It's the Fourth of July weekend, and in some parts of the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down many of the outdoor activities we usually associate with Independence Day. There will still be indoor and backyard celebrations, and the weekend remains a great opportunity to teach kids the complex story of America's founding.
Here are a couple of choices to possibly spark an interest in history, for kids and adults, starting with one of the most-anticipated TV premieres of the year.
A film version of the hit Broadway musical, produced in 2016 with the original cast, stars Lin-Manuel Miranda -- who also wrote the music and lyrics -- as founding father Alexander Hamilton. It broke ground with its mix of musical styles, including rap, and its multiethnic casting.
Clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes (with a one-minute "intermission"), it may take some folks a few stops-and-starts to get through the whole thing. Be aware that Hamilton a grown-up production, sprinkled with profanities (with a few of the most egregious ones trimmed or muted to get the show a PG-13 rating). There's no nudity, but there is some sexual innuendo.
The musical's historical accuracy has also been challenged. Miranda envisions Hamilton as a scrappy, illegitimate orphaned immigrant. All are true, except the immigrant part. Hamilton came from a British colony in the Caribbean to the then-British colony of New York. So, while he definitely departed an island for the mainland, he never actually left the political system he was born into -- until after the Revolution.
Strangely, the musical also has the Marquis du Lafayette, a French nobleman who lent his support and military prowess to the Revolution, refer to himself as an immigrant. That would have come as news to ardent French patriot Lafayette, who arrived in America in 1777, and departed for good back to France in 1785.
Critics have also said that Miranda smoothed over some of Hamilton's less-attractive qualities, such as his elitism and disdain for popular democracy (click here for more on that).
But, as Alexander Hamilton is often overlooked in the pantheon of historical giants, it's a positive to have his remarkable rise and many accomplishments brought to light. Not least among them is his composition of 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, which helped swing the young America to supporting the Constitution.
Having come to Hamilton cold, I can say, thank goodness for subtitles. Much of the rap is delivered at warp speed, and the story of Hamilton's life is long, twisting and complicated. Although pretty familiar with the story of the founding, I still paused now and then to Google people.
The staging is sparse but inventive. Many of the performances are quite strong, especially Leslie Odom Jr. as Hamilton's frenemy Aaron Burr, Daveed Diggs as a very different Thomas Jefferson (he also plays Lafayette), and Phillipa Soo as Hamilton's wife, Eliza, a fascinating character in her own right. Ironically, Miranda is sometimes overshadowed by the powerful other roles he created.
Some of the songs are very catchy, but the rough language, sexual content, and the length, may put this out of the reach of younger kids. But with parental supervision and guidance, it could spark an interest in history among mature middle-schoolers and up.
(There's even a brief shout-out to the "Sit down, John!" musical number in my favorite July 4th musical, 1972's 1776, which focuses on the negotiations surrounding the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Along with HBO's excellent John Adams miniseries -- available on HBO On Demand, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video -- it's an Independence Day must-watch for me. It's available on Amazon and other platforms. Click here for more.)
Hamilton even gets a qualified thumbs-up from family-oriented review site Common Sense Media, which notes some of the same shortcomings I did, but said that the musical's positive messages and role models make it worth a recommendation. Read the whole review here.
Hamilton can only be streamed on Disney +. There are no free trials, but it only costs $6.99 for one month.
Two teenage reporters cover the events of the Revolutionary War for Ben Franklin’s newspaper, The Philadelphia Gazette. James, an American colonist, brings the rebels’ point of view to life while Sarah, a young Englishwoman stranded by fate in America, gives us the British viewpoint in her letters to her mother back in London.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Ben Franklin creates strong diplomatic bonds with France, America’s first and staunchest ally. Caught on opposite sides of the hostilities, Ben’s teenage reporters confront the real, physical dangers of the conflict, forced to choose between their friendship and their countries, their understanding of good and evil, and the moral dilemmas of war.
All the while trying to look after mischievous Henri, an immigrant French boy whose comical escapades constantly lead to trouble, they bear witness to the high points of the American Revolution.
It gets a big thumbs-up from Common Sense Media, which recommends it for kids 8 and older, saying:
Parents need to know that if ever there was a worthwhile TV series for tweens, Liberty's Kids is it. The fact that each episode is a self-contained lesson in American history does nothing to diminish its entertainment value. ...
Because the show strives to adhere to historical fact, many storylines include violence and death (and in at least one case, execution), so it’s not appropriate for little kids, but it’s an enjoyable series that offers tweens an impressive amount of substance.
Read the whole review here.
Have a happy and Blessed Independence Day!
Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager and blog editor at Family Theater Productions.