Hamilton: Slavery and the Founding Fathers

How do you reconcile that a significant number of the men who founded our country owned people? Just as Chris Jackson and Daveed Diggs who played Washington and Jefferson in Hamilton had to struggle with this question, I wanted my students to wrestle with the challenge as well.
I started with a “Human Likert Scale,” which I had encountered recently. Indicating one end of the white board as a “10- Jefferson was a really good man” and the other end as “1- Jefferson was a terrible person,” I asked the students to stand near the approximate location of their response. I was pleased that we have built enough trust that the students didn’t hesitate to stand up and participate. The entire class was clumped together between 2 and 4.

After everyone sat down again and we started discussing Jefferson, it became obvious that the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase made little difference to the group, who are almost entirely non-White. They felt the pain of slavery acutely and personally and were unimpressed by Jefferson’s accomplishments in the face of his ownership of slaves.  

One student who is White, ventured that the slave owners at the time didn’t know that slavery was bad. This suggestion met with civility but a complete lack of sympathy from the group at large. With the intention of pointing out that the living conditions and beatings had to be hard to miss as inhuman treatment, I asked what it was like to be a slave. The first comment I got was that lighter-skinned slaves tended to have more privileged positions inside the house whereas darker-skinned slaves had the back-breaking work of tending to the fields. This insight came from a student who has the deepest skin tone in our class, and I wondered just how much the dark color of her skin had affected the life she has had and the messages she has been taught.

Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, which began when Hemings was about 14, may have been the ultimate in unforgivable acts for the class. Jefferson started sleeping with Hemings when he was Ambassador to France, and she eventually had six children by him. To play devil’s advocate, because no one else was going to do it, I pointed out that although Hemings was free when she in France since there were no slavery laws, she voluntarily returned with Jefferson to Virginia where she would be a slave again. The students vociferously shot down any implication that Hemings was a willing participant since with Jefferson in such a position of power, Hemings really didn’t have the ability to tell him no. They pointed out that in an abusive relationship, although the victim technically has the ability to leave, there is intense pressure to stay. One courageous student confessed that she had actually pressured her own mother to stay in an abusive relationship because she, herself, had been manipulated by the abuser into believing that if it all fell apart, it was her fault as the daughter. Yes, Jefferson didn’t have a chance with this group.

Although we largely focused on Jefferson, I added that Washington was his own bundle of contradictions. He hated slavery, but since he couldn’t figure out how to make a plantation profitable without slaves, he didn’t free his own slaves until his death. Since Martha Curtis Washington had a large number of slaves from her first marriage, Washington actually freed less than half of his slaves. The rest of the slaves would be freed after Martha’s death, which made for an uncomfortable end of life for her since she constantly wondered if she was going to be hastened to her end.

The Washingtons treated their house slaves extremely well as part of the family, making sure that they were well-clothed and could read and write. Ironically, these qualities made it more likely that these slaves could escape and stay free as several of the slaves did. The Washingtons were both bewildered and hurt at what they saw as betrayals; they didn’t understand that even a well-treated slave is still a slave and souls in bondage thirst for freedom.  

I think my students would have given them an earful.


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Hamilton: Campus Theater Tour

Although half of the students in my Hamilton class confessed to being obsessed with the show before we even started the semester, I know that several are in the class simply because it fit their schedules.  For those students, I wanted them to visit a theater and see what it would like to be a part of a musical.  The Hartt School at the University of Hartford is performing Evita this weekend, and the technical director kindly agreed to give us a theater tour in the manic midst of tech week.

Because one of our campus theaters is just completing major construction, Evita is being performed at Lincoln Theater, a venue original designed to host traveling music shows rather than theatrical productions.  That means that the backstage space is a bit cramped and the dressing rooms are created by curtaining off areas to the side.  Still, it was fun to watch the students’ eyes climb the cinderblock walls backstage either in glee for experiencing a new theater or in wonder for never having been behind the scenes.

One of the oddities of Lincoln is that although it has an orchestra pit space below the stage, opening it up simply creates a large hole in the stage floor, which rises only six inches above the floor for the seating.  At night, there is a floodlight illuminating the opening with a tacit, “Hole.  Don’t fall in.” message.  That message is also given to the performers when they shift from their practice space onto the main stage.  Although objects including a chair once have rolled into the pit, they haven’t had any people who missed the message.  I’m sure it helps that there are white numbers taped on the floor across the stage in front of the pit denoting the boundary of the dance floor area safe from the “Look out below” hazard.  Dancers in particular use the numbers to keep their physical spacing and locations consistent throughout a dance number.

