Yesterday, cast members of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton visited the White House to meet with local students and tout a new educational program.
Hamilton, for those who’ve somehow managed not to hear about the theatrical phenomenon, tells the story of the historical figure Alexander Hamilton through rap and hip-hop songs. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the play and stars in it, along with a mainly black and Hispanic cast.
The Obamas have been fans of Miranda since he attended a spoken word event at the White House in 2009, and performed what would later become the opening number from the musical. “We were blown away,” said Michelle Obama in her introduction at yesterday’s White House event. “Back then, he told us that he was going to do an entire musical about Alexander Hamilton, and we knew this had the potential to be really, really good based on his performance. But what we didn’t know, could never have imagined, was that it would be a work of true genius. ... This is the best piece of art, in any form, that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
With help from the Rockefeller Foundation, about 20,000 11th graders from Title I schools in New York City will be able to see the musical for $10 (the denomination with Hamilton’s face on it).
The Foundation also funded the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to host free curriculum resources related to Alexander Hamilton on its website. Teachers can go there for videos, essays, and primary sources about Hamilton and the era of the Founding Fathers.
‘What School Should Be’
About 100 students from Maryland and Virginia high schools gathered in the East Palm room to meet with some of the cast members and hear from the first lady. “Through Hamilton, Lin-Manuel reveals all the drama and the glory, the heartbreak, that run through our nation’s history. And he shows us that the icons in our history books were real people with real brilliance but also real flaws,” Obama said in her speech. “To my mind, this is what school should be. We’d have a lot of great historians if we could only figure out how to do this more, for more subjects.”
The students sat in workshops with the cast members for much of the afternoon, in which they worked on creating their own performances. (These were closed to the press.)
In a Q&A session afterward, a student from Osbourn High School in Manassas, Va., said he has a hard time retaining history lessons in general. But through Hamilton, “I’ve learned so much more than I would have,” he said. “Was this your intention?”
Miranda explained that he was a theater major, and that he learned history through the arts. He became interested in Hamilton after reading historian Ron Chernow’s biography of the nation’s first treasury secretary. And as he learned about Hamilton, he said he came to see the man as an artist as well—a rapper, really. “What do our favorite hip-hop artists do if not write about their struggles and their circumstances so well that they transcend them? That’s exactly what Hamilton did,” he said. “The bonus about writing about Hamilton is you get to learn about the founding of our country, because he’s just there for the most important parts. ... Telling the story forced us to learn about this era.”
Songs at the White House
Later in the day, in an event that was livestreamed, the Hamilton cast performed a few selections from the play for President Obama, the students, and other White House guests.
In opening remarks, the president praised teachers for bringing history to life, and pointed to the musical as a way to understand immigration and “the improbable story of America.”
“We hope that this helps every teacher who’s spent hours trying to make the Federalist Papers teenager-friendly,” he said. “We hope that the remarkable life of Alexander Hamilton will show our young people the possibilities within themselves, and how much they can achieve in the span of a lifetime.”
Many teachers have been using their students’ interest in the hip-hop musical to liven their history lessons. As KQED reports, some teachers have incorporated the soundtrack into their lessons and assigned students to write arguments about historical events in the form of rap battles.
Also, while at the White House, Miranda did a bit of freestyling in the Rose Garden with the president (hat tip to my colleague Ross Brenneman on this). It’s worth a watch.
Wait for it... ⬇️ #Bam4Ham Posted by The White House on Monday, March 14, 2016
Image: As President Barack Obama applauds in the foreground at right, actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, right, gestures to the rest of the cast after singing “Alexander Hamilton” from the Broadway play “Hamilton” in the East Room of the White House. At left are actors Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan. —Jacquelyn Martin/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.