'Hamilton,' the Biggest Thing on Broadway, Is Being Taught in Classrooms All over; the Hottest Show of the Year Is Changing How Teachers Approach American History

By Schonfeld, Zach | Newsweek, February 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Hamilton,' the Biggest Thing on Broadway, Is Being Taught in Classrooms All over; the Hottest Show of the Year Is Changing How Teachers Approach American History


Schonfeld, Zach, Newsweek


Byline: Zach Schonfeld

Hamilton is the Broadway success story of the year, maybe the decade. And it's about to become the hottest item on your 11th grader's U.S. history syllabus. In classrooms from New York City, where the show packs the Richard Rodgers Theatre nightly, to the West Coast, Hamilton is making educators rethink how they teach early U.S. political history--and making students rethink how much they care.

"I first heard about it the way most of us did--from rapturous reviews," says Jim Cullen. A high school teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx, where he chairs the history department, Cullen's interests range from U.S. political history to popular music. (He's probably the only New York City schoolteacher who's published a book on Bruce Springsteen.) So when a group of Fieldston middle schoolers and faculty scored a block of tickets to Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical about Alexander Hamilton, Cullen tagged along.

He was startled by how much he loved the show. That was in the spring, before Hamilton debuted on Broadway. Then, in his advisory class in the fall, Cullen noticed his students had caught the bug. They blasted the Hamilton cast recording from their phones and devices. "They were singing these songs the way they might sing the latest release from Drake or Adele," Cullen says. After noticing the Hamilton soundtrack made a dent in the Billboard 200 sales chart, he realized, "This has got tremendous cultural currency."

So Cullen did the inevitable: He designed an entire course centered on Hamilton (the figure) and Hamilton (the show). He'll be teaching Hamilton: A Musical Inquiry in the fall. Students will be asked to sift through primary sources like George Washington's farewell address and show tunes like "One Last Time" and "Washington on Your Side"; one essay assignment is to pick a song from the cast recording and analyze it. And Cullen isn't the only teacher mining Hamilton fever to get 16-year-olds enthused about the profoundly unsexy details of Revolutionary-era nation-building.

For theatergoers, Hamilton has been a revelation. The show has drawn universal acclaim--a New York Times reviewer stopped just short of urging readers to "mortgage their houses and lease their children" for the chance to see it--and tickets routinely go for $400 or more on StubHub and eBay. (No wonder, since it's sold out at least until September.) Celebrities ranging from David Byrne to the late Alan Rickman have been spotted in the audience; President Barack Obama deemed the show "fabulous."

But for educators, the play's success is ripe with untapped teaching potential. Yes, it takes creative liberties--the Founding Fathers didn't really spit rhymes or use phrases like "John Adams shat the bed"--but the story is historically sound. ("The thing about Hamilton's life," Lin-Manuel Miranda tells Newsweek, "is the truth is invariably more interesting than anything I could have made up.") Historian Ron Chernow (whose 2004 biography of the first secretary of the treasury inspired the script) has praised the musical for capturing Hamilton's ambition and his obsession with controlling his legacy. And along the way, Hamilton delves deep into U.S. history-friendly issues like the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers and the bitter Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson presidential election of 1800.

"It brings history to the classroom in such an exciting and engaging way," says Patrick Sprinkle, who teaches U.S. history and public policy at the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. Sprinkle recently played his students a few tracks from the show, including a back-and-forth between Hamilton and Jefferson. He's used songs from another Broadway show with a historical spine, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in previous years, and once he schlepped 82 students to see All the Way, which starred Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson. But Hamilton is different, both because it's fashioned from hip-hop and rap (a genre largely absent on Broadway) and because it casts actors of color to depict, as Miranda put it, "old, dead white men. …

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