What Comes Next?
The popularity of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical is undeniable. It won a Grammy (Best Musical Theatre Album), will likely be nominated for (and win) multiple Tony Awards, and has been discussed by scholars and the popular press. It has been lauded and critiqued by scholars of history, theatre, and literature. But the popularity of Hamilton also raises a challenge for historians of Early America, especially those who do public or digital history:
To borrow from Miranda’s King George III: “what comes next?”
How do we engage the people who are coming to this history through Hamilton? Having considered the gaps in the stories told by the show, how do we bring that history to people who are, in my anecdotal experience, eager to learn more? While offering further reading on the period or pointing people to existing programs are good places to start, I think we can do more.
To truly connect with the populations who are flocking to Hamilton: An American Musical, we need to look beyond the historical period and consider what makes the show popular. The music is strongly rooted in hip-hop, rap, and r&b, but there are also nods to classic broadway, even Gilbert and Sullivan; Miranda is speaking in a voice that is familiar and accessible to a wide range of people.
Moreover, audiences who have never set foot in the theatre (either the Public or the Richard Rogers) have been welcomed by Miranda and the show’s cast in various forms of online engagements. Miranda, who like his title character seems to work non-stop, frequently converses with fans on twitter and has joined tumblr where he reblogs and likes fans’ posts. When someone added the lyrics of the show to Rap Genius and the community started annotating, he expressed delight and even noted (again on twitter) when people guessed correctly about a riff or other fact. Members of the cast and crew have live-streamed events on SnapChat and Facebook.
Interactions between the cast and crew of Hamilton and its audience – its fandom – are conversational and egalitarian to a large extent. When the audience creates annotations, transformative works, YouTube videos, the official Hamilton community generally responds with praise or gratitude. The creators of Hamilton have embraced their fan community and recognized its voice as a valid participant in the expression of the show an experience, as a cultural moment.
The challenge as I see it for public/digital/early american historians who want to catch the wave of Hamilton’s popularity to expand the understanding of the show’s fans is to find ways to communicate which echo the accessible tone of the show and which convey a sense of shared experience where the non-expert is welcomed and celebrated. We should try to share our enthusiasm for the past with them, and welcome their enthusiasm or concerns in return, instead of imparting knowledge. Conversation, shared authority, a willingness to allow emotion to be part of the experience of history, are all useful tools as we try to convey the rich history of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America.
A note: I started drafting this post last week, before attending the 2016 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, whose theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.” Every day of the conference brought me new possibilities for creating a more inclusive interpretation of the past, as well as the challenges which exist. It reiterated what I had been thinking about when I began writing this post: that we need to create an inclusive (public) history of the Revolutionary/Early National era, telling the stories of the wise range of peoples of many races, ethnicities, gender identities, and classes who lived through this period and including our publics as participants, not an audience, when we do so.
One tweet from the conference which I feel captures some of what I’ve been trying to say came from Lara Kelland, quoting Denise D. Meringolo “I wanted to let people tell their stories, but I didn’t want us to tell them what their lives mean.”
The dead may have no control who lives, who dies, who tells their story, but the living should have a say.