I don’t really like musical theater. To me, it was always something that was unbearably white. Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera, Cats: these were things rich white kids liked and could afford, like going skiing in Big Bear or trips on an airplane to the East Coast. So there was never much of an entry point for me when I was in school. I sang West Side Story and the Sound of Music songs in choir, but it was more of an endurance than any real love.
My first and only Broadway show was American Idiot. That was five years ago. It was a surprise gift from my husband, because I love Green Day. And even though I really dug it, I mostly endured the whole thing because of my love of 1990s punk music.
When the soundtrack to Hamilton came out and people started talking about it, I was doubtful I would find anything there. I mostly listened because I really love Hamilton. Like many of my favorite historical figures (Ida B. Wells! W.E.B DuBois! Ida Tarbell! Huey Newton!) Hamilton exudes a certain “fuck you” attitude to the status quo of the time period he occupied. He was born into poverty, young compared to most of the other Founding Fathers, and embodied a kind of young upstart swagger that is super appealing. Plus, there’s the duel.
Mostly, I wanted to know what had everyone so excited. I have a degree in history. I know, firsthand, that no one is excited about history. Seriously.
So I listened.
What I found was magic.
The Hamilton soundtrack is important because what it offers is two things. First, it’s an entry point into history for people who hate history. It’s really hard to wrinkle your nose in distaste when you’re singing along to “GIVE IT UP FOR AMERICA’S FAVORITE FIGHTING FRENCH MAN!” in “Guns and Ships.” By the time you get to the end of the soundtrack, tears and all, what you’ve gotten is a pretty decent overview of the first thirty or so years of the United States, probably more detail than you’ll get in a typical high school survey course.
Secondly, and more importantly for me, using hip hop and R&B and voices that are clearly people of color gives minorities an entry point into history. See, it’s hard to be interested in history when the only story you get to hear is one of servitude and struggle. American History for black people has for the most part been distilled into Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s hard to find a foothold in a story that consistently shuffles you in through the back door.
So what Hamilton does is takes history and views it through a modern day lens. It tells those who have been left out of history, and everyone else as well, “This is a story where you could have had a role. This is a story that is timeless. It is a story that belongs to you.” In this context, Hamilton could be played by a woman. Eliza could be played by a man. Because the story is bigger than the people on the stage, and it’s a story that welcomes everyone.
Hamilton has made history inclusive. It has taken a story and opened the aperture so that it allows everyone to participate. And that is awesome.
This is what kidlit needs.
When we look at history and sigh at the way it excludes underrepresented groups, whether intentionally or unintentionally, this is what we are saying. We are saying “Yes, the past is past, but now is now. And those people you’re excluding, the ones you’re ignoring? We have a voice.”
We notice. And if you can’t shift the lens to include all of us, you will be as relevant as Charles Lee.