I Took an Entire Class on Hamilton: The Musical - Here's What It Taught Me About Our World Today
“Why Hamilton? Why now?” Professor Jacque Culpepper asked us on our first day of the Hamilton class that seemingly everyone on campus wanted to be a part of. Her question initially baffled me. Why not Hamilton?The music stuck in my head and the characters came to life in my mind. Its fusion of history and musical theater peaked my interest and its intricacies kept me obsessed. But, as time went on, I realized Professor Culpepper’s question went deeper.
This past semester 30 Davidson College students came together under the instruction of an English, theater, and music professor with the task of analyzing Hamilton: An American Musical. We listened to the cast album, read Ron Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton, saw the show when it toured in Charlotte, and studied lights, costumes, and staging. Each day, we would walk into class and each professor would lead for about 15 minutes in their field of expertise; Dr. Costa on lights, acting and staging, Dr. Lewis on Ron Chernow and history, and Dr. Culpepper on instrumental music and lyrics.
However, simply entering the world Lin-Manuel Miranda created wouldn’t be enough. Our professors wanted my class to think more critically about the whole creative process Miranda undertook in the six years it took to bring Hamilton from idea to reality. They divided the class into groups, challenging each group to pick a moment in history, research the events leading up to that moment and create a 5 to 7-minute performance piece that featured original music, lyrics, staging, and costumes. Here’s the catch: many in our class had no formal theater or music training. The weight of such a colossal project terrified me. I didn’t know how my group would pick a moment in U.S. history, or compose music in multiple genres, and on top of that write original lyrics. Yet, my mindset changed once we began the work.
My group collaborated every step of the way. We planned our vision together, each writing sections of the lyrics and contributing to the musical composition -- even if I only chimed in with an occasional thought about a melody. After three months of work, we created a work we were truly proud of.
Our six-minute production focused on the month between Lincoln’s second inaugural address and his assassination from the perspective of his killer - John Wilkes Booth. Using primary source material, like the speeches of Lincoln, the diary of Booth and a book written by Booth’s sister Asia, we developed dynamic characters and wrote a through composed* piece incorporating rap, R&B, ballad, and jazz. The scene was set in 1865, but its themes painfully ring true today: polarization, domestic terrorism, prejudice, and the dehumanization of a villain.
Other groups created pieces about Anne Hutchinson, highlighting an oftentimes forgotten woman who played an important role in challenging the patriarchal systems of 17th century America. Another tackled the Trinity Project, commenting on the fears and anxieties present at the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Yet another group produced a heart-wrenching piece that retold the tragic story of Michael Brown and brought the experience of his family to life. In viewing all of these scenes and the work behind them, I suddenly understood Professor Culpepper’s question. In the way that our pieces spoke to this day and age, so does Hamilton.
Throughout Hamilton, Miranda tugs at our hearts and speaks truth into our lives through his relatable characters and powerful lyrics. An ambitious person relates to Alexander when he writes like he’s running out of time. Many share Eliza’s pain when she tells Alexander to burn after his affair. We all feel moved when Burr screams, “death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints.” Miranda’s dynamic characters resonate with us and those themes speak loudly to our experiences today. In “It’s Quiet Uptown” Angelica sings, “There are moments that words don’t reach. There’s a grace too powerful to name.”
When my class stood together in a choir circle performing this piece, the weight of those words and the power of forgiveness pierced my being like an electrifying shock. Professor Culpepper asked, “Why Hamilton?” Because Hamilton breaks down our walls and allows us to deeply feel. “Why now?” Because Hamilton holds as much truth today as the age in which it happened.
Studying Hamilton: The Musical led me to feel joy and sorrow and understand the relevance of such a production. But creating a piece, one in which I had the ability to make others feel, transformed me as a person and allowed me to comprehend the power of creating. Our collaboration created something that matters; we did the unimaginable and Hamilton guided through the process.
*a piece of music that is relatively continuous, non-sectional, or non-repetitive music, ex. Les Miserables