Read Notebooks recently had the good luck to score a ticket to what is, without a doubt, the hottest theater event of the year in New York City, Hamilton. If you haven’t heard of it yet, this musical by Lin Manuel Miranda tells the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s rise and fall through a totally unique blend of traditional musical theater and hip hop. It is something to behold, but even more important than the innovative theatricality of the show is its message extolling the power of words and literacy to change the world around us.
Hamilton, born on the virgin island of St. Croix with no advantages in life, repeats over and over that his saving grace has always been his ability to “write his way out” – out of his hurricane devastated home and onto a ship headed to New York, out of obscurity into a scholarship to college, and so on. The message of Hamilton is clear: If you can write what you think, eloquently and persuasively, then in America you can turn yourself into someone who matters. For proof that this is still true to this very day, Lin Manuel utilizes dozens of references to Hip Hop artists who have done just that in the past decades.
It is apt that Lin Manuel has chosen musical theater to write this important love-letter to the written word. The successful acquisition of reading and writing skills depend, first and foremost, on ones oral language skills. There is no better way in the world to develop confidence in speaking a language than through the interactive and social process of music. Music is a context rich, and fun, way to teach people young and old a language.
In the case of Hamilton, Lin Manuel has created a musical theater masterpiece that essentially translates disparate forms of the English language for different audiences. Older viewers have Hip Hop cadence and culture translated into the form of musical theater. Younger viewers not yet interested in musicals, opera, and plays have a way in through the play’s affecting Hip Hop rhythms and styles. In both cases the viewer leaves better equipped than before to listen, read, study, and understand Hip Hop or musical theater’s unique versions of the English language.
Educators here in New York are already working hard to make sure that the students who could be affected most strongly by the unique power of Hamilton are able to attend. Just this week, according to the New York Times, the Rockefeller Foundation and the producers announced a $1.5 million-dollar program to bring 20,000 New York City 11th graders, all from schools with high percentages of low-income students, to see the musical. The plan also includes the creation of a teaching curriculum to help contextualize the show and parlay student interest into classroom learning. As Mr. Miranda says, in his own words: "If we can excite curiosity in students, there’s no telling what can happen next... Not to say we’re going to make 1,300 history majors or 1,300 musical theater writers every time we do the show, but hopefully they will take away how much Hamilton did with his life in the time that he had.”
We at Read Notebooks have little doubt that this play will have an incredible and far reaching impact on the lives of these students, an impact that will be felt by our nation's musical, literary, and theater communities alike for many years to come.
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