Our whole family went—meaning also my spouse, son (age 10), and daughter (age 6). We had been listening to the soundtrack, together, for well over a year. My spouse started listening earlier than that. But it was just last summer, during a family vacation which involved a lot of driving, that I finally listened, closely, to the lyrics. There’s nothing like long stretches of boring highway and confinement to a car to focus one’s attention. From then on I was hooked. My spouse suggested, after the trip, that we might make a trip to the musical as a family Christmas present to ourselves. The tickets were quite expensive ($180 each, before fees and taxes), but we felt it was worth the sacrifice.
If you’ve listened to the soundtrack or seen the musical, you might question why we allowed our kids to go. We thought about that too, and had a few reservations–especially for our six-year-old. If it were a movie, I think the show would garner a PG-13 rating. We decided to bring her because she loves the music. She also would’ve been crushed if her brother went and she didn’t. Also, she’s attracted to dance and shows. We knew the spectacle would amaze her. And we weren’t wrong. She was literally on the edge of her seat for the entire two hours. She’s an intense young person (described by one of her teachers as someone with a volcano’s worth of energy), but the show captured all her focus. I’m so glad we brought her.
What motivated me, as a historian, to see the show? First, despite having taught pre-Civil War American history (the survey), and in spite of having read several books about the American Revolution and the Early Republic, nothing about Hamilton had ever really hooked me. Yes, I was aware of his contribution to the Federalist Papers. Yes, I knew he had promoted a National Bank–and a system of internal improvements. And of course, like every one of my survey students, I knew that he had died in a duel with Aaron Burr. But nothing had motivated me to want to learn more about his biography and deeper significance. Nothing, that is, until I listened to the musical lyrics—over and over, courtesy of my kids—on road to Connecticut last summer. Indeed, if it weren’t for my daughter’s (and son’s, to a lesser extent) incessant requests on our Great American Road Trip, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to see Hamilton.
And that music. It’s so creative, contemporary, and fantastic. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s artistic rendition of Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, inspired me–a historian by training and, more importantly, by intellectual habit—to want to learn more about a historical character I should’ve wanted know on his merits. Lin Manuel-Miranda’s bit of public history inspired me to pick up Chernow’s doorstop of a biography. A show made for Broadway inspired me to do my duty by way of our “ten-dollar Founding Father.” (Side note: I still think Harriet Tubman should at least share credits on that iteration of our legal tender—half should be printed with Hamilton, and the other half with Tubman.)
I’m only on page 150 or so of Chernow’s doorstop. I like big books, however, so I predict I’ll finish it. I might even read Renee C. Romano’s and Claire B. Potter’s volume, Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past (Rutgers University Press, out May 9, 2018). I’m now curious to know how Lin Manuel-Miranda’s production has shaped the interests and thinking of other professional historians. I want to know how the show has changed how they see Alexander Hamilton. Am I the only historian thinking differently about his person, his cast of associates, his relationship with Washington, and the effects of his actions and ideas?
Perhaps I’m the last historian in America to have seen the show. But if not, and if by chance you haven’t seen it, start saving your nickels and dimes. When it appears at a theater near you, just do it. Afterwards you might find yourself trolling used bookstores for your own Chernow doorstop. And maybe you’ll even read it. – TL