It was fascinating to get the technical perspective of assembling a show, and our guide was familiar enough with Hamilton to put it in terms that were familiar.  The first design conversations are with the set designer and the costume designer to establish the feel of the production.  The lighting designer then has the thankless job of coming last and thus has to work with whatever color scheme has been established by the other designers.  The sound designer works somewhat independently of the others but has to blend the sound levels from up to 20 body microphones in Evita to sound just right.

As a side note, Hamilton’s sound design utilizes refrigerator-sized subwoofer speakers so powerful that they are typically used in stadiums rather than indoor venues, which is not obvious from the studio cast recording.  Apparently when Lin-Manuel Miranda first heard “The Room Where It Happens” on the new sound system installed for the move to Broadway’s Richard Rogers Theater from the off-Broadway warm up at the Public Theater, he shouted at no one in particular, “Oh f*** everybody!”  Sadly there was no 2016 Tony award given for sound design although it has since been reinstated or Nevin Steinberg would have undoubtedly added to Hamilton’s award haul.

When asked what they wanted to see, one of my students boldly announced that she wanted to stand on the stage.  Although she was told that she couldn’t stand in the middle since street shoes are prohibited on the critical dance floor surface that allows dancers to glide and spin confidently without putting a toe on a crack or dip in the floor and breaking body parts, I did get permission for her to stand on the section of the stage near the orchestra pit that was wood floor.  She exuberantly did a few arabesques and considered the visit to be a success.

I can’t wait for our field trip to the Bushnell next week!




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Hamilton: Non-Stop

Like the title character of the musical, the finale of Act I is absolutely non-stop and is packed with character and historical detail.  I finally had to break it into chunks to sort out all the action, and the class spent more than two days breaking it down.

The first segment of the song deals with the law careers of Hamilton and Burr.  Ever impatient, Hamilton by-passes the traditional three year apprenticeship typical of lawyers and instead does a crash course.  The study notes that he made for himself were used by generations of future lawyers who would copy them out by hand as part of studying for the bar exam.  A New York judge once commented that it was a pleasure to have either Burr or Hamilton in his courtroom, but it took Hamilton two hours to say what Burr could express in 30 minutes.  My favorite quote from the judge was, “Hamilton had the most durable pair of lungs in the New York Bar.”

We segue into the Constitutional Convention, which was set up to remedy the unworkable weakness of the central government created by the Articles of Confederation.  Hamilton gets appointed as one of three delegates from New York State.  Unfortunately for Hamilton, Gov. Clinton appoints two other delegates who are ardent anti-federalists who are quite happy with a weak central government in favor of the power amassed at the state level in New York.  Because the rules of the convention were one vote per state, Hamilton was regularly overruled by the majority of his state’s representation.  He did take advantage of his access to George Washington as well as the frequent absence of his fellow representatives which provided him an opportunity to exercise those durable lungs.  At the end, as Washington put it, the Constitution was signed by, “Eleven states and Col. Hamilton.”

To go into effect, the Constitution needed to be ratified by nine of the thirteen colonies, and Virginia and New York, two of the most powerful states, promised to be challenges.  The anti-federalists fired up their propaganda engines and began writing commentary in local newspapers.  To counter these arguments and address the concerns of Virginia and New York, Hamilton joined John Jay and James Madison in writing the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays written over the course of six months and amounting to 175,000 words of material.  That was a pace of three to four essays per week, and Jay stopped writing after contributing only five.  Eventually Madison stopped writing as well and left New York as well to return to Virginia to work on the ratification directly.  Thus Hamilton ended up writing somewhere between 51 and 59 of the 85 articles.

Prior to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Madison was given the bulk of the credit for the success of the Federalist Papers, whereas currently Hamilton’s contributions may be better recognized.  In fact, because the two men had such different constituencies with Hamilton favoring a powerful central government and a broad reading of the constitution while Madison favored more limited power and a stricter reading of the constitution, the two accomplished together what neither could have accomplished alone.  In the history of Supreme Court decisions, the Federalist Papers have been cited about 300 times in final arguments, more than any other document.

With the ratification of the Constitution thanks to Hamilton and Madison’s efforts, George Washington becomes our first President and wants Hamilton to return to the role of right hand man.  In “Non-stop,” Washington doesn’t make it halfway through his persuasive speech before Hamilton interrupts with, “Treasury or State?” since he is well-qualified for either position.  Washington chooses Hamilton to be the Secretary of Treasury, and Jefferson gets asked via letter to take on Hamilton’s left-overs in the next act.

