This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Young, scrappy, and hungry might just be the perfect words to describe the students who performed Thursday on the Hamilton set in Philadelphia.
“We just had to go for it,” said Brandon Santana, a student performer.
More than 1,700 students from 36 high schools in the Philadelphia region – and from as far away as Allentown, Lebanon, and Harrisburg – went to the Forrest Theatre as part of the show’s educational program. They got a special opportunity to see a matinee performance of Hamilton and to interact with cast members.
Over the last few weeks, these students have been working in the classroom and after school to learn about U.S. history with the program (#EduHam) designed around the blockbuster musical. All the students who attended participated in the creation and submission of an artistic performance individually or in small groups.
Of those students, some elected to perform their creations on the Forrest stage before their peers. There were 15 such performances in all. These included a re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party, a debate between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s ride, and a dance based on the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. One young woman rapped about “And Peggy,” the third Schuyler daughter who only gets a mention in the show, overshadowed by her sisters, who both had close relationships with Hamilton, one as his wife.
Santana and Raynel Lopez, who are juniors at Esperanza Academy Charter School in North Philadelphia, performed a rap about Haym Salomon, a U.S. businessman who helped finance the American Revolution.
“Our objective was to do something very original, but at the same time something that not a lot of people knew a lot about,” said Lopez.
Hamilton tickets usually sell for about $300, but the show made tickets for the students available for only $70. A group of charitable partner organizations, including the Hamilton Family Charitable Trust, Chappell Culpeper Family Foundation, and the Rosenthal Family Foundation, provided $60 for each ticket so that the students, or their schools, paid only $10 each to see the matinee.
The musical, which was launched in New York and performed on Broadway, has won a Grammy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and 11 Tony Awards. Hamilton has hosted educational programs in New York, Chicago, and other cities around the country.
Students wait in line outside the Forrest Theatre to see “Hamilton.” (Photo: Joseph Staruski)
On Thursday, students arrived at the theater in droves at 9 a.m. for check-in. Student performances started a little after 10:15 a.m., followed by a Q&A with some of the cast members, and then an afternoon matinee of the show.
For many of the students, this was an opportunity like they have never had before.
Even after the student performances were over and they had left the theater for lunch, Santana said, “I still have the adrenaline running. I was terrified before getting on stage.”
When the students took the stage, they found the audience abundantly supportive, and their audible reactions were a significant part of the experience that day. “Everybody is just with you and we were all jamming together,” said Lopez.
Cody Rodriguez, a junior at Constitution High School, had never seen a play or musical in person before Thursday. But he enjoys performing, doing poetry slam and making his own rap music.
“I just try to be very energetic and put on a show,” he said.
Rodriguez, Santana, and Lopez all spent a lot of time practicing before their public performances.
Lopez and Santana worked together late into the night and relied on each other’s support. “I would call him up at like 11 at night and say, ‘I’m having trouble with this, help me out,’” said Lopez.
The question-and-answer period with cast members happened after the student performances.
Edred Utomi, who plays Hamilton in this touring production, said that Hamilton’s legacy is a mixed bag. He said that the soundtrack makes it sound like Hamilton is a hero, but when he saw the play, he realized that it was not that simple.
“Well, that’s life. Everybody makes mistakes. There are shades of gray,” he said.
The performers also discussed less weighty things, such as hidden features of the set, including some microphones that no one would otherwise notice.
Josh Tower, who plays Aaron Burr, and performers Jennifer Geller, Krystal Mackie, Patrick Garr, and Andrew Maguire also spoke to the students.
Mackie, who is part of the ensemble, said that when she got the job to work for Hamilton, she was overwhelmed with joy. She said that she tries to keep that feeling strong even after working for the production for a few years, so that the audience can have that same feeling of newness.
Cody Rodriguez of Constitution High School, rapping about Patrick Henry. (Photo: Joseph Staruski)
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History worked in tandem with Hamilton creator and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeffrey Seller, respectively, and the Rockefeller Foundation to develop the program. The Institute works to promote the study of American history among students in K-12 and among the general public by hosting a national elementary school writing contest, paid internships, and by working with schools to develop curriculum and extracurricular activities.
Hamilton has had a big impact on American culture since it was first performed on Broadway in 2015. The play makes history more accessible to a contemporary audience by using rap music and casting founding fathers with non-white actors.
Rodriguez commented on what makes the play special: “It is very unifying, in that anybody can play any role. So I think it is something that describes unification, the struggles, hardships, and the overcoming of everything.”
Said Santana: “My family and my friends just really love this show and how it relates to the history that actually happened.”