Sarah Marty, professor with the UW-Madison division of continuing studies, has been in “the room where it happens” to see “Hamilton” four times.
Now she’s delving deeper into the “Hamilton” phenomenon in a six-week summer course dedicated to the award-winning musical that highlights a story that is so American.
“It’s a musical of its time and of this time,” said Alexander Shashko, professor in the department of Afro-American studies at UW-Madison. “It is trying to make a statement about what it means to be an American, what American ideals and values are, (which) is something Americans always wrestle with — but has been resonant as of late.
“Art provides a tremendous opportunity to wrestle with those questions.”
“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical based on the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, premiered on Broadway in August 2015 and won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2016. The show also broke the record for most money made in a week by a Broadway show in November 2016 by grossing $3.3 million.
Marty — arts area chair for the division of continuing studies and producing artistic director of Four Seasons Theatre — said the musical is growing quickly with its Chicago company, a touring company and soon the London company.
Marty taught a class last summer about musicals that challenged the genre of musical theater, which included “Hamilton,” and has taught two smaller versions of the “Hamilton” course.
“What’s so attractive to people is there are so many ways to look at it as a piece of art,” Marty said, “So we’re coming at it from many different perspectives.”
Cynthia France, 60, who took Marty’s four-lecture “Hamilton” course in fall 2016 and her musical theater course last summer, wondered how a course could focus on just one musical.
“If anyone can be creative and intelligent enough to come up with material, it’ll be Sarah Marty,” France said.
Students will examine the show’s musical complexity, designs, script, choreography, its historical perspectives and even its business side — which is interesting because the show sells out everywhere it goes.
The first five weeks of “ ‘Hamilton’: A Cultural Revolution” — which started on June 19 — are online, with two modules a week before a week of in-person class that includes a variety of guest speakers.
It’s too late to take the course for credit, but latecomers can still register for non-credit participation in the class through July 15 or until the 30-person class is full. The course cost is $275.
A guest choreographer will discuss the importance of dance in storytelling, Shashko will discuss the show’s relationship to hip hop and someone will come to speak on the ratification of the Constitution from the Center for the Study of the American Constitution on campus, Marty said.
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She added that the class includes a good mix of people from retirees to undergraduate students.
Having that wide range is a fantastic thing because everyone provides a different perspective, which benefits anyone in the classroom, Marty said.
“That’s been really interesting and encouraging to see so many different kinds of students of different ages and backgrounds who want to come and talk about this work of art,” Shashko said. “When you think about it, it’s incredible that this work of art — that not a lot of people have seen — captures the imagination of so many people.”
When Norman Fost snagged tickets to see “Hamilton” on Broadway, he was open-minded but “prepared to be annoyed,” he said.
Fost’s ticket was $400 and he missed about “80 percent” of the lyrics, but that didn’t stop his curiosity about the award-winning musical.
He then saw the show a second time, took one of the shorter “Hamilton” courses and is part of the current course.
Now Fost, a 78-year-old UW-Madison emeritus professor of pediatrics and bioethics, is among the many “Hamilfans” who are compelled by Miranda’s tale of the “ten-dollar founding father without a father.”
“I was a fierce enemy of hip hop,” Fost said. “But Miranda has said (hip hop) is the only way to tell this story and it was such a perfect medium for Hamilton’s life and everything he wanted to tell. It’s parallel to how people use hip hop today and how impoverished people are writing their way out of poverty.
“For me, as a sample of one, (Miranda) has completely converted me (to using hip hop) to tell this story. I now appreciate what a powerful modality it is for this kind of story.”
The earlier four-lecture course also inspired France to expand her thoughts on hip-hop and different kinds of music.
France said she was never interested in listening to hip-hop or rap until “Hamilton” came along with lightning-quick lyricism.
After taking the shorter “Hamilton” course, France chose to audit one of Shashko’s hip hop courses to expand her knowledge even further.
Students in the class will still have to find their own tickets to the show, but the class can give them a deeper appreciation.
And for Fost, there is no end in sight for the number of times he hopes to the see the show.