Thirty Davidson students recently had a once-in-a-lifetime experience: They got to see the smash hit musical "Hamilton" during its run in Charlotte.
The students in Theatre 332, or as it's known on campus, "The ‘Hamilton' Class," have studied the show all semester without seeing it. Though the original cast recording is widely available-and many students in the class know it by heart-videos are limited to a handful of numbers performed at award shows.
After they saw the show, however, the reading, lectures and class discussion snapped into focus.
"We can talk about the staging choices and the design choices a lot more," Samuel E. & Mary West Thatcher Professor & Acting Chair of Theatre Ann Marie Costa said. "The show takes everyone on an emotional journey. I hope the experience will stay with the students through the end of the semester and beyond."
This journey to the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center started in the summer of 2016, shortly after "Hamilton" capped its first season on Broadway with 11 Tony Awards. Costa and Charles A. Dana Professor of English Cynthia Lewis had traveled to New York to see the original cast perform.
They walked out of the theater - like so many - utterly enraptured.
"I think everyone emerges ‘changed' from the ‘Hamilton' experience," said Jacque Culpepper, Artist Associate in Voice, the third teacher of the course, who saw the play this past summer in Washington, DC. "Normal expectations are blown away."
Weeks after seeing it on Broadway, Lewis and Costa sat next to each other at a faculty meeting that sought to develop new ways of teaching interdisciplinary humanities courses. A grant from the Bacca Foundation would support exciting ideas.
"Cynthia turned to me and whispered ‘Hamilton,'" Costa said.
"'Hamilton' is such a dense body of work," Lewis said. "The biography by Ron Chernow is enough to sustain a course. But the show is groundbreaking in so many ways. From the music to the casting, we feel like we are barely scratching the surface."
Davidson professors aren't the first to tackle "Hamilton." Since it opened on Broadway in 2015, at least a dozen colleges and universities across the United States have organized classes to unpack its dense lyrics and marvel at its epic scope. However, only a handful can actually claim to have seen the show as a class unit.
"When we saw that ‘Hamilton' was coming to Charlotte," Lewis said. "We knew we couldn't say no to this," she said, slyly dropping a reference to one of the show's second-act numbers.
Together, Costa, Lewis and Culpepper team-teach a course that pivots from discipline to discipline within each hour-long session. (The course is officially listed as a theatre course but students can earn credit in theatre, English or music.)
The syllabus reaches even more widely, incorporating colleagues from sociology, communication studies and history - as well as a host of guest speakers.
"It has been totally exhilarating," Costa said. "But also a little exhausting."
Echoing one of the show's defining characteristics, demand for the course outstripped supply. An estimated 110,000 people tried to get tickets to the Charlotte performances when they went on sale this summer. The course was capped at 30 - which is a big class for teachers more used to intimate seminars. It filled immediately.
The show's intense following has imbued the class with a unique energy.
"There's an enthusiasm in the class for the material that I haven't experienced before," Haley Hamblin, '19 said. "Most of us know the music by heart and every time the professors play a song or show a video, we all lip sync or dance in our chairs."
A political science major, Hamblin notes, "Most students do not walk into class giddy for John Locke or Nietzsche."
"Let's just say they never have a chance to get bored," Culpepper said.
This was obvious on a sunny day in October when Carlos Robson, an award-winning spoken word artist made the trip from his home in Charlotte to Davidson. Robson was a guest lecturer, called in to talk about hip-hop, an acknowledged blind spot among the professors.
Robson opened his lecture by asking why students took the course. One student said that he met "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at a conference in 2014 so he wanted to learn more. Another expressed interest in how the play portrays people of color. Another student raised her hand to say that she was drawn into the class by the promise of the final project in which student groups will create original, staged performances based on historical events that feature at least two musical styles.
"But," she said, "It turns out, that's pretty hard."
Robson's eyes lit up. "Yes," he said. "But it will be yours."
Robson went on to show the class how a verse from rapper Big Pun's "Twinz (Deep Cover '98)" directly influenced the internal rhyme and meter that creator Miranda built into the show. Robson also rapped the opening number of "Hamilton" over the beat of Eminem's 2002 hit "Lose Yourself," demonstrating another tight connection between the Broadway hit and hip-hop.
“I’ve loved learning about the history of hip-hop and how Lin-Manuel Miranda stylized each of the Founding Fathers based upon famous rappers,” Graham Hooten ’20 said. ”The musical styles reflect each character's personality and I’ve enjoyed discovering the interplay between form, content, and character throughout the soundtrack.”
Robson elaborates on the symbiotic relationship between "Hamilton" and hip-hop in the video above.
Nearly a week after the class saw the show, three actors from the touring company visited their classroom as well. Ta’Rea Campbell (Angelica Schuyler), Nyla Sostre (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds) and Fergie Phillipe (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) shared backstage stories and lessons learned.
Philipe remembered a time during the tour’s stop in Cleveland when the conductor unexpectedly allowed the show to pause for an applause break. Standing on stage, Philippe—who graduated from Elon University in 2017—said he finally let his mind wander enough to realize that he was on stage, performing “Hamilton” to an ecstatic crowd. “Suddenly, tears just started streaming down my face,” he said.
The cast members also spoke about how proud they were to be part of a show that presented a different vision of the Founding Fathers. “It’s really beautiful to see people of color of all ages seeing other people of color on stage,” Campbell said. “We are ushering in a new normal.”
Note: This story was originally published on October 17, 2018. It was updated on October 23.