A Student Day at ‘Hamilton’
By Don Adkins, Managing Editor, May 31, 2018
As the mega-hit Hamilton approaches its third year anniversary since opening on Broadway (after its sold-out run at the Public Theater), we took the opportunity of checking in on the production to see yet another side of how its success has been benefiting the lives of thousands of high school students from the New York City metropolitan area. With all the preliminary buzz and resounding acclaim the production immediately received upon taking stage, the producers embraced the concept early on of ‘paying it forward’ with the establishment of the Hamilton Education Program, which was announced on October 27, 2015.
This initiative was the brainchild of producer Jeffrey Seller together with the work’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Rockefeller Foundation, the NYC Department of Education and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Mr. Seller was quoted as saying after the first exclusive school matinee performance on April 13, 2016 “Today, one of our greatest dreams for Hamilton came true – sharing this musical with 1,300 high school students whose participation in the study program and reactions to the performance were unlike anything we’ve experienced before. We look forward to building on this educational program all over America.”
Now, two years later, over 35,000 New York City high school students have taken part in this program which has been expanded to include the sit-down production of Hamilton in Chicago, as well as its two current national tours. The Rockefeller Foundation provided an initial grant of $1.46 million which established a base of funding for the educational partnership for New York City. After the success of the partnership here, The Foundation committed an additional $6 million to help support the national expansion of the program, and The Toys “R” Us Children’s Fund (the charitable arm of Toy “R” Us, Inc.) contributed $1 million dollars towards the national outreach of the program for the 2017-2018 academic year (the parent company filed for bankruptcy this past March, so any future funding is up in the air).
The educational portion of the program is coordinated by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The organization provided ZEALnyc access to their online study guide which is sent to participating teachers and students to aid in their preparation of attending these special matinees. (There are not a set number of these student events planned each year, as they have to be arranged around the school system’s academic schedule, working around busy testing periods and school breaks, etc.). Gilder Lehrman hosts an extraordinarily extensive website with innumerable links to place the show’s significance into historical context, with links to original source material, which includes biographical information for over 40 key players (or related players) of the period, a timeline of events from 1755 (Hamilton’s birth) to 1804 (Hamilton’s death), with many important dates highlighted in between. Under a tab entitled “key documents” there are links to a whole array of historical papers, from political essays and writings of the day to the text of the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, various addresses by George Washington, among others. It’s a treasure trove of historical information, all in a ‘one-stop shopping’ kind of way, making a student’s quest for understanding this tumultuous time of our nation’s founding even easier and more immediate. The site even contains videos of Miranda and other original cast members in brief comments about their connections and understanding of the title character and related historical information prior to working on the production and what they learned through personal research during role preparation. It’s a real example of how information can be presented in a concise format that would never have been possible prior to the advent of the internet and the digital age that we all now seem to take for granted.
Every student attending one of these special matinees is required to prepare some form of artistic expression, ranging from a rap, a song, a poem, a monologue, or a scene/skit related to Hamilton. These works may be prepared by either a single student or groups of up to three, with extensive paperwork and documentation required to provide evidence and substantiation of the developmental process and the various sources utilized as inspiration. These pieces are prepared in advance of the student matinee day, and from all the student submissions, each school chooses one which is deemed representative or having enough merit for the final presentation. From this group of entries (up to 25 per event), they are narrowed down even further to a group of approximately 8 to 12 that will perform on the day of the specific student matinee.
On the day of the event students begin arriving at the Richard Rodgers Theatre at 9:30 a.m. checking in for the morning session. For this particular student matinee on May 23, the audience was comprised of students from sixteen different high schools (all from the New York City school system), and from which ten have been chosen to perform in front of their peers on the stage of the theater — the same stage where they will see Hamilton later in the afternoon.
I was able to speak with two different groups of students to find out how each of them found their way to Hamilton. First, speaking with Isabel Rambarran and Nicole Nelson from the Manhattan Early College for Advertising, I wanted to find out how much they knew about the show Hamilton prior to working on their project. Isabel said “It all started in our history class. I had only seen billboards (of the show) and stuff and I said ‘yeah, I’m interested.’ I never thought we would get to this point (onstage of the Broadway theater hosting the production). We got an amazing response from our performance at school.” Then Nicole offered her completely opposite experience: “I love musicals. I’ve been to probably over 50 musicals in my lifetime. I’ve seen Hamilton twice before — including the original cast at the Public Theater.”
I then asked how seeing and studying Hamilton affected the way they look at history, with Isabel offering “I feel like Hamilton puts a modern twist on history because not everyone can learn from a textbook, but by coming to a Broadway play it teaches in an understandable way.” Nicole added “It’s a really diverse cast, and coming from a diverse school, I know that we can all benefit from seeing people who look like us on the Hamilton stage, so I think that’s better for us to relate to what they are talking about from 200 years ago.”
