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Grasping the Complicity and Multiplicity of Hamilton: An American Musical: Genre Circulation and the Politics of Pop Culture Pedagogy

Hannah Schoch

Abstract

This article argues that one of the best ways to chart the complexity of Hamilton’s cultural reverberations is via the analytical lens of genre. Indeed, many of the (academic) controversies surrounding the musical are related to an unease with how its pop culture genres intersect with cultural, historical, and political meaning-making processes. At stake is the ongoing dynamics between the complicity and the multiplicity of the aesthetic product—between the confirmation of (genre) expectations and mythical narratives on the one hand, and innovation and intervention, on the other. Specifically, this article considers the pedagogic role that genres play for Hamilton: the musical has not only been lauded by instructors across the U.S. for use in their classrooms, but the creators of the musical have themselves reinforced the pedagogic angle both as a marketing tool and as part of what they see as their social and political commitment. Consequently, this essay draws on a transdisciplinary conception of genre that has emerged in the last three decades to test its affordances for tracing the socio-political efficacy of pop culture works.

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1In the Summer of 2020, five years after Hamilton hit Broadway, The Walt Disney Studios published the following pitch for its filmed version, drawing attention specifically to the societal impact of this juggernaut pop culture product:

Hamilton is the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B, and show tunes, Hamilton has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theater—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. (IMDb)

2This description links exactly the concerns of my essay: the role genre plays for how the musical has been able to engage with different societal arenas, and in particular with pedagogy.

3Teachers have frequently celebrated Hamilton for how the musical connects with students and for how it gives them a feeling of inclusivity. The musical’s creators in turn have strategically reinforced its pedagogic role (for example with the #EduHam project), thereby trying to secure its own legacy, but also trying to remain in control over the musical’s “teachings” through the creation of media spin offs—such as the “Hamiltome,” the Hamilton Mixtapes, or the Exhibition—often along the generic lines that converge in the musical. And, indeed, many of the (academic) controversies surrounding the musical are related to an unease with how its pop culture genres intersect with cultural, historical, and political meaning-making processes.

4At stake, then, is the ongoing dynamics between the complicity and the multiplicity of the aesthetic product—between reinforcing (genre) expectations and iterating mythical narratives on the one hand, and innovation and intervention, on the other. The crux in all of this: not only are pedagogy and genre often simultaneously emancipatory and regulatory, but hegemonic culture is itself of “multiple minds,” so that what seems to some as conservatively stabilizing manifests for others as a progressive questioning of their discourses and knowledge systems. Genre theory in turn offers a framework to grasp exactly this complexity and multivalence of the musical’s cultural circulation across the various levels and (institutional) players—from the individual as creator-genius or consumer-aficionado to the settings of Broadway, schools, and academia, to national politics. In other words, one way to more systematically trace the complexity of how Hamilton has fed into and off of current socio-political struggles in the U.S. is to follow the circulation of genre. And for these dynamics, pedagogy has emerged as a key arena.

1. Building Bridges: Pedagogy and Pop Culture Genres

  • 1 To list but a few examples: platforms with teaching resources are provided by PBS Learning (https:/ (...)

5Hamilton has established itself as an especially welcome teaching resource—educators on all levels (K-12 and up to university) have recognized the potential that lies in harnessing the musical’s affective dimension as an entry for their students to other educational subject matters.1 “At Fort Hamilton High, Susan Willerman asked students to choose an issue they were passionate about, then improvise words and movement that allowed them to present different views on the issue to their classmates,” Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter recount in their book to the musical, quoting the teacher gushing: “Having seen the show, they had a much greater sense of what this could be. I was pretty much blown away by the creativity” (159). Similarly, Addie Matteson, a fifth-grade teacher who created “Hamilessons” for her class, advocates: “It’s a pretty great show and as a teaching tool, it’s pretty darn near perfect. The story is gripping, more so because it is (mostly) true, the content is obsessively well researched and based largely on primary sources, and the language is complex and fun.” Miranda himself elaborates in an interview: “They’re [the schoolchildren] learning songs they like and weirdly learning U.S. history in the process” (qtd. in Schonfeld). Recounting these encounters with teachers and school children under the chapter heading “An account of rapping for the children who will one day rap for themselves” (156), genre is posited by Miranda (as well as implicitly by the teachers) as playing a significant part in facilitating a broadly defined “access” as well as in structuring socio-political subjectivity in important ways. Genres, Charles Bazerman argues, provide a “range of social intentions toward which one may orient one’s energies” (84). Miranda himself foregrounds exactly this in his personal experience: “I know how deep in the DNA musicals get because they’re deep in my DNA” (160).

6Indeed, the variety of teaching materials available online illuminates the musical’s breadth and reach: it can readily be used for classes in social studies, U.S. history and civics education, English, music and drama, and even economics. Hamilton, it seems, has become a common denominator that people with very different backgrounds feel like they can tap into and maybe almost need to engage with. As Matthew C. Rousu and Courtney A. Conrad argue in the Journal of Economics Teaching:

Using Hamilton to teach could provide several benefits. It could allow educators to connect more to students and their interest via music, show students how economics is applicable outside of the classroom setting within U.S. history and politics, and interest students who might not have previously considered it (e.g. music majors) to pick up a major in economics. (45)

7The exchange suggested here, then, is that the discourses which have been transferred to and bundled in the genres of this musical can be re-used as entry points into the respective “original” discourses—be that economics or history or music—and in the process making the latter more palatable and affectively accessible.

  • 2 Each genre instantiates (some of) the aesthetic features and discourses that in combination make up (...)

8One cannot overstate the broad range of (not only) pop cultural and educational genres Hamilton gathers up, combines, and refreshes: to list but a few, it engages show tunes, rap, R&B, jazz, classical dance, hip hop, founder’s chic, the history musical (which is in turn deeply indebted to the Hollywood history film, same goes for the political biopic that the musical picks up on), romance, and melodrama, and, of course, the genre of the musical itself—even giving us throwbacks to Gilbert and Sullivan.2 Furthermore, musicals drawing on historical or contemporaneous events—from Show Boat (1927) and Oklahoma! (1943) to West Side Story (1957), Hair (1967), or Rent (1996)—have traditionally played a significant role in commenting on U.S. society, asking questions about democracy, citizenship, and the nation’s values (Viertel 8–12). Hamilton, as Chris Jones surmises, is of course part of exactly this canon of musicals that explain the US to itself, epitomizing Broadway's social role in spectacular ways: “Finally, the American theater had landed right where generations of theater artists had wanted but failed to be—in the dead center of the political discourse. On the news. In the news. Of the news” (Rise Up! 4).

