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It’s no Hamilton. But maybe it’s . . . better?

I know.

That can’t be right, can it? A musical about the founding of America that’s better than that tired, old Hamilton thing? I mean, we’re talking about a musical that was Hamilton before there was a Hamilton. Before there was even a Lin-Manuel Miranda.

So I’m guessing it’s a musical that many of you haven’t heard about. I had the chance to see a performance of it back in the day – like, seriously back in the day – at the amazing Wichita Musical Theater. And, of course, then I had to go and find the movie based on the Broadway version.

Cause we know how powerful poetry and music and emotion and pop culture and all the things that make Hamilton so awesome can be to encourage student connections to historical content. So why not go back a bit to the original Founding Fathers musical that ruffled a few feathers of its own?

Yup. That’s right. 1776.

The stage version kicked off back in 1969 and, like Hamilton, won numerous Tony awards. The movie version followed shortly in 1972. (And, no, if you’re trying to do the math, I did not see the originals of either.)

At the time it debuted, just a few years before America’s bicentennial, it was considered groundbreaking in the way it depicted the Founding Fathers as three dimensional, flawed, and interesting people rather than stereotyped cutouts.

The story follows John Adams’s fight to get the Continental Congress to pass an actual Declaration of Independence. Such a document would bring the thirteen American colonies together and officially make clear their united position against England. However, as the musical highlights, Adams struggled not just because of his own unpopular reputation in Congress but because of the fact that the conservative wing of Congress was reluctant to cut ties with England or adopt a new government that might put their economic reliance on slavery in jeopardy.

1776 is a bit of an oddball musical that used catchy songs and the occasional off-color humor to paint John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as actual people and shocked audiences with its candid, honest portraits of these and other Founding Fathers. While 1776 isn’t nearly as popular (or even as recognized) as Hamilton is today, Hamilton itself recognized its legacy when Miranda name-checks a key part of 1776 in its second act. (Get the NSFW version that was eventually cut from the final Hamilton script.)

And I can hear some of you out there:

Broadway musical? From 1972? Really!? How is that gonna help kids learn American history?

First, we should always be on the lookout for ways to expand the types of evidence we have our students mess with. Just as a textbook is an interpretation of the past, so are movies, plays, and, yes – Broadway musicals. 1776 is just one more source that our kids can use to address the historic and authentic problems we give them.

Second, one of the skills we need to train our students to use is corroboration – the act of looking at a variety of evidence sources to evaluate other pieces of evidence. Using song lyrics and scripts are examples of what our students can use to support or disprove more specific primary sources such as Jefferson’s first Declaration draft or a Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition.

Third, context is a huge piece of understanding the past. When our kids can see, hear, and experience a specific period of time – language, clothing, relationships – there is an emotional connection between then and now. Music and role playing provides a powerful entry point into past places and times.

Fourth, sourcing practice – in a sense, 1776 is a primary source. It’s how Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson are being viewed right now by a particular playwright. So we can have kids source the music, lyrics, and script from 1776 as they would other primary sources – who’s the author? When was it created? Who is the audience? What is the author’s intent?

Need some ideas of what using a musical might look like? Try some of these suggestions #sschat participants they posted a few years ago.

And in 1776, we’ve got a variety of themes and topics that can be more deeply explored:

  • Enlightenment ideals versus economic self-interest
  • Seeking freedom and liberty from England while enslaving a significant percentage of the population
  • The very real possibility that the rebellion would fail
  • Who is American?
  • The need for diplomacy and compromise to solve problems

But wait.

There’s more.

Starting this fall, 1776 is getting an upgrade.

This revival, which debuted a few months ago and is coming to Broadway this fall, has the familiar rousing melodies (in new, rock-infused arrangements), star-spangled color scheme, and corny dad jokes. But they’re delivered by a racially diverse cast of women, nonbinary and trans actors, whose embodiment, says co-director Diane Paulus, wakes the language up.

“I want the audience to hold that dual reality, of what the founders were, but also a company of actors in 2022, who never would have been allowed inside Independence Hall,” Paulus said in a video interview last month. The idea, she said, using a phrase that has become something of a mantra for the show, “is to hold history as a predicament, rather than an affirming myth.”

“The deeper you get into it, the more poetry, the more stuff, exists inside of it,” co-director Jeffery Page said, in a separate video interview. At its core, “1776,” he said, is “about a clandestine meeting of people who desperately want to change the world.” For all its traditionalist guys-in-powdered-wigs look, the original show was as politically pointed in its time as Hamilton.

So like Hamilton, we now have a makeover that tells a familiar story but uses different voices, different tools, and different perspectives.

And, yes, unless you’re somewhere near NYC this fall (or the tour next spring), it’s gonna be tough catching a live performance of the newer version. But I still think there are some takeaways with both the new version and the old.

If any of this is catching your eye and you’re starting the see some of the possibilities of using the older version to incorporate the themes and questions into your instruction, a great place to begin is with the four compelling questions that the cast of the revival version was tasked with when they started rehearsals:

  • How is my story a part of American history?
  • In creating the Declaration of Independence, what mattered?
  • How can we hold this history as a predicament versus an affirming myth?
  • How does an honest reckoning with our past help us move forward together?

Not teaching US History? What about world? Or government? Or local history? Start thinking about ways to change the questions:

  • How is my story a part of something bigger than myself?
  • What themes that these men argued over still matter? Which ones don’t?
  • How relevant is the Declaration to other countries?
  • What connections do the themes discussed in 1776 have with what is happening in Ukraine? In the current political election campaigns? In the House investigation into the events of January 6? In the attempts to ban books? To legislation that limits what we can teach and what kids can learn? To national discussions around immigration? Around unions? Or the minimum wage or the environment or gun control or voting rights or . . . ?
  • How is compromise possible? What can compromise look like? Why is so difficult to compromise?
  • What current stories can we see as “predicaments?” What can we learn from those stories?
  • How does an honest reckoning with the pasts of others around the world help us move forward together?

Then explore some of these resources from the revised version that can help:

Try these resources focused specifically on the original version that you can adapt:

The 1972 movie version (which you can find on Amazon Prime and Youtube along with clips of individual songs and scenes) is definitely an artifact of its time. But together with available clips and resources from the re-imagined version, I think there are all sorts of directions you can take.

Why should we care?

Co-director Diane Paulus suggests perhaps the most important reason:

Theater is an opportunity to provoke questions to invite audiences into a journey of learning and curiosity.

As a director I’m always interested in how to make an audience feel like what they’re watching is not a relic from the past but something that we can learn from in the present

I’m so excited to invite audiences to think about what it means to reckon with our American history past and how we’re going to actually carry forward in America today.

“. . . how we’re going to actually carry forward.”

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