Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your History? A Review of “Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America’s Past ”

7386e4d5eae820a187487f334ae41901Early this morning, two hundred and fourteen years ago, Alexander Hamilton was shot in an infamous duel with rival Aaron Burr. Hamilton died the next day, Burr’s days as a legitimate political candidate were over, and both soon faded into relative historical obscurity. Some centuries later, their tale fell into the hands of Broadway force Lin Manuel Miranda, who was fresh off the success of his first full length production, In the Heights. Hamilton’s life and death were about to make an epic comeback, styled to powerhouse ballads, rap battles, and New York city fanfare.

That is one version of what happened after the gunshots at Weehawken. It’s a simplified narrative of Alexander Hamilton the person as well as the wildly successful, inspiring, and frustrating zeitgeist musical with his name: musical theater inspired by Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography and more than two hundred years of the ebbing and flowing of Hamiltoniana. Other more nuanced, detailed, and challenging stories emerge in Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Reimagining America’s Past.[1] Featuring fifteen essays from a range of interdisciplinary academics, teachers, and public intellectuals, Historians on Hamilton is interested not only in the deeper stories of Hamilton and Hamilton: An American Musical but the role that history, historical memory, and heritage play in our current social, political, and economic climate. In other words, who tells our history, on what terms, and to what ends?

Echoing the theme of restaging, past and present, editors Renee C. Roman and Claire Bond Potter creatively structure the essays in three units: the script; the stage; and the audience. The collection examines the musical, its genesis, and early American content as it relates to history, theater, politics, and education. Within those categories, there are recurring themes: historical omission (primarily as it relates to the attention slavery does and doesn’t receive in the show, and how the treatment of slavery ties to the diversity of the cast), pedagogy (the #Ham4Ham lottery, for example, and efforts to fund school trips to see the show), media engagement (the companion materials, coverage, branding, and social media presence), how the show does and does not innovate (“Founders Chic” and the history of Broadway producing tactics and casting), and Hamilton’s present-day politics (not only how the show seems to function as a rare site of bipartisanship, but how it complicates discussions of immigration, race, gender, and class). Considerable attention is paid to a series of episodes deeply relevant to the mythos  cultivated and organically developing around the show, such as Miranda’s relationship with Chernow, the ten dollar bill debate, the cast’s activism, and Vice President Mike Pence’s attendance. Because many of the essays look at these instances closely, it can at times become slightly repetitious – which is my sole critique of the volume – and yet does not diminish from the originality and unique perspective of each of the essays, which are of course going on a relatively short span of events since the musical began its development. That, and no essay on the satirical treasure, Spamilton?!IMG_1230

Because of this timeliness of the collection and the ongoing nature of its story (the national and international tours are just getting started), there are many striking elements of Historians on Hamilton. Each essay is deserving of its own analysis, but in the interest of some brevity, I will limit myself to two features. As a teaching tool and in its use of interdisciplinary, contemporary engagement, Historians on Hamilton provides a great resource for those who are sorting out all that they loved and enjoyed about Hamilton and its story with concerns they have about Hamilton and its (early Republic) history. It’s also an absorbing read for fans of the musical that want to learn more. As Renee Romano notes in “Hamilton: A New American Civic Myth,” “Hamilton has brought Americans together across party lines, and even more remarkably, with a story about America’s history, a subject that in recent years has inspired heated conflict over museum exhibits, textbooks, and school curricula.”[2] As civic engagement with the people’s state seems increasingly in jeopardy, Hamilton’s possibilities and struggles echo those racking the American republic as a whole.

Historians on Hamilton is an exceptional teaching tool in two primary ways. It is an accessible, sharp tool in its own right, meaning that you can assign a single, variety, or all essays in countless courses from high school through graduate school. Lyra D. Monteiro’s “Race Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Hamilton” provides a keen reminder that America, then and now, is not a white-only enterprise while David Waldstreicher and Jeffrey L. Pasley’s “Hamilton as Founders Chic: A Neo-Federalist, Anti-slavery Useable Past” is a clear introduction to historical methods. Waldstreicher and Pasley, along with William Hogeland, give an intriguing backstory to the Hamilton reputational resurgence amongst political conservatives in the past few decades. Michael O’Malley brings this story further back, and gives us a close look at Hamilton’s reputation in the banking world in the nineteenth century as well.

Historians on Hamilton is also a teaching tool in its analysis of the musical as an educational site. There are promises and pitfalls, as Joanne B. Freeman observes, describing the musical as a “starting point.”[3] Hamilton soars is in its ability to induce wonder, for students to come away knowing that there is power in history. But, and this echoes the two dominant critiques in Historians on Hamilton – the flaws in the historical narrative and the mixed political messages of the present day – this wonder does not need to be dampened, but requires serious context. To the first critique, Patricia Herrera puts it stunningly when she writes, “dream the American Dream and then take that dream one step further and push it into reality.”[4] Using Hamilton as an entry into critical period scholarship is a strategy that several essays endorse. In “The Greatest City in the World?: Slavery in New York in the Age of Hamilton,” Leslie M. Harris gives the example of Pinkster or Governor’s Day as recentering black activism, and Catherine Allgor shrewdly advises the reader in “‘Remember… I’m Your Man’: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton” to consider the role of coverture. To the second critique, the generous support from organizations like the Gilder Lehrman Institute, among others, to fund student trips to the show alongside the #Ham4Ham lottery are significant attempts to mediate the price of access. Jim Cullen’s essay, “Mind the Gap: Teaching Hamilton” and appendix syllabus are instructive on how to try to navigate these waters. As educators know, gaining entrance to learning spaces – college, the theater, archives – can be expensive. The ability to assign one or several of these essays alongside songs, clips, or performances (for the small portion of students able to see the show live) presents an valuable pedagogical balance.

