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Classy Classes: Students go ham for ‘Hamilton’ in AFRICAAM 5I
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Classy Classes: Students go ham for ‘Hamilton’ in AFRICAAM 5I

In a 1-unit lecture series, AFRICAAM 5I/AMSTUD 5I/CSRE 5I/HISTORY 3G: “Hamilton: An American Musical,” students examine the life of Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries through an in-depth analysis of the critically-acclaimed Broadway musical that lends its namesake to the course title. The interdisciplinary course invites faculty from several departments —  African & African American studies (AAAS), comparative studies in race and ethnicity (CSRE), theater and performance studies (TAPS) and history, to name a few — to share their perspectives on the music, casting and storytelling of the musical.

“Hamilton: An American Musical” narrates the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, with book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Allyson Hobbs, associate professor of American history and director of AAAS, launched the course this quarter to investigate the way “Hamilton” redefined traditional sound, casting and storytelling on Broadway.

Hobbs said she was inspired to create the class after seeing “Hamilton” last summer. She said she was “blown away” by the play, and that creating a platform for other professors to speak about the play was a way for her to channel the enthusiasm she felt when she first viewed it.

“The night I saw it, I couldn’t sleep,” Hobbs said. “I just started thinking to myself, ‘What can I do with this energy and enthusiasm that I have about this play?’ And I thought, I would love to teach a class on this.”

Hobbs added that she hopes the collaborative, interdisciplinary nature of the course will help bring together students from different campus departments, including those who have not necessarily seen the musical.

“We felt that [the course] was a productive way of bringing engineers and computer scientists into the humanities,” she said. “We felt like this was a great opportunity for different groups of students with different academic interests on campus to have the chance to take a class together. I really like the idea of emphasizing that there’s so much to learn about ‘Hamilton,’ whether you’ve seen it or not … We’re all learning together.”

Valexa Orelien ’21, a student currently enrolled in the course, is a self-professed “huge ‘Hamilton nerd.” She said she decided to enroll in the course to enhance her understanding of the musical.

Similarly, Maggie Roache ’21 said she enrolled in the class because of her love for the musical that began when she was in high school.

“It was actually the first class I had scheduled for this quarter and set my schedule around making sure I could take this,” Roache said. “I was really excited about the opportunity to hear experts’ thoughts on [the musical] through this class.”

Orelien said the class has given her a deeper understanding of the production, staging and inspiration behind the musical.

“A lot of times, you’re listening to [the songs] and you’re thinking, ‘It’s good music, it’s a nice storyline,’ but you’re not really thinking about the elements that went into it,” Orelien shared.

Overall, Orelien said that the course has made her “appreciate all of the effort that went into the storytelling.”

Orelien said that her favorite lecture was given by Thomas Grey, professor of musicology, and Charles Kronengold, assistant professor of musicology. The lecture discussed the influence of hip-hop and 90s R&B on the music in the show.

Roache concurred with Orelien, saying that she enjoyed learning more about the music in the show, the very aspect that attracted her to the musical in the first place.

“I loved the lecture on music because it was super interesting to hear the comparison between 90s rap and ‘Hamilton,’” Roache said.

Orelien said she values the course’s attention to detail and the way lecturers explore the grey areas in the show’s narrative. For instance, a guest lecture by U.S. history professor Estelle Freedman about the portrayal of female characters in “Hamilton” — such as the Schuyler sisters and Maria Reynolds — made Orelien question the balance between artistic freedom and historical accuracy.

“It made me think, is this musical problematic?” Orelien said.

Orelien added her belief that Hobbs facilitates class discussion well and fosters an environment in which students are comfortable exploring the ambiguities of the musical and the history it depicts.

“I’ve come to a point where I can still appreciate the magical aspects of ‘Hamilton’ and still look at it through a more critical lens,” Hobbs said. “It’s so important for us to critique things that we love, because we come to a deeper understanding of why we love that particular [work]. And particularly when something has as much cultural impact as ‘Hamilton,’ it becomes even more important for us to look at the critiques of it as well.”

Upcoming class meetings feature presentations about “Hamilton”’s nontraditional casting, the business of Broadway and the past and future of hip-hop theater. Future guest lecturers include Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, Jeff Chang, executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts and Jennifer Brody, TAPS department chair.

 

Alex Tsai contributed to this report.

Contact Tyler Johnson at tjohn21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the course’s complete departmental listings. The Daily regrets this error.