“This show is a miracle in my life,” says SoNYT faculty . She is referring to the Broadway juggernaut, Hamilton: An American Musical, which is the focus of her at Summer Academy. We recently sat down with Southgate to discuss the show’s impact on musical theater, how it has influenced her own writing and why learning about it in New York City is a special experience.
For the uninitiated, Hamilton tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. The show became a sensation through its ability to both break away from, while still paying homage to, traditional musical theater. By incorporating hip hop, R&B, pop, soul and casting non-white actors as the nation’s Founding Fathers, the show’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda shook the public’s perception of what a musical could be and how the traditional structure of a musical can be exhilaratingly reimagined.
A Spark of Creativity
When Southgate first went with her family to see Hamilton in 2016, she was expecting nothing more than a great night of theater. She certainly got that, but with it came an influx of inspiration that would stay with her long after that evening.
“It brought me a different way of thinking about language, a different way of thinking about this particular medium,” Southgate noted. “The staging is so innovative and the casting is so visually powerful. It had a big impact on me as a black woman.”
The experience in the theater moved her to write about some of her greatest influences, how important the show was for her and finally, arguing for its importance in our culture. The essay was the first thing she had written in a long time that came to her so intensely, so naturally. “Hamilton came to me at a time when I was despairing about my life as a writer, as an artist,” she wrote. But seeing Hamilton sparked something. “The musical kicked open the door—or rather, it helped me kick open the door.” Since then, the inspiration she felt that night has led her to the graduate program in playwriting at Brooklyn College, an addendum to her long career as a novelist and journalist.
The Infectious Power of Art
Following her fascination with the musical, Southgate studied it from a variety of perspectives, scrutinizing the story, the music, the characters. “It really opened my mind to different possibilities of theater [..] It is a testament to the power of art.” The other thing that emerged from her fascination with the musical is an online friendship with Miranda himself. After interacting for some months on Twitter (a period during which he saw and admired her essay), they finally met IRL (as the kids say) and have stayed Twitter buddies since then.
In her , Southgate makes a case for the infectious power of art, and how examining it and engaging with it deeply can spark our own creativity. She looks at the play through several lenses: Hamilton as musical theater, exploring the integration of hip hop into a traditional musical theater framework, Hamilton as a history lesson and its interrogation of race in our culture.
Southgate’s advice to anyone struggling with a lack of motivation or writer’s block is to “Find something you’re passionate about and learn about it deeply, not in a surface way.” Looking at a subject through different perspectives helps round those initial ideas and opens the door to a world of new possibilities.
Students of the Hamilton course have a lot to look forward to. Not only are they learning from an expert in the field who is eager to lead them through an enthralling study of the musical and thought-provoking discussions around the complex themes of race, history, and fandom, but they have the advantage of studying it in New York City. “A great part about being in New York and being able to say, ‘I’m with The School of The New York Times’ is that we can get people who worked on Hamilton or are prominent in other areas to come and speak with us,” says Southgate. Among the visitors to this year’s class are New York Times co-chief theater critic Jesse Green, eminent Hamilton historian Joanne Freeman and Scott Wasserman who programs the Ableton technology (essential to the sound of the show) for Hamilton on Broadway and beyond.
“By having this course in New York City, you have access to artifacts you wouldn’t have anywhere else,” notes Southgate. “For example, The Grange, Hamilton’s final home, referred to in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” is just a subway ride away from campus–the students will visit and have a tour led by a park ranger. Hamilton, his wife Eliza and his sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler, all prominent in the show, are all buried downtown at Trinity Church Cemetery.” And she adds, “There’s just the texture of seeing a Broadway show on Broadway. The theaters here are so remarkable and full of history and there’s no place like Times Square.”