  • 3 Hamilton has already prompted an almost overwhelming number of academic articles and several edited (...)

9The musical, in other words, offers a contingency of genres for teachers and students to tap into in order to create a “bridge” to the informational content and to less familiar genres.3 Indeed, Pamela Sullivan argues more generally that modern musicals might be especially useful in the classroom to enhance literacy skills as they usually are highly attuned to specific sociocultural moments and thus help “bridge the home/school divide” (2). Fortuitously for the musical, Hamilton’s appearance coincides with an increasing use of pop culture products and pop culture genres in U.S.’ classrooms over the last decade, as LaShay Jennings, Renee M. Moran, and Blake Pierce outline:

This emphasis on blending science and literacy was derived from an overhaul in national standards... in conjunction with the research that suggested hands-on science was necessary for learning, there was also a call in the field to link science learning with texts that were motivating to young readers, inspired students’ creativity, and presented science concepts in novel ways—through interesting plots, engaging text features, and high-interest picture books. (142–43)

10Katherine C. Starke, moreover, emphasizes the importance of background knowledge for student comprehension and literacy in her recent research and proposes fiction as a way to help close the gap for students from more disadvantaged communities:

Nonfiction texts consistently have a lower comprehension rate than fiction texts, especially in low income areas.... This is often because children have a lack of background knowledge in history, science, geography, or other informational content... elements of pop culture can easily be infused throughout any lesson to accelerate student learning. (342)

11Many of the teachers’ reactions to Hamilton echo precisely what is here described as the advantages of this pedagogic approach; namely, that the musical inspired students’ creativity and that it was interesting and engaging to their pupils. This musical, so the implication, provides genres that interlink closely with individual, everyday experiences, which in turn can be used to establish a relationship to more “removed” genres such as economic writing or history. Furthermore, an additional important factor contributing to these changes in pedagogic approaches might be that many of the teachers who have entered the education system in the last two decades have been trained in, or at least have come in contact with, Cultural Studies, which not only takes into focus the social and political context of cultural products but also furthers exactly such interdisciplinary approaches (see also Sardar and Van Loon).

  • 4 Indeed, also in politics proper, the musical has garnered fans on both sides of the political isle, (...)

12Genre, as high school teacher Jim Cullen describes, plays a crucial role not just in generating Hamilton’s pedagogic traction, but also in connecting different “constituencies” in the classroom:4

In my experience, there’s no better way to close these gaps—generation gaps, knowledge gaps, identity gaps—than popular culture, which bridges constituencies, however imperfectly, more effectively than any other mediating force in our national life. That’s why my pedagogic antennae went up sharply when Dachelle started singing ‘Helpless’: it was clear, however imprecisely, that Hamilton was bridging the divide that separated me from my students, and that I might be able to exploit this reality pedagogically. (252–54)

13The musical’s capacity to build bridges and make connections is once again singled out—the broad range of music and narrative genres gathered up in the musical means that many will be able to recognize at least some of them and can build on that familiarity. What is moreover foregrounded is people’s personal, culturally situated experience of different genres and how these provide different affective ranges and access points. In line with these trends, Hamilton, then, seems less a unicorn and rather a very visible example of the changes occurring in U.S. pedagogy: it might have appeared on the scene at just the right moment. The pedagogic endorsement of Hamilton, in other words, also points to some larger renegotiations underway: the role, validity, and vitality of pop culture and subculture genres for both cultural and individual formation is starting to be acknowledged in institutional settings such as schools.

14At the same time, this specific hip hop musical might be useful and acceptable for the classroom setting to this extent, because it interlinks (sufficiently) with—and hence does not actually threaten—the pedagogic community’s “norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology” (Berkenkotter and Huckin 4). Hamilton has indeed sparked an intense critical debate on the relationship between art, historical storytelling, and ideology. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter thus caution in their introduction to Historians on Hamilton:

The effect of popular culture on the public mind is a matter of keen interest for historians. Hamilton’s popularity deserves particular scrutiny because the musical’s version of history is finding its way into people’s heads through the catchy soundtrack and its memes, and perhaps most powerfully, its inclusion in school curricula at the elementary, secondary, and college levels. (8)

15Many of the academic authors included in Romano and Bond Potter’s edited volume write very much with an eye on how history will be taught through and with the musical. “What ideology is being inculcated by a show like this, at the same time that it engages its audience?” Lyra D. Monteiro similarly asks and elaborates on the more troubling angle of such widespread institutional and educational popularity:

If the goal is to make them excited about theater, music, and live performance great. But reviews of the show regularly imply that what is powerful about the show is how it brings history to life. So I ask again: Is this the history that we most want black and brown youth to connect with—one in which black lives so clearly do not matter? (98)

16The (academic) unease with the musical seems to be very much connected to how its pop culture genres intersect with cultural, historical, and political meaning making processes. The musical’s capacity to build bridges through genres is thus also what is potentially problematic, as genres are predicated in parts on repetition and continuation of established structures, narratives, and ideologies; they allow for recognition and familiarity but also carry with them a tail of ideological dimensions.

17Especially in light of how education in the U.S. has become a veritable political battlefield, these pedagogic dynamics warrant careful attention, as Romano surmises:

On one side of the so-called “history wars” stand political conservatives who insist that historical narratives should cultivate pride in America’s past and highlight the nation’s exceptionalism and continual progress toward greatness. On the other side stand people on the left who believe that celebratory, patriotic versions of U.S. history ignore the reality of racism and oppression in America’s past and fail to encourage critical thinking and active citizenship. (299)

  • 5 As Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter report: “Parents, activists, school board officials and (...)