Throughout “Non-stop,” Burr continuously questions Hamilton,

“Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?”

“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

“How do you write like you need it to survive?”

Indeed Hamilton did seem to need writing to survive and he managed to write himself out of several severe depressions over the course of his life.  Lin-Manuel Miranda commented at one point that it took him six years to write the musical.  “Hamilton would have written it in about three weeks!”

When I saw Hamilton, I couldn’t believe that the show-stopper song “Yorktown” wasn’t the finale of Act I.  I now understand that the finale must set up the problem for Act II to solve, which is the formation of a new government from scratch.  The remainder of “Non-stop” involves moving the players around like pieces on a chess board.  Angelica Schuyler Church sails off to London but wants to remain connected to her brother-in-law.  Eliza Schuyler Hamilton breathlessly sings her theme “Look at where you are,” as though trying to keep up with her husband’s non-stop life and ambitions.  Hamilton ruthlessly co-opts both that theme and Washington’s “They are asking me to lead,” to justify plunging into another intensive job.

The act ends with what music director and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire calls the “All Skate,” which has strong echoes of “One Day More,” the first act finale in Les Miserables.  Multiple characters sing the competing pressures on Hamilton.  Eliza asks, “What would be enough?” while Angelica sings, “He will never be SATISFIED,” which is a perfect rhyme for Washington’s, “History HAS ITS EYES on you.”  Burr continues to complain, “Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?” against the ensemble’s “Non-stop!”  It all culminates in Hamilton reiterating the driving force in his life, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

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Hamilton: Yorktown/The World Turned Upside Down

I was born in exactly the right year so that I was taking American History in 1976 during our country’s Bicentennial celebration.  I was a regular contributor to the daily ARBC American Revolutionary Broadcasting Company team that produced five minute recordings (done on a tape recorder) that came on over the school intercom at lunch time.   I played Abigail Adams in the July 4th mock battle and encampment.  All of that is to lay out my credentials that I obviously knew a thing or two about the War of Independence.  It thus came as a bit of a surprise that there was more to the Battle of Yorktown than fit into my one page report.

In the lead up to Yorktown, Washington was fixated on trying to take back New York City from General Clinton who had been comfortably camped out there for several years.  Washington met up with Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces, in Wethersfield, CT at what is now the Webb-Deane-Stevens house.  Part of the French Navy was down in the West Indies under Comte deGrasse and could swing by the colonies on its way home.  Rochambeau, who was supposed to defer to Washington, was actually a more experienced officer, and he managed to convince Washington that New York was too difficult to take.  Instead, they should ask deGrasse to go to the Chesapeake Bay where British General Cornwallis had foolishly encamped at the end of a peninsula from which there was no retreat.  What Rochambeau neglected to tell Washington was that he had already sent a letter to deGrasse with exactly those instructions.  Very sneaky.

So, Washington and Rochambeau trot their armies down to Virginia, and somewhere along the way, they collect our man Hamilton, who had departed from Washington’s staff and was offered a command to entice him to return.  The French and American armies surround Yorktown and start digging parallel trenches around the besieged town with the goal of getting the siege guns in range of the British.   The second/inner trench would intersect with two of the British fortifications, Redoubts #9 and #10, so those outposts needed to be taken out.  Hamilton was with the group that took out Redoubt #10 under cover of night.  Stealth was so essential that he had his soldiers remove the bullets from their guns lest a stray gunshot give them away.  He was a little bit of a control freak.

Cornwallis, left with no way out, eventually surrenders, and at the official ceremony, the British band plays the English air, “The World Turned Upside Down,” which is the second title of the song in the musical.  To summarize in a different set of lyrics, “How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower/somehow defeat a global superpower?”  Yorktown is the decisive final battle of the war, but it’s actually several more years before the British leave New York City and the peace treaty is negotiated.

“Yorktown/The World Turned Upside Down” is the only song from the show for which a complete non-bootlegged video is available online because it was performed by the full cast at the 2016 Tony Awards.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWZy3zRbBHI When I watch it, I remember following Facebook and reading a comment from a theater nerd from my past who expressed skepticism that any musical could live up to the hype that Hamilton received.  There were a number of responses of, “Just you wait” or “Wait for it.”  After the cast performed, the person responded with a somewhat chastened, “Oh.  I get it now.”




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Hamilton: Dance

Dance, even more than singing, compresses actions and ideas into a smaller timeframe.  It establishes character and location more rapidly than song or dialogue with speech or dialogue, it enlarges any song, and it can bridge, relieve, or comment.  Dance provides the essential storytelling energy of a musical.

