The struggle to bring history alive has been the bane of history teachers for as long as the subject has existed. Educators, however, are not alone in trying to get their students to stay engaged in a topic. Even in the business world it can be hard to get clients to pay attention to all the important information you are providing them. At Hillard Heintze, we try hard to organize and communicate information to our clients in ways that not only makes it easy for them to make crisp, clear and rational decisions, but also peaks their interest.
In short, how someone tells the story is often as important as what information it includes. I believe the hit Broadway musical Hamilton is an incredible example of taking information many people would not otherwise find interesting and making it relevant to audiences of all backgrounds. (Note, the italicized portions are taken directly from some of my favorite songs in the musical.)
Telling the life of “The 10-dollar Founding Father” through hip-hop
Hamilton recently opened in Chicago and I was fortunate enough to score some tickets to its first Saturday night performance. If you haven’t heard of Hamilton, it is the work of actor, composer, writer and rapper Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose creative genius turned the life of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, into a hip-hop musical based loosely on a biography by historian Ron Chernow. The musical has been critically acclaimed and won 11 Tony awards, including for best musical, and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
If you think using hip-hop to tell Hamilton’s story is a bit of a stretch you are not alone. When Miranda brought up his idea to President Obama, the president reportedly said “Good luck with that.” But for a staunch Federalist like myself, this idea makes total sense. Despite the insurmountable odds against him, Hamilton’s stellar rise from an impoverished orphan on a remote Caribbean island to our nation’s first Secretary of Treasury was fueled in the most hip-hop manner possible at the time. Like a great hip-hop artist, Hamilton had a unique ability to turn his words into ammunition to express his experiences and beliefs. He also had the incredible courage to take chances and make bold stands both on the battlefield and on controversial political issues that pushed the limits of the time. Although he made plenty of mistakes, he also wasted precious little time and worked hard to achieve his goals. Or, better said by Hamilton’s character in the musical, “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwing away my shot!”
“Frankly, it’s a little disquieting you would let your ideals blind you to reality”
Needless to say, I really liked the musical, but as mentioned above it is “loosely” based on Chernow’s well-research 700-plus-page biography. Anyone who knows me and engages me in discussions about history knows I can be insufferable about missed details and inaccuracies.
For me this has always been the trouble with enjoying movies or plays based on historical events or figures, in which so much information is crammed into an easily digestible format of about two hours or less. Hamilton is no exception to this and a number of historians have weighed in on issues they have with the play. Well-known authorities on late 18th century American history have pointed out everything from an inaccurate timeline to much heavier issues such as the portrayal of race and gender in the play.
For Chernow’s part, he commented in a New York Times article that many of these criticisms are “an enormous misunderstanding” of the purpose of the play and essentially said that this play is able to dramatize a piece of political history and make it accessible and relevant to audiences of all backgrounds.
“My dog speaks more eloquently than thee!”
For me, the debate surrounding Hamilton’s historical accuracy has underscored the importance of displaying facts in a compelling manner. There is still no doubt to me that accuracy matters. But facts become more powerful when used creatively to make them relevant and accessible to an audience.
From this perspective, I feel the play did a great job of portraying how Hamilton’s incredible life helped bring “the world turned upside down,” as the defeated British sang at the battle of Yorktown and how he helped “lay a strong enough foundation” for America to be a great country. Using creative license, Miranda has also turned the world upside down through his presentation of the material. The show I went to was by far the most diverse and positive theater experience I have ever witnessed. And it is reported that political adversaries such as Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Dick Cheney and President Obama have all found common ground in their love of Hamilton.
As Hamilton makes its rounds through major U.S. cities over the next couple years, you should check it out, if for no other reason than to watch some of my favorite revolutionaries — Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette — rapping about why they joined the patriots’ cause. Either way, you should try to catch this great show, which at a minimum will get you thinking and evaluating a whole host of issues and remind you: “Don’t throw away your shot!”