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More than 2,000 students got into the hottest show in Chicago for free — Hamilton: An American Musical — as part of their acceptance to Northwestern University.
It’s one of the ways colleges and high schools are using the hugely popular musical to teach students about history, art, drama, culture and even politics. There’s even a high school program coordinated through the show that has allowed nearly 49,000 students in four cities to see Hamilton for free or a reduced admission.
“It’s one thing to learn about these kind of events in a classroom but to go and see this in a production it’s different, and it’s just amazing,” said Northwestern freshman Alex Richards after seeing the smash hit musical.
First-year Northwestern students went to two matinees at CIBC Theatre in October on 48 buses as part of the One Book One Northwestern program, which includes a series of discussions, speakers and other events around the theme of a book. This year it was Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.
Nancy Cunniff, director for One Book One Northwestern, says the program gives students a common discussion point when they get to campus as well as a different perspective on a subject.
“Our approach has been to find different access points,” Cunniff said. “So maybe history is not your thing but you like musicals and then you go and see this musical and then maybe history isn’t so bad.”
The university also started a class last year called “Hamilton’s America,” a lecture course cross-listed in history and Latino studies. Last year they taught 135 students and this year they plan to raise the cap to 180, expecting interest to increase after the One Book program, said Geraldo Cadava, an associate professor who helps lead the class.
Milwaukee’s Marquette University is offering an honors, pass-fail course this semester for freshman called “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton,” after the musical’s creator. And it’s overfilled by almost double at 14 people. Assistant English Professor Gerry Canavan uses the soundtrack, videos and lyrics as well as the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, which Miranda used as inspiration for the play.
“To me it’s a really interesting way to teach the skills of criticism and interpretation and careful reading because you are looking at something that you haven’t necessarily been trained how to read in the same way you’ve been trained to read great literature,” Canavan said.
Ithaca College, Duke University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are among the other schools that offer credit or noncredit courses or touch on the show in other music or history classes.
Educators are also targeting high school students. There’s a program coordinated through the show and donors that uses donations to allow mostly 10th and 11th graders to see Hamilton for free or a reduced admission. Some students also write dramatic scenes, poems or songs drawing on the founding era time period to present on stage before a performance.
Since 2015, nearly 49,000 students have gone in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. It has started to expand to San Diego, Tempe, Ariz., Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Houston and Washington, D.C., and the idea is to send at least 100,000 students to the show by next summer.
“Our goal is to ensure that students have a shot to see Hamilton and use its words, music and staging to further their understanding and enjoyment of American History, music and drama,” Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller said about the program in a press release.
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