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'Hamilton' creating new generation of history buffs

'Hamilton' creating new generation of history buffs

Visitation has increased dramatically at the Schuyler Mansion, where Alexander Hamilton lived for two years
'Hamilton' creating new generation of history buffs
A line of visitors head through the front doors of the Schuyler Mansion in Albany last week for a focus tour.
Photographer: bill buell/for the daily gazette

Notwithstanding the success of his 2011 musical, "In the Heights," Lin-Manual Miranda became the biggest name on Broadway four years later because of "Hamilton: An American Musical," the 11-time Tony Award winner that chronicled the life of America's immigrant Founding Father.

Miranda wrote and starred in the hip-hop and sung-through stage production about the life of Alexander Hamilton, and the show's huge popularity catapulted him to super stardom. The national touring production of the musical, which opens Tuesday for a two-week run at Proctors, can boast fans from all corners of the music world. Here in upstate New York it has spawned a whole new generation of history buffs who can't wait to see the place where Hamilton was married and for a time called home.

"We love what this musical has done for our historic house," said Heidi Hill, site director at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany. "It has changed our lives. It's changed our audience. We're getting so many new people who have never been to a historic site before."

Hamilton lived at the home of his father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, for nearly two years after marrying Schuyler's daughter, Elizabeth, in 1780. While the 1760s house in Albany's South End has been a popular site to fans of the Colonial period for years, since "Hamilton" hit the Broadway stage in 2015 visitation at the mansion has increased dramatically.

"We have our  general tour, which is always evolving because people here on site are always doing research and uncovering new information," said Hill, who also oversees the state historic site across the Hudson River in Rensselaer, Fort Crailo, which was where Hamilton's mother-in-law, Catherine,  grew up. "We certainly address the interest in Hamilton during our general tour, but we also created a Hamilton tour and then added a "Women of Schuyler Mansion" tour."

The focus tours on Hamilton and the Schuyler sisters - Angelica, Eliza and Peggy are all prominent in the musical - have become so popular that reservations are required, and getting a spot isn't always easy. To help accommodate the influx of visitors, Hill applied and received a grant to hire two additional tour guides for July and August.

"We don't like it when people get closed out of our focus tours, but we're getting so many visitors because so many people started making the connection between the musical and the Schuyler Mansion," said Hill, who said the number of visitors to the site nearly doubled from the summer of 2015 to 2016. "It hasn't slowed down at all, and I knew with 'Hamilton' coming to Proctors this summer we would be busier than ever."

Based on Ron Chernow's the best-selling biography of Hamilton, which won the 2004 George Washington Book Prize, the musical has drawn universal acclaim since Miranda and his cast of color began playing the Founder Fathers on the New York stage. The show successfully combines the elements of music, history and politics like few before it, and what is played out on the stage resonates loudly with what's going on in the world today. During one musical number called "Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down," Hamilton and the Marquise de Lafayette sing lyrics that include the phrase, "Immigrants; we get it done."

Still, it is mostly the history and the music that attract people to the show. Along with its strong hip hop and rap elements, the entertainment often shifts into the genres of R&B, pop, soul and traditional show tunes, offering something for just about everybody. And, because of "Hamilton," history buffs have become theatergoers, and theatergoers have become history buffs.

"Like the Duke Ellington quote says, 'if it sounds good, it is good,'" said David Alan Miller, Grammy Award-winning conductor of the Albany Symphony. "I saw the show early in its run in New York and I'm a huge fan. I read the Chernow book and I thought it was a masterpiece, and when I saw the show I thought it was brilliant. I can't speak for everyone in the classical music community, and I don't even like to use those monikers that put us in boxes, but all I've heard were positive things."

According to Miller, any classical music fan who fails to appreciate Miranda's extraordinary work may miss out on a wonderful and entertaining experience.

"I think most of us with the Albany Symphony have a much broader view of music than some other orchestras," he said. "Some groups only play music by long-dead European composers. The deader-the-better Europeans we call it. But most of my colleagues love 'Hamilton,' and we think how clever a man Lin-Manual is, and what a brilliant idea to create this hip hop version of the life of Hamilton.

"I like to think that the term 'high art,' is a horrible, antiquated term," continued Miller. "Who gets to decide what is high art and what isn't? I believe in the democratization of all the arts."

Derek Delaney, director of the Union College Concert Series, feels pretty much the same way. While he hasn't seen"Hamilton" yet, he is a huge fan of Miranda and the show.

"Shortly after the show opened on Broadway, I remember hiking up Lenox Mountain and listening to a podcast with Lin-Manual Miranda," said Delaney, who calls himself an avid reader of non-fiction, including Chernow's work on Hamilton. "I couldn't believe someone used that book as source material for a show, let alone a rap musical. I quickly bought the soundtrack and instantly recognized his genius."

History teachers are also singing the praises of "Hamilton." Rich Bader, who teaches English and history for BOCES, said "Hamilton" was on his radar back in 2009 when Miranda performed the title song from the show at a White House Poetry Jam, long before the musical hit Broadway.

"I saw his performance for the Obamas on YouTube and started showing it to my students," said Bader, a Long Island native who has lived in Voorheesville for 40 years. "The song encapsulates how Hamilton rose from nothing to become the right hand man of George Washington during the American Revolution. He was a kid whose mother died when he was 12, he was abandoned by his father, and through sheer brilliance and his ability to write, he becomes a man who has great influence on the founding of our country."

Bader has been taking his students to visit the Schuyler Mansion since before the musical began on Broadway.

"The Schuyler Mansion is the place where he very likely wrote two or three of the Federalist papers," said Bader. "That site in Albany is a great resource for us, and because of the musical the students are really into it. They really enjoy going there."

Bader hasn't seen "Hamilton" yet, but when he does he won't be concerned about any historical inaccuracies in the script.

"I got in line down in New York, was on standby, and got within seven people of getting in to see the show," he said. "I'm spending much of this summer away, so I won't see it at Proctors. But I'm very much interested in seeing it, and when I do I'll relax and enjoy it and not worry too much about the history. I'll tell my students how this is a teachable moment to discuss the concept of poetic license."

Of course, watching a hip hop musical about the Founding Fathers isn't a priority for all educators. Bruce Holden, a retired history teacher in the East Greenbush school district and a 30-year-resident of Schenectady’s Stockade neighborhood, isn't planning on seeing it anytime soon.

“My wife and I are very much into musical theater, and our favorite is ‘1776,’ which teaches history very well,” he said. “But we have some trouble following rap, so we’re not in a hurry to see ‘Hamilton.’ But I will say if it teaches history to someone who might otherwise not get a history lesson, than I’m all for it.”

Hill, meanwhile, does have tickets to a show at Proctors next week, and will be going as a theater fan, not an educator.

"No, I'm not worried about the details," said Hill, who earlier this summer enjoyed a production of Miranda's 2011 hit, "In the Heights," at Park Playhouse in Albany. "I love musicals, so I'm going for the entertainment, and I already have the soundtrack to 'Hamilton.' I'm very familiar with the lyrics and I love it. We're very excited about seeing it."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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