18While this has been a trend since the 1970s, in light of the current far-right’s concerted attacks on Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ+ themes at the beginning of the 2020s—with local politicians and schoolboards pushing for legislations to hamstring teachers—considerations like these weigh particularly heavy.5 Thus, in addition to the political sphere proper, the classroom has emerged as the other central arena outside of the entertainment industry where Hamilton has had a most profound impact—an impact that, considering these ongoing conflicts over educational policy and practice, is acutely political.

  • 6 See, for example, Monteiro or Heather S. Nathans.
  • 7 See Willerman, referenced at the very beginning of this section.

19Importantly, however, in addition to a widely used “immersive approach” and “thematic learning,” many teachers explicitly or implicitly include also more critical text analyses and meta-engagements with the musical in their teaching of it. For one, in much of the pedagogic material available online not only Hamilton is being re-circulated—thereby bolstering its canonical (and economic) status—but also the discourses on Hamilton—that is, the debates in the media and the discussions by historians, including whether or not Hamilton contributes to the erasure of Black History.6 For another, many include a variety of primary sources alongside the musical. Jim Cullen (already quoted above), for example, includes in his syllabus passages and songs from the musical, Chernow’s biography, as well as original historical documents (351–60). He thereby requires students to navigate and differentiate between these different forms of texts, fostering a sensibility for genre and media analysis in his students. This is, likewise, the case when the students are asked to translate contemporary issues into a rap à la Hamilton.7 They thus do not only have to possess or acquire genre specific knowledge but also develop the ability for recontextualization, which, in turn, requires broader genre awareness.

20Indeed, genres, according to Amy Devitt, have a paradoxical double function: they offer both rhetorical understanding and ideological training—exactly one of the key paradoxes that the discourses on Hamilton have been grappling with. Devitt thus posits as a key pedagogic goal the teaching of “genre awareness” in order to enable students “to understand the intricate connections between contexts and forms, to perceive potential ideological effects of genres, and to discern both constraints and choices that genres make possible” (198). Pedagogy, as much of this shows, can be both emancipatory and regulatory, oftentimes both simultaneously, in ways quite similar to genre: Hamilton in the classroom, if we do not just reduce it to the single dimension of the veracity of its historical discourse, is varied, paradoxical, and above all multidimensional—both complicit and multiplex, emancipatory and regulatory. Paying attention to genre requires us to pay attention to Hamilton’s aesthetics (including form and mediality) and discourses, but it also requires us to trace how the musical is (being) embedded in the industry and institutions and to take into account how genres position and are positioned by the individual, the communal, and the socio-political.

  • 8 Regarding genre theory’s seeming demise, Robyn Warhol observes: “Whereas it had once been possible (...)
  • 9 The focus on iteration and change—and thus a reconceptualization of genre as dynamic—indeed emerges (...)
  • 10 Thus, genres contain an ideological dimension as well as the possibility to work on exactly that id (...)

21Engaging with an object like Hamilton, then, shows that, in contrast to often voiced assumptions, genre theory is neither dated nor dead and can help shed light on key phenomena of our times.8 Importantly, in the last three decades, genre theory in literary and film studies has shifted from a traditional understanding of genre in terms of mere textual taxonomy or formula to a conception of genres as discursively produced, culturally and historically situated, and, accordingly, as fluid and dynamic. Already in the 1980s, Ralph Cohen proposed that, rather than outside of history, genres are located at the intersection of literary theory and historical change, thereby allowing for the registering of both continuation and innovation:9 “Genre study is more than another approach to literature or to social institutions or scientific practices,” he surmises, “it analyses our procedures of acquiring and accumulating knowledge, including the changes that knowledge undergoes” (v). More recently, the philosopher and novelist Tristan Garcia advocated that we need to understand genre as intrinsically productive, as an “active principle” in its own right that “specif[ies] possibilities as well as impossibilities” (qtd. in Ritzer 3). In other words, genre delineates affordances and ranges of what can be included and recognized as well as of what is excluded in meaning making processes, making visible the cultural negotiation processes over these boundaries with individual as well as groups intervening (through change, adaptation and updating, subversion of expectations, or parody for example).10 On that note, Ivo Ritzer posits in Media and Genre (2021):

On the one hand, genres function as a creative organizational principle of media products and on the other they define the audience’s level of expectations.... Genres... cast light upon the aesthetic, economic and sociocultural dimensions of the respective constellation in which they arise and which they represent. (1)

22A theoretical-empirical approach to genre has emerged that pays attention to the multiple forces at the junctions between the creation, circulation, and reception of “texts.” Genre depends both on context and specific iteration; it emerges between repetition and change, text and context, the singular and the general—and thus has both a diachronic as well as a synchronic dimension. “The concept of genre opens up vistas on the ways a text can function in literary history, in a reader’s hands and mind, or in material developments within the extratextual world,” Robyn Warhol aptly sums up.

23In addition to literary scholarship and film and media studies, genre has also been of interest in the social sciences—with particular attention to how genres and discourses are socially situated and how they act on (and are acted on) by individuals and communities. Drawing on rhetorical studies, interpretive anthropology, and sociology of knowledge, Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas N. Huckin tease out the relation between cognition, culture, and power (thus their subtitle) by proposing five key principles for the function of genre: (1) dynamism, (2) situatedness, (3) an intrinsic link between form and content, (4) a duality of structure in that genres are always involved in a double act of constituting and reproducing social structures, and (5) community ownership meaning that genres reflect a community’s “norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology” (4). Indeed, in pedagogy, linguistics, communication studies, and sociocognitive research, frameworks have been developed to describe the multilevel complexity of how individuals and communities process and make use of genres and what roles genres play in the formation of sociopolitical subjectivity and the negotiation of community norms (Coe, Lingard, Teslenko). Acknowledging the complexity of the cognitive processes involved, Christine M. Tardy, Bruna Sommer-Farias, and Jeroen Gevers observe that already just genre specific knowledge is “multidimensional and encompass[es] a layered and dynamic knowledge of several overlapping domains” (294). Genre theories, in other words, might be an “amorphous group of theoretical tools” (Warhol) developed across the different disciplines, but what unites them is an interest in how specific cultural expressions are situated in the world and relate to their contexts. A transdisciplinary, versatile approach to genre theory helps to grasp the multiplexity of genre, the breadth and depth of the phenomena at stake.

