Hamilton’s Revolution Enters the Classroom

By Michaela Abbott, News Editor

The musical, “Hamilton,” has been universally praised since its arrival on Broadway in 2015. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s playwright, lyricist and composer, created the hip-hop opus show based on the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. The 46-track soundtrack is the highest charting cast album since 2011 and is only the sixth cast album to reach the top 20 in the last 50 years.

Comparable to Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, the soundtrack for “Hamilton” uses lyrics and rhythm to advance the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life. What’s interesting about “Hamilton” is its juxtaposition. As opposed to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” for example, which matches story with genre, “Hamilton” uses rap to speak for historical figures — something unexpected.

The staggering positive response the play received allowed for the musical to transcend the stage. Miranda’s music has been integrated into classroom curricula, a phenomenon that includes Ithaca College.

Timothy Johnson, a professor of music theory at Ithaca College, has implemented the “Hamilton” soundtrack into his senior seminar, “Music Liberal Arts and Outside Fields,” because he believes it’s a case study for how to use the art form in realms outside of the music field, such as history and politics. Miranda himself used his knowledge and skills in musical composition to create an educational and historical musical.

Johnson uses “Hamilton” to assess students’ abilities to explain and describe key elements of songs using musical concepts they’ve learned in practice. Using Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which inspired Miranda to craft his beloved musical, Johnson asks his students to describe specifically what parts of the musical structure illustrate the life of Alexander Hamilton more vividly than the source material. In making this comparison, students exhibit their integrative learning skills. By teaching this way, Johnson allows his students to compare Miranda’s work with their own potential and deep musical understandings that they’ve acquired at Ithaca College. By exercising these critical thinking skills, students will be able to see the possibilities they have to create music-related projects in other liberal arts fields.

Additionally, “Hamilton” is special because it is a continuous performance of music that engages an audience that isn’t usually targeted, such as those listeners who are not typically fans of musical theater, by integrating hip-hop and rap.

“This is, I think, going to have a huge impact on musical theatre,” Johnson said. “It’s going to open up musical space of that genre to different styles of music than is typically associated with musical theatre.”

While Johnson recognizes that rap and hip-hop have been used before in musicals like Miranda’s “In the Heights,” “Hamilton” highlights the style of music in a way that has revolutionized the public conception of “show tunes.” The energy of hip-hop music is what makes it the music of revolution, a theme close to Alexander Hamilton’s life, Miranda said. Because of this energy, the musical reaches a larger audience.

The transformative nature of “Hamilton” is due partly to its historical relevance. With the political climate as it stands today, citizens are concerned for their rights and often reference America’s founding documents.

“People think a lot about the Constitution more than perhaps 20 years ago, it comes up more in conversation,” Johnson said. “Then to set that with a multicultural cast … you see the founding fathers in a different way. It reaches people in different ways about a subject they were already curious about.”

The revolutionary nature of the musical speaks to the purpose of his capstone course. In his class, Johnson wants his students to develop skills that will later allow them to make musical revolutions such as “Hamilton.”

“The students in this course have a strong education, a strong background in music, which they developed here at Ithaca College,” Johnson said. “They can, if asked, up the level of musical discourse in explaining something.”

So far, his class has been successful. “Hamilton” has given students a way to increase their presentation and writing skills by engaging in thorough musical discourse.

“I see [“Hamilton”] as a model of what I envision for their lifelong learning,” Johnson said.

He wants students to leave his capstone course understanding how to use their knowledge on the specifics of music and connect it to the world around them. He aims to encourage free thinking among his students in a way that showcases their musical expertise.

“I want to lead them to a path of self-reliant success,” Johnson said. “It’s about me setting them up for success they can own.”

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