Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Notes from the Classroom: "Hamilton" in Luxembourg

Denschdeg, 7 Juni.

Today, I began my lesson with the 4e students at my lycée by asking them to take a trip back in time to 2009. Seven years ago, President Obama had just been elected, no one had yet heard of swine flu, and I was a fresh-faced student in Lon Pringle's AP U.S. History class. We had been studying American history for a semester when a particularly timely video went viral: Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of "Alexander Hamilton" at the 2009 White House Poetry Jam.

A theatre geek, I knew Miranda from his hit musical In the Heights, a musical to which we were rumored to have secured tickets on an upcoming school trip. (Spoiler: We did not see In the Heights. It's okay. I'm fine.) I don't remember if we watched the video in school, or if it just filtered down to me through the news feeds and wall posts of my classmates. I do, however, remember that Miranda's pop culture approach to history had a big impact on our end-of-year projects. While no one succeeded in creating a hip hop musical, I do vaguely recall a musical version of the life of Teddy Roosevelt...?

Either way, while the video was at once intriguing and inspiring, I eventually forgot all about it. It was only relatively recently, as hype began to build about a new off-Broadway musical, that I even remembered watching the 2009 video. Needless to say, Hamilton has been a runaway success. But although it seems like everyone in America is going ham for Hamilton, the musical is -- to my knowledge -- relatively unknown outside of the United States. But not for long. Enter Elisabeth, Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and fan of musical theatre / alternative historical narratives.

Using an abridged version of a New York Times article by Jody Rosen ("The American Revolutionary"), we discussed the choice of medium: why use hip hop to tell the story of a long-dead Founding Father? Rosen offers her own opinion, claiming that the music reflects both Hamilton's "bootstrapping rise from the streets of New York, [which] resonates with the Horatio Alger trajectories of rappers like Jay Z" and the politician's "fatalistic streak in the manner of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G." However, both Rosen and Miranda agree that it is the sheer volume of Alexander Hamilton's written work that makes rap the only logical choice: "'Hamilton produced over 27 volumes of written work,' Miranda says. 'I think it's appropriate that we would need a musical style that transmits more words per minute than any other genre.'"

(One of my favorite articles counts the number of words in Hamilton before comparing it to other work considered representative of classic musical genres, from Oklahoma! to Phantom of the Opera. Miranda's hit clocks in at 20,520 total words -- nearly 16,000 words more than the runner-up, Spring Awakening. Check out this article to see more comparisons.)

However, it's not just the choice of musical genre that makes this a unique approach to history. We also discussed the musical as an example of a historiographical approach: that is, a way of approaching the past that questions the way in which we traditionally exam and retell history. While high school students are often encouraged to think of history as a series of dates, people, and places to be memorized and regurgitated on an exam, a historiographic approach goes deeper and calls many of our assumptions into question. What is important is not what we remember about the past, but why we remember it.

Those who hear about the musical or the text on which it is based may wonder: if he's such a great and influential figure, then why has the story of Alexander Hamilton been overlooked for so long? And that's historiography. Hamilton, which in many ways represents a counter-narrative of early American history, provides a unique introduction to this concept. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda: "Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?"

We could have talked for hours, if not days, about the cultural significance of Hamilton. (No, really: check out this article about 'Teaching and Learning with Hamilton' for ideas about lessons on everything from social studies and government to immigration and diversity.) Unfortunately, I was limited to 50 minutes.

Still, even a 50-minute class session is long enough for a couple of videos -- especially when they're this good. Having begun the class with a video from the 2009 Poetry Jam, it felt fitting to come full circle by ending with the cast's recent performance at the White House.

Given that my students are in their second year of English and that they sometimes look up in dazed confusion when I speak too quickly, I knew that asking them to follow along without the lyrics was a nearly impossible request. However, although they may have missed some of the song's finer points, all clearly followed its meaning. And moreover, they liked it. They looked up anxiously when the video paused to buffer and when the bell rang for the end of class, no one moved until the video had finished. 

So look out, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Hamilton has arrived in Luxembourg ... and you just might have 500,000 new fans.