24This is also exactly the scope that has emerged with Hamilton: trying to work out how this musical is being used in the classroom and how we understand that use requires an analytical scaling between text and context, between individual and community, between current moment and its connection to history. That is, the genre dynamics at stake range from the formation and features of the “text” proper; to the socio-cultural and cognitive work individuals and communities perform with and through these genres via this one single work of art; to institutional and industry practices that have mobilized these genres for example for commercial or ideological value; to the meta-reflection it allows us on the procedures through which knowledge is acquired, reproduced, and transformed—and how, ultimately, all of these levels intersect. “Genre is the concept that enables us to envision the interpenetration of process and system,” Berkenkotter and Huckin maintain, as it allows us to see “what microlevel studies of actors’ situated actions frequently depict as individual processes, can also be interpreted as communicative acts within a discursive network or system” (ix–x; my emphasis). The genre theory that has emerged across the different disciplines in the last three decades has importantly shifted attention to the multiple levels, dimensions, and domains that need to be taken into account dynamically—which is exactly what lets us understand the dynamics that animate the hypercharged phenomenon that Hamilton has turned out to be.

25Crucially, these dynamics are of course not limited to the classroom or to politics but can equally be observed in other societal arenas. For example, legal scholar and supreme court expert Lisa A. Tucker recounts in the introduction to her edited volume Hamilton and the Law: “At a gathering of Supreme Court lawyers, several said to me, ‘We quote it [the musical] around the office all the time! And even in our briefs!’ One federal judge told me proudly that she’d been the first to quote the musical in an opinion” (xii). Tucker’s volume follows the premise that Hamilton “is a narrative not just about the Founding but about the law,” and she goes on to explain that “[t]he story takes on any number of legal controversies. We know in the first ten minutes of the show that Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. The rest, as Rabbi Hillel famously said, is commentary. To lawyers? A legal commentary” (xi–xii). For her book, she has gathered an impressive range of legal experts to explain “their own Hamilton-based legal theories,” from law professors to former solicitors general of the U.S. who show how its “rapped soundbites... have woven themselves inextricably into lawyers’ vocabulary” (xi). Much of what Tucker describes are processes connected to genre, ranging from the recognition of a specific genre in the musical (legal commentary), to how it both functions within individual minds and constitutes group identities across hierarchies and professional specializations, to how it produces knowledge (from minor changes to lawyers’ conversational vocabulary to the language of legal opinions) and, simultaneously, draws attention to the production of that knowledge.

26For all that, many of the articles in the book explicitly or implicitly make clear that the genres of “legal writing” and “stage musical” are not to be confused but that they infuse each other in productive ways. Along these lines, constitutional scholar Richard Primus reiterates that

Hamilton is a piece of musical theater, not an article in the Journal of American History…. And a good musical can shape views of its subject matter, even when audiences ought to know that they are watching an exercise in myth-making.... Hamilton will prime people in the audience who interpret the Constitution for a living—law professors, judges, and others—to think, consciously or otherwise, that the historical sources will bear politically progressive readings. (10)

27Attention is drawn to the complex interrelationships that are being navigated through genres by individuals and communities—and not always in the same ways. Thus, while for many historians Hamilton has significant conservative/reactionary angles—not least because of some of the genres it employs such as “Founder’s chic”—for other communities, among them constitutional scholars and lawyers, the very same musical also invites outside perspectives into their work and fosters more progressive reflections on it. All of this highlights how even the most hegemonic culture is crucially of “multiple minds.” The same spaces and items can have vastly different, albeit not entirely unconnected effects, illuminating our heterogeneousness even in our commonality and opening up a communal space in heterogeneity.

28The evaluation of Hamilton’s pedagogic and political multivalence correspondingly ranges from impressive to disconcerting. It very much depends on the (implicit, political) position and horizon of expectations by a given author of what an artwork should accomplish, as well as on which specific genres are foregrounded and which are relegated to the background. Genre’s capacity to encompass both multiplicity and regulation—what Devitt calls one of its important paradoxes—becomes especially visible in the case of this musical not just because different (groups of) people can tap into different genres according to what speaks to them, but also because a single aspect—such as the heavy reliance on the Founders Myth—can be both regulatory for some and simultaneously offer access to a new perspective for others. Hamilton somehow manages to hit that “sweet spot” (Schocket 167) of an almost improbable balance between iteration of the familiar and innovation for (and by means of) the range of genres and media it employs. This, among other things, enables its broad reach, which in turn reinforces the musical’s own cultural and commercial value.

29Importantly, these multivalent dynamics do not just move unilaterally from stage to classroom and society: how Hamilton’s teachings have been employed, what reactions and criticism the musical has garnered, has repeatedly led the producers to recalibrate their own position; for instance, by adding new framing material and spin offs, which has, in turn, perpetuated both its financial gains and its socio-political work. The plethora of genres (both connected to and connecting different medialities and discourses) that make up Hamilton have become a conglomerate that is both tightly controlled and allowed to sprawl in various directions, demonstrating its genre propensity for remaining in flux, for recalibrating and being recalibrated. The musical thrives on a singularly tight combination of iteration with variation that keeps each iteration both “in line” and recognizable (that is, adhering to consumer expectations and reproducing the commercial value), as well as dynamic (open for contingency, difference, innovation, and recalibration).

2. Transmedial Genre Work and Commodified Pedagogy

  • 11 According to a press release by The Gilder Lehrman Institute, “[t]o date, more than 160,000 student (...)

