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Why ‘Hamilton’ Matters to Medievalists

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By Danielle Trynoski

As I watched the 70th Annual Tony Awards a few months ago, front-running Hamilton, a musical production nominated in a record-setting 16 categories, really struck me as powerful. It ended up winning 11 categories, but the cast’s performance segment paired with the show’s expansive selling power had me in awe. As a historian, it’s gratifying to see the overwhelming response to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop/rap adaptation of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury in the United States and a leader of the American Revolution.

Its success proves that we, historians, don’t need to compromise in our use of pop culture phenomena, like the excellent article by Philippa Byrne argues re: Game of Thrones. We can have the historical cake and eat it too.

Game of Thrones provides a valuable platform to start a discussion, but I fear that discussion often skews towards highlighting any cultural or costume similarities between the Middle Ages and the books/show. It doesn’t seem to be provoking same type of investigative questions as Vikings, and it’s too early to tell for The Last Kingdom. One thing’s for certain: historical productions are making plenty of money.

Hamilton isn’t the only production selling out its theater: King Charles III is another Broadway show adapting historical material. The hip-hop spectacle is closer to the truth, including notable figures from the 18th century and biographical elements. Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III interprets a potential future of the British Monarchy incorporating Shakespearean characters and plot structures.

The stage and television productions, along with historical outlets like Colonial Williamsburg, Jorvik, and the Tower of London provide a big dose of entertainment but also provide a chunk of education with the ticket price. Tickets for Shakespeare productions sell like hotcakes across the globe, and the New York Times Bestseller List typically has one or more history books in the top 20. Hamilton has some anachronisms, but it excels at demonstrating the modern relevance of historical discussions like immigration, war, peace, and changing political dynamics. As President Barack Obama stated in his message at the Tony Awards, it’s an amazingly successful civics lesson that makes history come alive, sing, dance, AND rap.

While the researcher in me always wants the highest standards of accuracy, it’s important to remember that we need an effective way to transfer content to new audiences. It also doesn’t hurt to look at the profit made by these platforms; tickets to Hamilton are selling for over $1,000 for the “good” sections. These two narratives, the transfer of information and the revenue generated, should both catch the attention of historians and academic departments. There are models of success worth studying and maybe even adapting in our quest for the modern relevancy of historical research.

Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.

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