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Visitors can act, rap Hamilton story at Monticello

By LARRY BLEIBERG | Chicago Tribune | Published: April 21, 2017

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Alexander Hamilton never visited the home of archrival Thomas Jefferson. But the nation’s first Treasury secretary -- and namesake of the hit musical -- rules the house during the new Hamilton Tour Takeover at Monticello.

The after-hour visits are part history class and part civics lesson -- with chances to rap and sing.

“Jefferson is definitely a villain of the musical, but this is not in any way a response,” says Steve Light, Monticello’s tour manager. “We want people to engage in the history.”

The leaders’ complicated and contradictory relationship becomes clear the moment you enter the mansion. Light points to busts of Hamilton and Jefferson, which the third president installed so they could remain “opposed in death as in life.”

The guide distributes stick puppets of the Founding Fathers, and the nature of their conflict emerges as visitors read excerpts from source documents and lyrics from the musical. Hamilton, an “immigrant, orphan, bastard,” believed in the leadership of aristocrats, while Jefferson, an aristocrat, trusted in the people, Light says.

“Who does he mean by the people?” asks Astrid Crookshank, visiting from Maryland with her college-age son. “Women? Slaves? Or white landowners?”

Light answers by quoting “The Hamilton Mixtape” about the nature of history: “The reality is messier and richer, kids.”

As the tour approaches the dining room, a visitor begins to sing “The Room Where It Happens,” a showstopper from the play.

Light explains the famed meeting actually occurred in New York, where Hamilton, Jefferson and James Madison agreed the nation would assume states’ debts in return for placing the capital in Washington, D.C. As the song says, Jefferson likely “arranged the menu, the venue and the setting” with the help of his slave, Paris-trained chef James Hemings.

Tonight’s tour ends in the recently restored Dome Room, where Light brings up the 1800 presidential election. Surprisingly, Hamilton played a crucial role in helping Jefferson defeat his running mate, Aaron Burr. “Jefferson has beliefs,” Hamilton explains onstage. “Burr has none.”

As the evening sun streams through circular windows, Light asks his visitors their opinion: Are we living in Hamilton’s nation today or Jefferson’s? After some discussion, Crookshank speaks up.

“I think the country won,” she says, “because we have both.”

The roughly 90-minute tours cost $40 and are offered select Fridays and Saturdays through May, and in September; www.monticello.org.

From left, Susan Seehaver, Mia Magruder and Melanie Bowyer, of Charlottesville, Va., hold Founding Fathers stick puppets of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, during a new Hamilton tour of Monticello.
LARRY BLEIBERG/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

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