30It is equally important, then, to account for how the creators of Hamilton have themselves been pushing the pedagogic angle early on, both as a marketing tool and as part of what they see as their social and political work. With #EduHam, they launched a collaboration with the Theatre Development Fund’s Stage Doors program for New York City students to see performances on Broadway, mitigating the exclusionary effect of the steep ticket prices. This was later expanded into a partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute—funded in parts by The Rockefeller Foundation—to subsidize tickets for New York City and Chicago school children to attend the Richard Rodgers Theatre for a “Hamilton”—that is for ten dollars—educational program for teachers included.11 Miranda and McCarter repeatedly foreground the importance of cultural access for disadvantaged communities in their recounting of their encounters with these school children in the “Hamiltome,” the companion book to the musical (156–60). At the same time, the #EduHam/Gilder Lehrman collaboration also meant that the producers could be active participants in the translation of Hamilton into pedagogy, offering support but also ensuring a level of control. Miranda is, moreover, keenly aware of the young generation’s key role for the musical’s legacy and long-term societal impact:

The sheer size of these numbers [of students who will see the musical] means that reckoning with Hamilton’s impact now... is a bit like judging your harvest in the middle of May.... Sometime early in the next decade, give or take a few years, Hamilton’s influence on students will take another big leap—bigger by order of magnitude. The show will be licensed for student and amateur production.... What will it mean when thousands of students step into these roles at age 15 or 18 or 20...? (159–60)

  • 12 Likewise, Miranda keeps using his and Hamilton’s fame to speak out for Puerto Rico and Haiti, train (...)

31Thus, we are confronted with a multilateral entanglement of ideological and practical circulations: entertainment is a business, but it can also enable access—socially and politically.12 Economic success and cultural celebrity can be converted into influence in other spheres for social, political, and institutional impact—which in turn once again converts into financial capital.

  • 13 See also Philip Gentry, who notes that we need to account for the variety of media through which pe (...)

32Even with #EduHam, the introduction of lotteries to counter prohibitive ticket prices, and #HamforHam street side appearances to bring the musical to the public, access to the actual stage productions naturally remains limited. Here, the media spin offs occupy a central double function of providing access and increasing sales: the original cast recording, and more recently, Disney’s filmed version of the Broadway production allow people to experience Hamilton outside the time/space/money constraints of the theater. These spin offs ensure consumption outside of the theater space and significantly lower the threshold for access, while simultaneously stabilizing the “text,” not least in the context of teaching.13

  • 14 Alex Horowitz’ Great Performances: Hamilton’s America (PBS, 2016) is the “Hamiltome’s” documentary (...)

33Moreover, the producers have made use of these media spin offs and cross-platform commercializations not only to increase public access to the musical but also to strengthen, deepen, or recalibrate certain specific dimensions of Hamilton, often along genre lines. Thus, Hamilton: The Revolution (2016)—Miranda and McCarter’s companion book to the musical—overtly primarily seems to offer behind-the-scenes nuggets for its fans: it retraces the success story of the making of the musical, celebrating both of its heroes, Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda.14 However, the “Hamiltome”—as fans have dubbed the best-selling book due to its size and wealth of information—also serves to educate and provide key background information through, for example, detailed footnotes on the libretto with tidbits on the inspiration for the lyrics, historical background and links to a wealth of intertexts, as well as a lot of genre information pertaining to features of the musical. With the book, Miranda can publicly record (and reflect on) how he makes use of, appropriates, and intervenes in all of these genres.

34Maybe most importantly, however, the volume spells out the history of hip hop that informs the musical’s narrativization of Hamilton’s life, and thus offers a crash course to readers who are unfamiliar with the evolution of this key genre—celebrating giants such as Tupac or Mobb Deep, and samplings and shout-outs are annotated for the less familiar with hip hop history. In other words, Miranda here also acknowledges the capitalization off of rap’s broad societal acceptance and mainstream status as it has developed since the 1990s, but also shows how the legitimization of genres goes hand in hand with a broader societal understanding of related spheres of experiences. Genre use and the work on genre by the individual author-genius as significant cultural intervention is made explicit. David Waldstreicher and Jeffrey L. Pasley similarly note that the staging of the creative process tightens the association of Hamilton the genius writer with Miranda (or vice versa):

This is not just Hamilton in hip hop: it is Hamilton made in the image of the play’s author and leading actor.... [As the book] makes clear Miranda deeply identifies with his subject.... All of this is consistent with the form Miranda chose. The self-mythologizing tendency of hip-hop lyrical tropes has long been part of the genre’s popular appeal. (147–48)

35The book offers a meta-reflection on exactly these dynamics by spelling them out, while, at the same time, it cements certain narrative framings of the success of the musical, such as its revolutionary status and its connection to the Obama presidency (and thus its political importance). In other words, these merchandise spin offs allow the creators to respond to and participate in on-going discourses, to broaden the educational angle, but also, importantly, to be more specific about what they want the musical to stand for, to reign in its generic prolificacy when it lies in their interest.

36The Hamilton Mixtape (2016), in this vein, serves not only to strengthen and overtly display Miranda’s hip hop prowess, but also to train attention more explicitly on political concerns over migration policies, social inequality, and racial prejudice in the present than the musical had been able to: “The remixed versions in particular become vehicles to amplify ideas only alluded to in the musical,” Justin A. William argues (503). “[I]t is a political release valve for Miranda and others who are concerned with Trump era sentiments and policies” (500). While the musical was famously adopted by both sides of the political aisle, this “would arguably be more difficult for a mixtape track such as ‘Immigrants’” (506).

  • 15 A similar recalibration could be witnessed in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd: Hamilton(...)
  • 16 In her review, Ashley Ann Wolfe struggles with naming (that is, classifying) just what the exhibiti (...)

37Likewise, Hamilton. The Exhibition (dubbed HamEx, opened in Chicago in Spring 2019) enabled the musical to unequivocally reposition itself as critically engaging with the U.S.’ violent past.15 If the Mixtape allows Miranda and his collaborators’ political investment to become more overt, HamEx brings to full fruition the musical’s desire to spark people’s interest in U.S. history: it is both a history lesson and a large-scale, high-tech, interactive, and immersive commercial venture. Like the mixtape, it is both an expansion of the franchise and an instrument for the producers of the musical to strengthen a specific generic line (the historical narrative) in its most conventional medial setting (the museum). 16“I have so many people come up to me and say, ‘I hardly knew anything about Hamilton, and I want to know more,’” Miranda explained in an interview. “This is for them” (qtd. in Paulson). The hope is, in other words, that by means of the musical, an additional segment of people can be reached and motivated to engage with the historical material: “There have certainly been other ‘Hamilton’ exhibitions that museums have done,” Tom Zaller, chief executive of Imagine Exhibitions, observes, “but your typical Hamilton theater fan is probably less likely to go to a history museum than to hear Lin-Manuel Miranda tell them the story” (qtd. in Paulson).