Speaking with students from the West Brooklyn Community High School (Leonard Silva, Hector Yanez Rosales and Jesenia “Jessie” Hernandez), they offered their perspective on the experience. Jessie said “[It] started with a history class and then through class we started making creative pieces that were poems or songs or skits, etc.” Hector said “I didn’t even really know about the show until I got this opportunity, but as soon as I started working on the project I have learned so much about it.” When I asked who was responsible for the script of their presentation, they said that it was a group effort by many of their classmates, but Leonard admitted “He (pointing to Hector) did a lot of the writing.”
It’s now showtime for the student presentations hosted by Justin Dine Bryant, an ensemble member from Hamilton, who comes on like gangbusters with all the requisite energy and talent to harness and subdue a theater full of high school students on a field trip. He definitely has the perfect style and demeanor to engage the students and prepare them for what they are about to witness. It’s not an easy task for a high school student to stand on a Broadway stage presenting material they have written in front of a theater full of their classmates (and strangers), but somehow Bryant creates a safe and fun environment, helping to dispel any fears the young performers may be feeling as they wait in the wings. The session begins with a skit by “47” The American Sign Language and English Secondary School voicing anti-establishment sentiments with the words “Trump” and “dirty dump” as part of its rhyme scheme; the audience reacts accordingly.
The presentations continue with a variety of poems and rap, with the students of Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts bringing out a drum, trumpet and a euphonium to back up their rapping vocalist (Zanaya Hollis). There is dramatic monologue by Peony Nobrega-Walcott from the High School of Economics & Finance that references black slavery and the “Massa” of Massachusettes harkening back to the form of address used by enslaved ancestors, while students from Robert F. Kennedy Community High School presented a strong assault on the horrors of our present gun control laws in relation to the Second Amendment, incorporating statistics and the realities of what going to school in this current climate of mass shootings is like and the fear and pain that high school students (and younger) are dealing with on a daily basis.
I must say I wasn’t prepared for the affect these student presentations would have on the audience, as well as for myself — someone so far removed from the everyday experience of being a teenager attending an urban metropolitan melting pot institution of learning. The students in this particular audience may not have reflected the “average” NYC student, since each one of them had to study and prepare to prove themselves worthy of taking advantage of this opportunity, but it was heartening to hear their words, have them share their talents, and realize this is our future — America’s future. And to also understand that an artistic work such as Hamilton could be the catalyst for focusing these future leaders to learn from the past and try to avoid previous mistakes, all while hoping to make things better. It was a humbling and awe-inspiring experience to say the least.
Following the student presentations was a Q & A session, again moderated by Mr. Bryant, with various members of the Hamilton family participating: Hope Endrenyi (a “universal” swing); Erin Clemons and Sasha Hollinger (ensemble members); and Joanna Jones (a principal actor who plays the double track of Peggy Schuyler and Hamilton’s paramour, Maria Reynolds, who is partially responsible for his ultimate demise). The actors answered a barrage of previously selected questions from the audience — everything from what their daily lives are like, if they liked American History when they were in school, how they deal with stage fright, and, how it feels to be a person of color portraying our founding fathers (or those interacting with them). I’m sure some of the mystique vanished when they all admitted to having to work in grocery shopping, going to doctor’s appointments, getting to the gym, along with everything else required in life when they are not at the theater.
Ms. Endrenyi then explained her specific situation as a “universal” swing, which differs from a typical swing. A swing is a performer who doesn’t perform in the show regularly, but is ready to go onstage, typically in a variety of roles, in the event of illness, injury, planned absences, etc. But Hope is part of a new breed of actors called “universal” swings whereby some of the larger Broadway productions which have very specific (and often complicated) needs for actors filling in for another, employ a core of actors who are willing to pick up and go wherever they are needed. They are flown to any of the other productions around the country, and take over a role until the originally scheduled actor returns. She has to know all the variations of ALL the Hamilton productions and is ready to go into the show in Chicago or either of the two national tours at a moment’s notice. She admitted that it took her close to a year to feel completely confident to jump into any of the productions in any of the five roles she covers.
The morning’s presentation came to a close and a much needed lunch break began so everyone could clear their heads and prepare for what brought everyone here in the first place — seeing a matinee performance of Hamilton. Flash forward to 1:30 p.m. as the students are assembling back to the theater and taking their seats for the main attraction. Again, the energy in the theater is palpable, and as the house lights dim the show begins. I think I am able to say that this is a day that everyone in that theater will remember for a very long time, if not for the rest of their lives.
After the performance, I was remembering lyrics from the afternoon’s performance:
Look around, look around at how
Lucky we are to be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be
In the greatest city in the world!
I couldn’t agree more. Viva Hamilton — long may it run (and continue to pay it forward).
Cover: Students lining up to enter the Richard Rodgers Theatre for the matinee of Hamilton: photo: Joseph DiGiovanna.