Very little remains to be said about Hamilton: The Musical that Broadway blogs, mainstream media, Twitter, and every other thing haven’t already said.
Except for the story that I am about to tell.
This is the story of how a historical musical based on the founding father, Alexander Hamilton, not only helped me explore history with my six-year-old son but created a gateway into the world that gave me so much growing up.
Growing up, my parents took me to musicals all the time. I saw Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and so many others that I can’t even begin to count them. We live near Hartford, and the Bushnell always has a Broadway musical series. My parents would get subscriptions to the cheap, nosebleed seats. I loved it.
So, having my own child, I wanted to bring musical theater into his life as well. We’ve seen ballets and plays. I took him to a hip-hop Shakespeare (which was excellent!). So when streaming Hamilton on NPR made me think of my son, I, of course, played segments for him after school.
A year or so ago, Bear discovered the American Revolution. I don’t know how it happened precisely. His father and I both adore history, but this sort of reaction was not entirely expected from a then-five-year-old.
He has an almost obsessive desire to learn sometimes. This means that over the last year, we have visited three different Revolutionary Way re-enactments (if you live in New England, I strongly recommend Sturbridge Village’s Redcoats and Rebels weekend). We have taken more tours of historic houses than normal people (did you know that Nathan Hale got caught because he believed people in a tavern who told him they wanted to throw a party for him?). We have also discussed Revolutionary weaponry in depth (“there were both rifles and muskets, but rifles were most uncommon”).
Because the six-year-old wanted it.
Introducing Bear to the musical was an obvious choice, especially after hearing the lyric, “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy, and hungry.”
If my child is anything, he is a child whose lust for life and knowledge make him young, scrappy, and hungry. Given his interest in history, introducing him to a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers seemed like an obvious choice. Despite Hamilton having a lot of adult language and a lot of adult themes, the songs that I have shared with him have become some of his favorite music precisely because the history is often true. Bringing together his love of music, his love of history, and his love of spectacle, Hamilton is the perfect way to expand into new areas of this historical period and create a shared love of musical theater.
As Bear became more enamored with the music and chose favorite songs, we started discussing them. One day as I drove him home from school, “Aaron Burr, Sir” started playing. Miranda spouted, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” Having played this song three times already, I finally asked Bear, “Do you understand what’s happening here?” Again, he’s 6 and said no. I began explaining how Hamilton felt Burr was trying too hard to be liked because he was afraid. I explained that Burr’s fear meant that he wouldn’t stand up for anything and that Hamilton spoke up for his beliefs even if they weren’t popular. From the back seat, Bear piped up, “Burr was weak, a coward.” I agreed.
We talked more, and I explained that this was like the way kids acted mean on the playground. The mean kids were like the British. The kids who stood up to the means kids were like Hamilton. I told Bear that when someone teased another kid, he needed to be the Hamilton.
A few weeks later, after finding out that Bear had sided with the playground mean kid against a friend, I growled at him, “You’re a Burr. NOT a Hamilton for doing that.” He knew what I meant. He understood.
Narratives about the shared human experience and the morality of humanness underlie the story of Hamilton: The Musical. One of my son’s favorite songs is “Guns and Ships.” In all honesty, if you’re a six-year-old boy it is verily impossible not to love an entire hip-hop song about famous historical battles. Add into the equation his odd fascination with the Marquis de Lafayette, and the song is perfect. His reason for adoring Lafayette? Lafayette helped his friends to bring about freedom. Despite this being a bit reductive (again, y’know, 6), it does mean that he’s learning the important lesson: when your friends need you, you help them any way you can.
We used this as a springboard to deeper historical investigation. I found him the single book about Lafayette in his age range that I could find. This is why I keep engaging my son in experiences that a lot of people might shy away from because they assume children are too young for them. Children have an amazing capacity to take from experiences the important lessons that are appropriate for their ages.
A lot of the music in Hamilton connects the listener with history. Another one of Bear’s favorites is “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down).” This is another one of those moments where listening as an adult means I get to hear what he thinks.
It’s funny; we spend a lot of time in our house talking about history, talking about what it means, talking about how events shaped our world. As we pulled into the garage one afternoon on the way home from school, the following lyrics played, “They stagger home single file/Tens of thousands of people flood the streets/There are screams and church bells ringing/And as our fallen foes retreat/I hear the drinking song they’re singing…” Then, we listened to the haunting, almost whispered singing of “the world turned upside/the world turned upside down.” It occurred to me in that moment, no one really knew what the end of the war would mean.
People had fought for something and had no idea what they had really fought for, except they fought for change. I turned to Bear and said, “Can you imagine what it must have been like? You hear that the war is over, this thing that everyone you knew was involved in, and suddenly in that one moment everything is different?” He just kind of stared at me. He was silent for a few seconds, thinking. “Nope.” Then he got his backpack out, wandered upstairs, and resumed his day.
That moment of reflection is something that doesn’t always come with the more age-appropriate things. In fact, that’s what makes musicals, in general, and Hamilton in specific, such an approachable cultural medium for kids. It is neither specifically high culture in the manner of opera nor low culture in the manner of the average Saturday morning cartoon. In the best musicals, these heavy themes are approached in ways that not only make us think but make thinking something that is accessible.
What I mostly love most about listening to Hamilton with my son is that Bear is so much like Hamilton. In the song “Non Stop,” the lyrics ask, “how do you write like you’re running out of time/write day and night like you’re running out of time.” Bear isn’t really much of a writer yet, but I told someone the other day that if he had a superpower it would be talking. Hamilton had that same superpower. He talked. And talked. And talked. And wrote. And then wrote some more. And then wrote even more (“In the end they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other… FIFTY-ONE!”).
Our town, and often our society as a whole, focuses a lot of its acceptance of boys on athletic prowess. Bear is also a pretty intellectual little six-year-old. Having the hero of the story be based on his intelligence and use of his intelligence, and having my son be able to relate to that, only furthers the reason that I want him to pay attention to the messages. Hamilton, by all historical accounts, was both masculine in the physical sense (yes, it’s true, Martha Washington named her tomcat Hamilton), as well as masculine due to his intelligence. Hamilton gives my son a hero who has both swag and intelligence. It gives him someone in popular culture who is not defined by only a one-dimensional sense of what it means to be a man. (And no, he has not yet listened to “Say No to This.” I do have a few boundaries in my parenting.)
Musical theater has the power to bring people from different walks of life together. Hamilton brings together different cultures and creates a new way of looking at the American experience.
However, the larger societal issues are only part of the reason I love sharing this with my son. Growing up, music and musical theater gave me a home and community. Hamilton is helping me gift him entrance into this community by using his musical as well as intellectual interests. In some ways, I feel as though I am passing a cultural baton to my son through our shared love of the music and story. Perhaps, when he is older, he will tell his own story of how he learned to love musicals. Right now, I get to tell that story. And that story is ours together.
Because, as all Hamilton fans know, you have no control over who tells your story, unless you tell it yourself.