  • 17 The early closing of the exhibition might also be a good reminder of the contingency and risk that (...)

38HamEx did not fetishize production artefacts as has become common in recent years with Blockbuster productions. Instead, it offers a deep dive into the historical background, aiming for nuance and providing correctives where the musical had taken factual liberties. In her review, Ashley Ann Wolfe points to the innovative pedagogic potential HamEx’s generic crossovers provide for engaging people, even if the exhibition ended up closing prematurely:17

Theatre journalist Kris Vire, writing for Chicago Magazine upon the announcement of the exhibition’s premature closing, noted that many of the objects on display were not authentic documents.... While he makes a fair point, I would argue that those objects, authentic or reproduced, were not what folks were there to see. Rather, they were paying for the immersive narrative experience, the living, emotionally complex history lesson—the human story behind the history. And that’s what theatricality allowed HamEx to do, and what made it different than what a history museum might have done with the same content. (13)

39By essentially staging the strand of the musical that is concerned with early U.S. history in an exhibition space, HamEx stays with the heroic narrative and its main beats, but the topics elucidated on that basis range from the brutality of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade; the role of women, soldiers of color, and Native Americans (whose history had been completely left out of the musical) in the War of Independence; voting rights (or lack thereof) in the Early Republic; to Hamilton’s elitist and monarchic leanings, as well as his ambivalent stances on immigration and abolitionism. After having transferred Hamilton’s life to the stage, retransferring it to the “museum” lets the producers overtly recalibrate some of the discourses: “I made a lot of things up [in the musical],” Lin-Manuel Miranda freely admits to the visitors in a welcome video, implying that now within the space of the exhibition greater historical accuracy is possible. Notably, they brought two of the academics—Joanne B. Freeman and Annette Gordon-Reed—who had previously written about the musical on board. It is, then, in the distinct medium of the museum space that the historical angle can be appropriately reinforced while simultaneously being differentiated from the type of history-telling that a musical provides—simultaneously offering civic pedagogy, teaching genre awareness, and attempting a pedagogical corrective on their positioning in the discourse. “These kinds of theatrical elements can help dust off and bring to life the museum experience,” Ashley Ann Wolfe surmises. “[They allow] visitors to become more fully engaged and immersed by taking a multisensory step back in time and into the story” (13). Indeed, what becomes visible here, is how genres are both linked to specific media and can move intermedially.



(1) Top:
Hamilton. The Exhibition labors to foreground the complex history of the democratic nation including slavery, settler colonialism, and misogyny. Bottom: Notes like this are distributed throughout the exhibition to mark differences between historical and the stage figures. [Image Credits: the author, Chicago, July 2019]

40In his discussion of transmedia storytelling and media convergence in higher education, Patrick Lynch notes:

Not only are educators challenged to rethink their own pedagogy, the entertainment industry and educational institutions are challenged to come together to build compelling edutainment offerings. Considering such a collaboration opens up immense critical and creative learning possibilities consistent with the behaviors of today’s learners. (xi–x)

41In its pedagogical endeavors, Hamilton exerts its hegemony over its genre manifestations while at the same time responding dynamically to criticism, consolidating financial gain, pedagogical viability, as well as political, pop cultural, and academic relevance—exemplifying the capacity for bridging different societal arenas and for dynamically responding to political and cultural responses to it. Commenting in general on the new mediascape and museums, Jenny Kidd even ventures that we might be seeing “the emergent potential of a new kind of public sphere that might have culture at its heart” (10).

3. Genre Circulation: Between Discreetness, Networks, and Boundary Work

  • 18 See also Ritzer: “[E]ach and every experience of cultural exchange is shaped through constant inter (...)

42What we see with Hamilton especially clearly, then, is what Mikhail Bakhtin in Speech Genres calls the dialogic nature of all oral and written communication, with individual responses accumulating into collective responses and the responsive “turn-taking” that can take place in society: “Sooner or later what is heard and actively understood will find its response in the subsequent speech or behavior of the listener. In most cases, genres of complex cultural communication are intended precisely for this kind of actively responsive understanding with delayed action” (69). Hamilton has triggered an avalanche of responses to which it and others keep in turn responding. Bakhtin may insist on clear-cut boundaries between units of communication: “Any utterance—from a short, single-word rejoinder in everyday dialogue to the large novel or scientific treatise—has, so to speak, an absolute beginning and absolute end: its beginning is preceded by the utterance of others, and its end is followed by the responsive utterances of others” (71). However, Hamilton demonstrates that this can be more complex with less neat boundaries—individual and collective responses occur sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in a staggered manner, and often react to different levels and aspects to then coalesce into larger aesthetic and socio-cultural phenomena.18

  • 19 See Anne Searcy’s article for the problems of such reductions: she offers a careful analysis of how (...)
  • 20 See also Christine Gledhill for comprehensive arguments on how the connecting and dividing, inclusi (...)