Hamilton the musical is multidisciplinary to its core. So is Historians on Hamilton. While higher education often speaks to drawing on multiple schools of thought and research perspectives, or better yet, integrating them to be fully interdisciplinary, the actual practice is a lot rarer than one would think. Not so here. As this is a particular hobby horse of mine, I will stand on a rickety-written-soap box for just a moment to reiterate how impressive the collection is in sincerely putting these principles into action. This is not a collection solely for historians, but scholars, teachers, and interested readers of the theater, of music, of language, of New York, of dance, of creative expression. Better than that, it is not just a collection for academics, isolated within our field and our profession, but throws the conversation open to those who want to engage with the many, many questions this subjects raise, recognizing the multiple mediums in which we can discuss: who is an immigrant, who is an elite, what is revolution and what is evolution? Elizabeth L. Wollman’s “From The Black Crook to Hamilton: A Brief History of Hot Tickets on Broadway” on this point is simply fantastic. Her discussion of the theatrical legacies in performance style, marketing, and casting on Broadway since the late nineteenth century is a apt cue that writers can learn from their audience as much as the other way around. I was deeply struck by this premise in Brian Eugenio Herrera’s essay as well. “Looking at Hamilton From Inside the Broadway Bubble” discusses Hamilton as a Latinx play, one that deploys more than one language or code switching as a powerful mode of communication.

The interdisciplinary success of the collection leaves me thinking on a challenging question. Is it possible that part of why multidisciplinary collaboration works so effectively here is because of the contemporary resonance? In light of this, my concluding thought on Historians on Hamilton (for this review, at least, as my hunch is that I’ll be thinking about the collection for quite some time) is on the personal nature of genre and how we write connects us to the present, personal experiences. To echo Andrew M. Shocket’s definition, genre can be understood as “sets of structured conversation that reflect the time and culture of the people who make, read, or watch a story” that “emerges from a flexible, ongoing conversation.”[5] I study Hamilton fairly extensively, and my interpretations of Federalist political economy and media are different from some of those discussed in the collection, but I think that is beside the point. I am also – and this is why I am a fan of the show – an avid reader of historical fiction, as several of my posts on the Junto and elsewhere speak to.

When I consider Hamilton, it is through the lens of that genre. This conceptualization is clearly articulated in Joseph M. Adelman’s reflective essay, perfectly titled “Who Tells Your Story? Hamilton As People’s History.” Miranda and his colleagues do indeed present the musical as a work of history, as several contributors note. Miranda was both artist and dramaturge. Dramaturgy itself is an interdisciplinary profession, combining history, theater, and material culture in clear, ongoing ways. Miranda went to great lengths to absorb the history of the period, from his work with Chernow to his engagement with scholars like Freeman, drawing on primary sources, and visiting heritage sites. The effort is remarkable, and can – up to a point – explain the decision to present his work in decidedly historical vein.

And yet, like other powerful artists such as J.K. Rowling, Miranda is able to exert a degree of control over the perception and discussion of his creative labor. Rowling’s launch of Pottermore and periodic additions of new details to the Potter cannon is a surprising example: her fan base takes these additions as canonical, rather than as an invasion into personal interpretations. In a similar vein, Miranda has expertly regulated his pop culture presence, especially on twitter (which Claire Potter captures in “‘Safe in the Nation We’ve Made’: Staging Hamilton on Social Media”) and often with political activism and compassionate exchange. Artists have long sought to oversee their art once it’s become available for public consumption, and how that process works is a central thread of literary theory. It is up to the audience, reader, viewer, consumer whether or not to agree. The difference here of course is that Rowling writes fiction and Miranda is working in a hybrid genre, infused with his very personal relationship with music, his immigrant heritage, and the contemporary political circumstances. Because Miranda sees his art as history, and not historical fiction, does not mean it needs to be viewed, listened, or taught that way.

In light of this, Historians on Hamilton emerges as a template for thoughtful, deliberate dialogue. In the deft hands of Potter and Romano, the volume manages to be critical and incisive while still, from my impression, maintain a similar spirit to the musical itself. Both provide examples of how to talk across and not at disciplinary, professional, and creative categories. A cultural force as powerful as Hamilton gives historians in many hats a unique opportunity to demonstrate what our work can do. In this moment where factual information, expertise, and the arts are facing heavy derision, the opening question of who tells our history, on what terms, and to what ends is that much more meaningful. History is not, and should not, the sole interest of historians, but artists, musicians, performers, politicians, activists, and engaged, interested participants in the American and global communities. Historians on Hamilton is an intuitive reminder that historians can, and must, participate on that wider stage.

[1] Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Reimagining America’s Past, ed. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2018). Thank you to Courtney Brach at Rutgers Press for arranging for my review copy.

[2] Romano, “Hamilton: A New American Civic Myth,” in Historians on Hamilton, 299.

[3] Joanne B. Freeman, “Can We Get Back to Politics? Please: Hamilton’s Missing Politics in Hamilton,” in Historians on Hamilton, 54.

[4] Patricia Herrera, “Reckoning with America’s Racial Past, Present, and Future in Hamilton,” in Historians on Hamilton, 274.

[5] Andrew M. Shocket, “Hamilton and the American Revolution on Stage and Screen,” in Historians on Hamilton, 172.

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