical production when he performed the title piece “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House’s Poetry Night in 2009.
Mixing his lyrical aptitude with historical fact, based on Robert Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, Miranda’s musical is a delight for musicians, historians, lyricists, word-smiths and artists. Miranda’s work covers the rise of Hamilton from a poor orphan to his controversial status as the father of the American banking system and eventually his untimely death at the hands of long-time rival, Aaron Burr. But to educators - the ultimate reward of Miranda’s work may be a way to connect students to history using hip-hop, music, and word-play that both draws students into the story of Hamilton and can allow them to use the piece as a jumping point for research and inquiry surrounding the American Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, poetic lyricism, hip-hop history and musical structure.
As a teacher of literature, I was astounded by Miranda’s ability to play with language, his use of allusion, imagery and rhyme to convey what could have been a musical snooze and turn it into one of the most intriguing musicals on Broadway. The historian will appreciate Hamilton’s “supporting actors” as a place to spend time learning about the founding of our country. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, LaFayette, Mulligan, King George and other Revolutionary figures play a prominent role within the musical which also focuses on events including the Landing at Kips Bay, the Battle at Yorktown, the establishment of the Treasury, the Federalist Papers, the Election of 1800, and the famous duel between Burr and Hamilton. One of my favorite lyrics focuses on the French Revolution in “Cabinet Battle #2”. The lyrics convey both the tension between Jefferson and Hamilton and the real historical decision the U.S. had to make regarding the French Revolution:
You must be out of your mind if you think
The President is gonna bring the nation to the brink
Of meddling in the middle of a military mess
A game of chess, where France is Queen and Kingless
We signed a treaty with a King whose head is now in a basket
Would you like to take it out and ask it?”
It reminded me instantly of the rap battles in Eminem’s 8 Mile and the historical context immediately led me to Google to research the French Revolution and through the rabbit hole of the internet I found myself reading the Hamilton Papers at the Library of Congress website.
The Atlantic Records website for the soundtrack is also any teacher’s dream; in collaboration with Genius.com, they have used crowd sourcing (similar to Wikipedia) to identify the musical, lyrical, and historical allusions for each song, providing hours of additional information and incredible resources for any budding researchers.
Middle: http://www.vogue.com/13268121/hamilton-hip-hop-musical-broadway/ (ANNIE LEIBOVITZ - Photographs)
Bottom: HAMILTON – Public Theater/Newman Theater – 2015 PRESS ART – Carleigh Bettiol, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., and Anthony Ramos – Photo credit: Joan Marcus