43What is drawn into focus through the musical are a number of key aspects of cultural productions, their circulations, and their entangled discursive relations: there is always the risk of Hamilton being reduced to a limited few of its dimensions or discourses, whilst forgetting about its “textuality,” mediality, and materiality, flattening its ambivalences and multivalences;19 as there is always also the risk of conflating the different arenas Hamilton is being co-opted for or engages with, rather than seeing them as separate albeit highly connected spheres with their own affordances and their own sets of responsibilities and potentialities. Consequently, we need to pay attention to the boundaries between as well as the interpenetration of genres—especially also of genres from different arenas such as art, academia, and politics—and how they travel (or notably do not) from one arena to the other.20

44There is both a pleasure and an unease that comes with this kind of aesthetic–social circulation, its impact, and the attempt to analytically grasp it. As Walter Hunter cautions in Forms of a World:

Critiques of post-1970s globalization have long been underserved by familiar concepts for the global such as flow, hybridity, and scape. These circulatory metaphors are misleading in their neutrality. Who are the agents promoting particular flows, maintaining the priority of certain circuits over others, diverting or shutting down routes, installing checkpoints? The description of the world in such terms reproduces the hierarchies that benefit more and more from their complexity, occultism, and normative posturing as accomplished fact. (6)

45The use of circulatory metaphors in the study of genre, I maintain, does not mean that observations in one area can be taken to describe the whole, nor should it serve to flatten the contradictions and tensions at hand. Rather, genre theory helps us keep the paradoxes in sight: the connections and the boundaries, stability and change, iteration and innovation, the singularity of a “text” and the conventions and communities in which it is embedded. It trains our attention to the specificities of each junction in a multilevel constellation, acknowledging how they make up a whole without assuming a totalized, petrified unity. Thus, genre emerges not as a flattening principle, a textual taxonomy that glosses over these multivalences, but as the very means by which to pay attention to the local, referential, specific, historically situated in its connection to and differentiation from the general (the intertextual, the transhistorical, the communal, the transnational). Productive, innovative, constraining, and regulatory effects are subsequently rendered not contradictions or partisan positions, but rather instructive accompaniments to genre’s paradoxical multiplicity. The point is, to take up Robyn Warhol’s formulation cited earlier, to “open... up vistas on the ways a text can function” in its embeddedness in the world.

46Hamilton might be about the founding of the U.S., about the law, about economics, about leadership, but it is neither a legal argument nor a historian’s work, nor a philosophical treatise. It is a musical, and thereby, crucially, it can tap into all these and other genres simultaneously. In turn, these other genres draw on it in order to be more affective, more entertaining, more personal, with more special effects and extravaganza, for better or worse. Yet, there remains a specificity to Hamilton as a theater musical, as an aesthetic product that cannot be subsumed under and thus determined by any single one strand of these proliferations. To reduce it to one single discourse or one formal-medial level short-shrifts its complexity and the consequential entanglements with and between different aesthetic, material, commercial, and societal arenas.

47Genre and genre theory illuminate the complexity of the processes involved for individuals as well as for communities—the paradoxes of stability and change, the link between form and content, the tension between contesting and reproducing social structures, and the individual and the collective’s involvement and responsibility in how genres are perpetuated and adapted. In the case of Hamilton, these entanglements are not only illustrated, but actively reflected on by the body of work connected to it. The musical spotlights the overlapping, multivalent, context- and arena-specific affordances of the genres it employs. Any analysis of it, therefore, also necessitates a careful differentiation between its self-positioning and the positioning that is done on and with it.

48My essay is an attempt to trace exactly these political complexities of popular culture and of media regimes. Genre, here, emerges not only as a system of classification or a tool for managing expectation and communication. Rather, a transdisciplinary conception of genre brings into view the link between the specificity of individual, subcultural, national, and transnational aesthetic production and reception and how these intersect with transhistorical and societal dimensions of and changes in meaning-making practices and formations. In this context, the nexus to pedagogy reveals itself as a key negotiation site. A cultural-political phenomenon like Hamilton, therefore, not only demonstrates but also actively explores and drives home just how multivalent and intricately connected arenas inevitably are in the neoliberal world of the twenty-first century. It also makes it apparent how fundamentally and dynamically we would need to shift for wholesale radical change within an equally malleable and adaptive art-politics-capital-power nexus.

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Notes

1 To list but a few examples: platforms with teaching resources are provided by PBS Learning (https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/collection/hamiltons-america/); the University of West Florida (https://libguides.uwf.edu/c.php?g=700995&p=5089067); and “Teaching History with Hamilton” curated by academics from Stonehill college (https://teachinghistorywithhamilton.org/). There are also hundreds of lesson plans by individual teachers shared online (https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Browse/Search:hamilton%20the%20musical), sometimes for a small sum, which in turn is an interesting further commodified recirculation. (All last accessed on 3 Jan. 2022.)

2 Each genre instantiates (some of) the aesthetic features and discourses that in combination make up the sum of the musical. At the same time, they interact with, reinforce, rub up against, or run counter to one another. While no “text” (and no genre) is generically pure (see Derrida; Staiger), Hamilton is a particularly rich assemblage of genres. Importantly, each of these genres carries with it its own specific history and discourses. In the discourses surrounding Hamilton, usually only select genres are foregrounded, while others (have to be) kept in the background for coherent analyses. Indeed, the musical has both been hailed for its innovative interventions in genres (Viertel) and simultaneously been criticized for adhering too much to genre narratives (Waldstreicher and Pasley).

3 Hamilton has already prompted an almost overwhelming number of academic articles and several edited volumes attesting to its multigeneric range, including a piece published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education: “Leadership Lessons and Career Advice from the Musical Hamilton.” It has also provided a “window of opportunity” for many academics to talk about their research in public allowing them to engage with a wider audience.

4 Indeed, also in politics proper, the musical has garnered fans on both sides of the political isle, as Andrew M. Schocket describes: “Despite our current hyperpartisan culture, Hamilton has fans humming ‘My Shot’ across the nation’s political spectrum. That’s not easy for any sort of cultural production.... [I]n our divided society, being good, no matter how good, often doesn’t fully bridge our cultural chasms. How did this Broadway musical about the ‘ten dollar founding father without a father’ hit the political sweet spot in American popular culture?” (167). And Joanne B. Freeman explains: “Deeply traditional in its praise of an American founder, yet radical in its reinvention of that founder as an immigrant in a multicultural, inclusive world whose lingua franca is rap, Hamilton embraces both poles in polarized times; it is a play that everyone can love.”

5 As Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter report: “Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades.... Such challenges have long been a staple of school board meetings, but it isn’t just their frequency that has changed, according to educators, librarians and free-speech advocates—it is also the tactics behind them and the venues where they play out. Conservative groups in particular, fueled by social media, are now pushing the challenges into statehouses, law enforcement and political races.”

