Historian sheds light on Hamilton
A distinguished history scholar invited hundreds of Saint Michael’s College First-Year Seminar students who packed McCarthy Arts Center Tuesday evening to enter the endlessly fascinating world of Founding Father and latter-day Broadway sensation Alexander Hamilton — subject of the wildly popular hip-hop themed historically-based musical show Hamilton that is their Common Text for this year’s seminars.
Willard Sterne Randall lives, teaches and writes now in Vermont but has a national reputation for his biographies of Hamilton and other Revolutionary War heroes and figures like Ethan Allen, George Washington and Benedict Arnold, or his latest work about the War of 1812. All those came after Randall’s earlier very successful career as an investigative reporter in Philadelphia, said Peter Vantine, director of the Saint Michael’s First Year Seminar program, during his introduction of Randall’s 45-minute program exploring the relationship between the historical figure Hamilton and his portrayal in the musical.
The Broadway musical, by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, is widely familiar to students, as became clear during audience responses and questions from Tuesday’s talk. That was a factor in its selection, Vantine has said. Randall’s appearance was part of a full lineup of Hamilton-related campus events, including a panel discussion with faculty last week and the marquee appearance next Tuesday by Patrick Vassel, associate and supervising director of Hamilton on Broadway, in Chicago and for the national tour. On Sept. 18, a St. Mike’s graduate involved in earlier pre-Broadway productions of Hamilton will be on campus to speak.
The popularity of this year’s Common Text choice was evident each time Randall, during his multi-media presentation with slides and music, played a song clip from the musical. Many of the nearly 400 students filling all Recital Hall seats (with some even in the aisles) clearly knew the words as they mouthed along with the song clips and buzzed conversationally with neighbors about them.
Randall took questions and signed books after his nearly 45-minute presentation, which opened with him saying, “The lead ball that ended Hamilton’s life in 1804 nearly obliterated his place in American history.” But, as he said later, “another son of the Caribbean rescued him from obscurity” — referring to Miranda.
Hamilton’s famous fatal duel with Aaron Burr was but one absorbing tale from Hamilton’s life that the speaker related with deep knowledge and flair. Others included Hamilton’s hard early life in the Caribbean where on St. Croix he made a name for himself in business despite having difficult family circumstances, including being considered a bastard in the society of his time. Hamilton, the speaker said, was “the most clairvoyant of the Founding Fathers” in anticipating the nation’s future and needs, rising through Revolutionary ranks to be the first secretary of the treasury, after being a war hero and close aide to George Washington, then later an author of the remarkable Federalist Papers. He was likely a strong presidential candidate were it not for his scandalous affairs that “made election to the presidency impossible,” as Randall put it.
“Hamilton’s flaws run all through the Broadway play,” Randall told the students: For instance, he lied about his age to seem precocious, and was known as a “tomcat” for his scandalous affairs; yet, he wrote so well and affectingly for a newspaper about a Caribbean hurricane that it earned him a college education in the U.S. (he was turned down at Princeton though, and later in the Revolutionary War, shelled with cannon the main campus that still bears the scars today); he also was a top New York City lawyer, a most savvy and prescient secretary of the treasury (establishing the national bank as the first corporation in the U.S.), worked with groups to free slaves (though in his Caribbean youth he had assisted in the business of their buying and selling), created the U.S. Navy – and for all that, was just 49 when he died in the duel with Burr over an insult, being buried near today’s World Trade Center site.
As to the popular musical, Randall noted how when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father arrived in the U.S. in 1958 from the Caribbean, the musical West Side Story was a hit, containing “unforgettable songs full of yearning for inclusion.” Randall then sang, with a beautiful singing voice, the opening lyrics of “There’s a Place for Us,” which received a huge ovation from the students, which appeared to surprise and please him.
During questions and answers with students after the presentation, one questioner asked how historically accurate the play strikes Randall as being. He answered, “I found very few historical inaccuracies” (beyond the wrong birthday mentioned since Hamilton lied about his age) “but this is a play, an interpretation, a work of art, so you can take liberties. It’s called artistic license. But I think historically it is pretty sound.” He shared how he was delighted to hear the story of low-income school children in New York who were offered tickets purchased by charitable foundation so they could attend, and the children refused to sell them to scalpers at very high prices. “The kids wanted to see the play – so maybe we’re getting somewhere.”
Responding to another question, Randall affirmed that Hamilton was ghost-writer for George Washington’s famous farewell address, but that he knew Washington so well and wrote for him so often, that the words “are really Washington.” One student asked about actual evidence of infidelity on Hamilton’s part with one woman mentioned in a biography used as a basis for the play. “Did anything happen? – like, real talk!?” the student asked. Responded Randall, “A gentleman never tells!” which got a round of applause from students.
The speaker declined to name a favorite Hamilton song since “that’s like asking me … my favorite book that I wrote.” However, he allowed that a song sung by the Lafayette character in the play, showing Lafayette learning to sing in English while also learning Hip-hop, is “clever stuff, so from a technical standpoint that’s probably my favorite.”
Other Hamilton related events on campus were/will be:
August 25 (Saturday), in McCarthy Recital Hall – a First Year Seminar Common Text Panel Discussion. As always, this panel featured the three faculty who wrote essays reflecting on the Common Text, Hamilton. They each offered some additional observations about the musical, followed by Q&A with incoming first-year students.
August 28 (Tuesday), 7 p.m. to 8:30 pm, McCarthy Recital Hall — Willard Sterne Randall, historian and Hamilton biographer
September 4 (Tuesday), 7 p.m. to 8:30 pm, McCarthy Recital Hall — Patrick Vassel, the New York based director and writer who is associate & supervising director of Hamilton on Broadway, in Chicago, and for the national tour. He is also a playwright and has a range of other directing credits. He previously taught in New York City schools for eight years (grades K-12), with experience spanning special education, classroom management, performing arts, creative writing and storytelling, and original courses and curriculum based on specific Broadway productions. He graduated with a liberal arts education and political science major from Notre Dame (2007), though was active in theater there Says Vantine, “I’m very excited that he has agreed to come to Saint Michael’s,” adding that Vassel will * visit two First Year Seminar classes in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 5.
September 18 (Tuesday), 7 p.m. to -8 p.m., Farrell Room — Heather (Lessard) Fichthorn (Company Manager at the Public Theater, NYC. She is a recent alumna who graduated from Saint Michael’s College in 2012 with a double major in English and Theater. She is Company Manager at The Public Theater in NYC, where Hamilton premiered before moving to Broadway. She will speak about her work at The Public during the musical’s run there, her work in the theater industry more generally, and her perspective on her liberal arts education from Saint Michael’s. She will also visit several First Year Seminar classes on Tuesday/Wednesday, September 18-19.