On a summer day in New Jersey in 1804, two of America’s Founding Fathers participated in a duel that killed one and effectively ended the career of the other.
What had slightly lower stakes and a less tragic outcome was the water cannon duels that took place recently at a child’s birthday party in Pittsburgh. Party goers turned their backs on one another, paced, then shot and fired just like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who the guest of honor, Juliet Forrest, had come to know and love through the hit musical “Hamilton.”
Projected to become a billion-dollar Broadway hit and having picked up 11 Tony Awards, "Hamilton" was guaranteed a place in the pantheon of musical theater. But the "$10 dollar Founding Father" has picked up an unexpected fan base beyond the matinee crowd: tweens, who are experts on the show’s often tongue-twisting lyrics and, incidentally, much of early American history.
Zest for the show among the eight- to 12-year old crowd is showing up not just in backyards, but also in classrooms around the country, where students are becoming “Hamilton” experts, often helping adults navigate the musical's familiar choruses.
While a Treasury secretary is perhaps a surprising icon for a group normally drawn to Disney princesses, what captivates them, explains Dr. Marilyn Plotkins, chairwoman of the theatre department at Suffolk University in Boston, is an intriguing narrative. "There's a really good story,” she says. “There's a lot of action. [And] I think the women in 'Hamilton' are so appealing. You know, they're strong, they're beautiful, they're articulate, they're fighters.”
It all starts with the soundtrack
Christine Forrest, mother of birthday girl Juliet and a 10th grade history teacher, is a fan of the soundtrack and put on the show’s song “Helpless” one day in the car while driving with her daughter. “That was all she asked to listen to all the time, was that song,” Ms. Forrest says. Then Juliet branched out to the rest of the soundtrack, eventually becoming an ardent fan.
It wasn't a big leap from there to considering that the Founding Father be a part of her eighth birthday, as others her age have. Juliet, who loves the character of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, suggested that instead of gifts, party guests bring “Hamilbills” – the $10 bills on which Hamilton appears – to donate to Graham Windham, a nonprofit organization that helps children and was co-founded by Ms. Hamilton. The party, held last September, raised more than $350.
Across the country around the same time, young people older than Juliet were being converted to the show through a curriculum at Corona del Mar’s Harbor Day School in California, where Chatom Arkin incorporated the history-rich musical into his classroom. The musical has made its way into schools and sparked an abundance of teacher's guides from sources such as School Library Journal and the Gilder Lehrman Institute Institute of American History in New York.
At the private Harbor Day School, Mr. Arkin’s eighth-graders took part in an integrated curriculum about “Hamilton,” where, last fall, they learned about the musical in his literature class, tackled the real-life aspects in history class, and studied Hamilton’s financial wizardry in math class.
'The Hamilton Mixtape' effect
Mr. Miranda’s rap bona fides helped win some initially skeptical students over to the show, according to Arkin. “We have a kid who's all about rap and says that anything written by anyone but Nas is garbage,” Arkin says. “All I had to do was actually play him stuff from ‘The Hamilton Mixtape’ where Nas is rapping with Lin-Manuel Miranda and he was like, ‘All right, all right.’ ”
Student Jacqueline McNeill is a fan of the show and helped Arkin with the curriculum. She remembers her classmates having expected the soundtrack to be “more like showtunes” but then being won over by the rap and hip-hop aspects, to the point that some students began exploring other musicals afterward. “As soon as people heard ‘Hamilton’ who maybe weren't into musicals before, they [said]…, 'I like this so much, I want to start listening to more,’” she says.
Out of Arkin’s more than 40 students, he says almost all of them were big fans by the end of the unit – perhaps a little too much. After it was over, “I actually at one point [said], 'OK, next kid who starts singing ‘Hamilton’ is going to spend lunch detention with me,’ ” Arkin remembers. “‘We have got to move on.’... I would like to teach it again and I hope I do.”
'Hamilton' – whose soundtrack comes in clean and explicit versions, due to some swearing – is also prompting more discussions in families. Questions about the United States political system and the direction that the country should take come up frequently during the show. Forrest says the musical is an integral part of their talks at home about current events.
“In the current climate, where there are discussions about immigration, about what America means, and what the Constitution is, obviously it's something we refer back to all the time,” she says. “Like 'Hamilton would have thought this' and 'Washington would have thought this'.... It's kind of become part of our daily lives in a lot of ways."
Don Wadsworth, option coordinator for acting and musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University, understands about discussing the musical. He wrangled tickets to the perpetually sold-out show to take his granddaughters, ages 10 and 12, who he says are still “loving it, absolutely, knowing every word.”
“When we went to New York, it wasn't like they wanted to see a lot of other [shows],” he says. “They just wanted to see that one.” Because Mr. Wadsworth knew people involved with the show, his group was able to go backstage. “I think it's the pinnacle of their lives at this point,” he says. “We're going to be hard-pressed to equal that with anything else.”
Wadsworth, who is also a professor of voice and speech at Carnegie Mellon, says he even looked to one of his granddaughters for help when he wanted to use one of the raps from the show in his classroom. “I don't mind going down to the 12-year-old and saying, I need you to teach your professor grandfather a little bit,” he says.
Guests at the "Hamilton" themed parties are also getting an education. “I would say 75 percent of the people who came to the party really had no idea and were just kind of enjoying the party as it was,” Forrest says. “And we had some people who already knew what was up and were really excited about it. But I think a lot of people ended up being really curious and asking a lot of questions ... 'Why are you into this? What do you like about this?”
In addition to the water cannon duels (which Juliet says was her favorite part), guests at the party at Pittsburgh’s North Park also had the opportunity to “pin the cannonball on King George,” Forrest says. Her husband, Tom, made a poster of cast member Jonathan Groff in costume as the British monarch. A treasure chest piñata became the “Treasury chest,” referencing Hamilton’s work as the first secretary of the Treasury. Juliet wore an “Eliza dress,” a blue Colonial-style dress; while another guest showed up as King George, complete with crown; and a boy attended in colonial garb that a child would have worn during the Revolutionary era. All the guests received tricorn hats to wear.
“It was perfect,” Forrest says.