That was all news to me when I embarked on researching Hamilton.  I took ballet for seven years as a child and I learned to tap dance for Anything Goes in college, but I somehow felt that dance was decorative and was used to fill the stage in a musical rather than having a deeper function.  A showstopper musical number often includes spectacular dancing such as the title numbers in 42nd Street and Anything Goes, but “Defying Gravity” in Wicked is all about the vocal pyrotechnics, as Stephen Schwartz once put it.  Dance is surely just embellishment, right?

In class today, we started with a video of the “Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnUmUqvL6Fw The students got a kick out of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda introducing the number at the 2009 Tony Awards.)  I asked the students who didn’t know the show to interpret was happening, and I got the very accurate response, “There are two groups, and they don’t like each other very much.”  They also easily identified Tony and Maria as being on opposite sides and separate from the action.  When I asked if these two characters were brother and sister, I was justifiably scoffed at.  All of the action in this scene moves forward without words and expresses far more effectively than speech the hostility between the Sharks and the Jets as well as the romantic attraction between Tony and Maria.  The costumes also emphasize the divisions with the Puerto Ricans in purples and the locals in reds and yellows.  (I’ll add a side note shout out to my friend, Jen Acheson, who nailed it that this was the dance storytelling scene I needed for my lesson.)

OK, so I accepted that a story can be told through a dance.  Another example is the ballet in Oklahoma, which tells the story of the bulk of the musical in a much shorter timeframe without all the singing.  I grew up on classical ballet, so I was accustomed to translating the gestures, “I have a bug on my finger.”  “No, I have a bug on MY finger,” into the real meaning of two women discussing who was the real fiancée of the handsome prince (or heartless rogue depending on your perspective.)  Still, when there are words to be had, doesn’t the dance serve only as ornamentation?

In Hamilton, the dance is never used for decoration or to fill space.  Tony-winning choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, creates a physical vocabulary so that every gesture and move reflects a matching lyric.  Hamilton’s story is told simultaneously through the parallel media of word, melody, and movement.  In the pair of videos below, Blankenbuehler walks through the gestures that match up to the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beautifully crafted themes.



It gives me enormous pleasure to watch the reactions of the students who think that we must surely have covered all the various dimensions of Hamilton only to discover another layer.  In some ways they are no longer surprised when I spring something new on them, but they are both elated and distressed that any one piece of work can continuously reveal new gems.  I did a mid-semester check in with the students this morning, and the most common comment was, “Class is too short and should be longer than 50 minutes.”

They are mine now.


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Hamilton: The Revolutionary Washington and Hamilton (Meet Me Inside and Guns and Ships)

When I started my research for Hamilton, I had a rather sanctified view of George Washington, “Father of our Country.”  It turns out that Washington was more human than he is often painted.

Washington’s father died just as he was supposed to go away to school, so he was probably the least educated of the Founding Fathers.  To his credit, he surrounded himself with men of great intellect and education, but he always felt a little inferior for his lack of higher learning.  My impression of Washington was that he was a great general.  Certainly Washington was magnificent at thoroughly evaluation all of his options, but this trait was not particularly helpful in the fluid conditions of the battlefield.  Washington is often portrayed as stoic and unflappable, but that was through iron self-control which he learned in his youth.  On occasion, such as the debacle of Gen Charles Lee’s cowardly retreat in the battle of Monmouth, Washington cursed “until the leaves shook on the trees.”  Washington’s greatest superhuman accomplishment in the American Revolution was holding together the army in the face of no food, no supplies, no pay, and few victories.  His deep conviction that he was bulletproof also leant courage to his men on the battlefield.

In Alexander Hamilton, Washington recognized a younger, less controlled version of himself.  Hamilton was the impulsive and hot-headed firebrand that Washington concealed inside.  Since Washington was childless, Hamilton was one of the many young men who became his surrogate sons, although during the Revolution, Lafayette may have been closer to the Commander-in-Chief.  In the show Hamilton, Washington’s even and metronomic rapping style reflects his well-considered ideas. His staid and sober cadences contrast with the vivid brilliance of intricate rhythms and rhymes of Hamilton and Lafayette who represent the younger generation.