6 See, for example, Monteiro or Heather S. Nathans.

7 See Willerman, referenced at the very beginning of this section.

8 Regarding genre theory’s seeming demise, Robyn Warhol observes: “Whereas it had once been possible to generalize about genre, late twentieth-century developments made that project suspect, if not downright wrong. To detach form, structure, and theme from a text’s specific historical moment, or to sketch out taxonomies of literary types in the abstract, began to be regarded as perpetuating received wisdoms that are intrinsically Eurocentric, androcentric, heterocentric, and economically privileged in their origins.”

9 The focus on iteration and change—and thus a reconceptualization of genre as dynamic—indeed emerges across the disciplines: see, for example, Rick Altman (film studies), Ralph Cohen (literary studies), or Richard M. Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko (rhetoric and linguistics).

10 Thus, genres contain an ideological dimension as well as the possibility to work on exactly that ideology.

11 According to a press release by The Gilder Lehrman Institute, “[t]o date, more than 160,000 students from 1,985 Title I-eligible high schools across America have participated in the program in 25 cities.” With the pandemic disrupting public social life, EduHam and The Gilder Lehrman Institute made a digital version of the program available for students and families to study history through Hamilton at home.

12 Likewise, Miranda keeps using his and Hamilton’s fame to speak out for Puerto Rico and Haiti, training media attention to the Caribbean (Jones “Hamilton opens in Puerto Rico”).

13 See also Philip Gentry, who notes that we need to account for the variety of media through which people experience Hamilton. Before the Disney movie, there were only glimpses of the musical’s staging circulating via tv shows and YouTube clips, thus most were primarily familiar with Hamilton as a soundscape. Rather than being detrimental to the live performances, the film release boosted ticket sales yet again—reducing the musical’s barriers has increased its economic hegemony and by extension also its cultural hegemony. Furthermore, even if the staging of the original Broadway show is reproduced verbatim at each new location, each iteration is marked by its own singularity and (minute) variations, from different casts to different crowd dynamics. Repetition and variation is thus deeply ingrained in the mediality of the stage musical.

14 Alex Horowitz’ Great Performances: Hamilton’s America (PBS, 2016) is the “Hamiltome’s” documentary film equivalent with its focus on the creation of the show and the guiding question of how Alexander Hamilton’s legacy is being preserved. In addition to the cast, Horowitz managed to marshal an impressive range of interview partners—testament to the different arenas Hamilton has impacted: President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Secretary Hank Paulson, Secretary Timothy Geithner, Questlove, Black Thought, Jimmy Fallon, John Weidman, Nas, and Stephen Sondheim.

15 A similar recalibration could be witnessed in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd: Hamilton—that is, the show in its official capacity—initial silence disappointed fans as well as people involved with the production: “I was hearing real hurt from within our company. . . . I have to own that and make up for lost time in regards to Hamilton’s efforts,” Miranda acknowledged in an interview with The Wall Street Journal (qtd. in Kamp). Miranda and his father subsequently initiated a collaboration with the BLM movement, as Helen Holmes reports: “One of the more interesting examples of cultural re-assessment that’s occurred over the past couple of years has been the renewed critical scrutiny of Hamilton.... The musical was a shining gem of the Obama era, but so much has changed since then that the text itself has been warped by the world around it.... It’ll be interesting to see how the musical as a whole shifts itself in order to better align itself with activist initiatives[.]”

16 In her review, Ashley Ann Wolfe struggles with naming (that is, classifying) just what the exhibition is exactly, not least because of the genre-media crossovers: “It’s not a museum, though it’s large enough to be one. It’s not a performance, but it certainly is theatrical. And it’s much more content-rich and substantive than those blockbuster-type commercial exhibitions.... More like history-museum-meets-immersive-theater, with a side of travelling circus?” (1). On the following page, she outlines how her exhibition experience interrelates with genres, and how these genres affect her subjectivity: “I should confess that I am, by trade and passion, the target audience.... Equal parts theater kid, history nerd, and political junkie, I found this cultural mashup of mediums relevant to so many layers of my identity that it was unlikely I would not enjoy myself” (2). Michelle Henning more generally notes that the contemporary museum has become a “hybrid space” (152) and that both its functions as well as the range of technology used mean that “the museum is like a theatre” (27). At least for Hamilton, but I venture also for other transmedial products, genre plays a decisive role in keeping the experience coherent between different medial settings.

17 The early closing of the exhibition might also be a good reminder of the contingency and risk that is always inherent to these productions—the narrative of success is a discourse that can only be produced in hindsight.

18 See also Ritzer: “[E]ach and every experience of cultural exchange is shaped through constant interaction. In other words, dialogism is not an option, but rather a condition of culture” (15). In Reality Hunger, David Shield similarly states laconically under the keyword “genre:” “A conversational dynamic—the desire for contact—is ingrained in form” (133).

19 See Anne Searcy’s article for the problems of such reductions: she offers a careful analysis of how the musical’s choreography and use of dance genres sustain a critique of slavery even if the words do not.

20 See also Christine Gledhill for comprehensive arguments on how the connecting and dividing, inclusive and exclusive functions of boundaries are a key interest of genre studies.

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References

Electronic reference

Hannah Schoch, Grasping the Complicity and Multiplicity of Hamilton: An American Musical: Genre Circulation and the Politics of Pop Culture PedagogyEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-1 | 2023, Online since 19 February 2023, connection on 20 May 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/19286; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.19286

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About the author

Hannah Schoch

Hannah Schoch, MA, is a junior researcher at the English Department of the University of Zurich and was a member of the interdisciplinary network “Genres and Media” funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) from 2016-2019. She is currently completing her PhD entitled “Intimate Politics: The Couple, Democracy, and the Cultural Imaginary of the US”. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature, Film Studies, and Philosophy and an MA in English Literature and Gender Studies from the University of Zurich. She has edited a collection of essays on Ida Lupino together with Elisabeth Bronfen and Ivo Ritzer: Ida Lupino: Die zwei Seiten der Kamera (Bertz und Fischer, 2018). Her research interests include questions of genre, media, and gender in US popular culture and the intersection of literature, cultural theory, and political philosophy.

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