"Hamilton" U - A summer course explores the many facets of the wildly popular musical
It’s Friday morning in the Humanities Building on the UW-Madison campus. Sarah Marty, wearing a leaf-green dress and a faded jean jacket, searches frantically for the work laptop that’s supposed to be in her book bag. “I can’t believe it’s our last day already,” says Marty, a faculty associate from the Division of Continuing Studies and lead instructor for the summer class Hamilton: An American Musical. Then she makes a course-specific joke under her breath, “There’s a million things we haven’t done!”
Several students smile at the reference to one of the show’s musical refrains, which characterizes Alexander Hamilton’s zeal for writing and his passion for establishing this country’s financial system. Marty has a similar zeal for sharing her of love musical theater with others — through her work as producing artistic director of Four Seasons Theatre by teaching classes like this one, which focuses on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster.
This is hardly her first foray into the subject. Last summer, she taught a class about groundbreaking productions called “Game Changers,” which included Hamilton. She’s also showcased the story of the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” in three lifelong learning classes and two summer music clinic classes for high school students.
Why is Hamilton one of the most successful musicals of all-time? “It unearths a part of our history that hasn’t been examined before now and tells the story of Alexander Hamilton in a brand new way,” says Marty. “The show builds on the rich foundation of American musical theater and pushes it forward in significant ways that include incorporating hip-hop and rap in the score. The result is complex and yet completely accessible.”
The musical has captured the attention of people far outside the typical theater audience. When the production debuted at New York’s Public Theater in 2015, it earned eight Drama Desk Awards. The following season on Broadway it garnered 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The cast album received a Grammy Award and sold more than 3 million copies. Fan furor for the musical shows no sign of flagging, even as top ticket prices reach $750.
This summer’s two-credit, Hamilton-focused course began with five weeks of independent study, including listening to the original cast album and reading Hamilton: The Revolution(referred to as the “Hamiltome” by devoted fans). It’s an in-depth look at the musical’s development by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, who helped develop the show at the Public.
At the end of July, Marty conducted the in-person portion of the course — one jam-packed week with an excellent roster of instructors.
The class visited the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the Wisconsin State Historical Society, where they reviewed documents referenced in Hamilton, including Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Dance instructor Cindy Severt taught four measures of dance steps from “My Shot” and “Yorktown.” Students also discussed the influence of choreographers on the show’s extensive, athletic dance sequences.
The class met with UW-Madison history grad student Maggie Flamingo, who talked about the process of ratifying the U.S. Constitution, and John Kaminski, a history professor emeritus, who discussed his 2016 book, Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness.
To explore the intricacies of “spitting a verse and dropping some knowledge” students looked to Alexander Shashko, from the UW Department of Afro-American Studies, who provided a brief history of hip-hop and discussed how it’s integrated into Hamilton.
They also discussed racially inclusive casting, which included people of color playing George Washington, Aaron Burr and Hamilton himself. “We talked about the ripple effect of these choices, and how this may affect the works that are workshopped, financed and produced in the future,” says Marty. “I think it’s going to have a long-term effect on the stories that are told, and the roles that are available for people of color.”
Class participant Lewis Bosworth, who teaches poetry to older adults, called the class “fantastic.” “I’m very interested in theater and hip-hop,” says Bosworth. “ I think it’s extremely important for writers to expand their knowledge of different forms.”
Cynthia France, a retired nurse with a lifelong love of theater, saw the show in Chicago earlier this year, and estimates she’s listened to the cast album “thousands of times.” So was there anything more for a superfan to learn? “Oh yes,” she says, “It was so much fun to take apart all the layers of the show and see how they fit together. And believe me, there are unlimited layers.”
Marty agrees: “What I love about talking about Hamilton in the classroom is that each person brings such unique insights to the conversation. It’s such a rich piece. It provokes lots of interesting responses. Every time I’ve taught this class, it’s never the same.”
This article first appeared in Isthmus.