As happens all too often, we allow ourselves to show the less pretty parts of ourselves to those we consider to be family, and Hamilton and his fellow staff members often bore the brunt of Washington’s rages that were concealed from the fighting men.  Hamilton, never known for his tolerance, may have felt frustration as well with serving someone who he considered to be his intellectual inferior.  Although Washington may have been best served by having Hamilton’s services as his chief of staff, Hamilton felt his own best interests would be furthered by assuming command of troops since that would further his post-war ambitions, and Hamilton was never shy about going after what he wanted.

At any rate, the spat that occurs in the song, “Meet Me Inside” represents a serious argument between the two men that ends up with Hamilton quitting Washington’s staff.  Washington cools down and tries to mend the breech, but Hamilton would have none of it.  It was only recently that I realized that there was a gap in Hamilton’s service in the Revolution.  I couldn’t imagine how Hamilton could have quit, but I can now understand that he was out of patience with being held back and with having to deal with someone else’s bad moods.

In “Guns and Ships,” Lafayette has secured the assistance of France and finally successfully lobbies Washington to offer Hamilton a command.”  Lafayette’s arguments are:

  •  “Cause he knows what to do in the trench, ingenuitive and fluent in French, I mean”
  • “Sir, you’re gonna have to use him eventually, what’s he gonna do on the bench, I mean”
  • and modestly, “No one has more resilience or matches my practical, tactical brilliance”

Washington finally admits he’s “gotta get my right hand man back” and Lafayette agrees, “You know you gotta put some thought into the letter but the sooner the better to get your right hand man back.”

So Washington asks Hamilton to take command, and we are set up for Yorktown, although the breach between the two men never fully heals.


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Hamilton: Costumes

On the technical side of musicals, I’ve always been highly tuned in to the messages sent by costuming.  Undoubtedly that was shaped by my mother’s skills as an accomplished seamstress who spent a number of years on the costume crew of the Glimmerglass Opera Theater while Dad was singing and I worked my way up from makeup and wigs to being in the chorus.  When I saw Hamilton on stage, I was aware of the messages implied in the costume design, and I wanted to give my students the benefit of my mother’s tutelage.  Paul Tazewell won a well-deserved Tony for his costume design for the show.

I approached this lesson by creating a PowerPoint deck of photographs from the show.  I first put up a picture of the opening ensemble and asked the students what they saw.  One student commented that all of the people were wearing tan, and I responded that the particular shade of tan is parchment, which is a reference to Hamilton constantly writing like he was running out of time.  I was gratified by the looks of wonder on the students’ faces as they learned that the show contained yet another dimension of complexity and subtlety that they hadn’t realized.


The merit of the parchment clothing is that it creates a blank palette that can be adapted into numerous other looks by making small additions.  Adding military coats turns the chorus members into soldiers while the women can add skirts to become fine ladies at a party.  The tops that the ensemble women wear are designed to look like corsets, so I explained the challenge of creating a garment that looks constricting while still allowing the dancers to move.

As with modern military uniforms, the soldiers’ costumes also made variations in rank easily recognizable.  General George Washington has a sash, hat, and gold braid to indicate that he’s important.  As long as Lafayette and Hamilton are at the same rank, their uniforms match, but by Yorktown, Lafayette is commanding troops, so his coat has acquired embellishments compared to Hamilton’s.  Hamilton as a Colonel still ranks above the ensemble as foot soldiers, and the costumes make these distinctions easily recognizable.  That the tails of the soldiers’ coats fly out when they spin adds yet another dimension to the dancing.

My favorite test for the students involved a picture of Hamilton, Eliza, and Angelica after Alexander has become Secretary of the Treasury.  Hamilton wears a resplendent green coat (the color of money!  No that wasn’t an accident.), while Eliza is garbed in mint green and Angelica is in peach.  I asked the students who Hamilton’s wife was.  Someone immediately said, “Angelica!” (They knew better, but I think the students have a soft spot for Angelica and live in hope of revising history.)  I replied, “Look again,” and I then pointed out that Eliza’s dress was in the same color family as her husband’s.  (Oooooooo.)


Because a number of actors play different roles in the first and second acts, the costumes need to send strong messages indicating the change of character.  A splendid example is the shift from the uniformed and be-queued Daveed Diggs playing Lafayette in the first act being transformed into the Prince-inspired over the top purple velvet ensemble of the patrician Jefferson in Act II.

In the final curtain call, virtually all of the characters have reverted to the parchment palette including King George and George Washington, because their story isn’t the one being told.  Eliza retains a pale version of her signature blue-green just as Angelica keeps her own muted peach color scheme.  Burr and Hamilton are both garbed in black as the duel represents Hamilton’s death and Burr’s mourning of his mistake in killing his former friend.


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