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NYC students see ‘Hamilton,’ perform onstage for history class

On a recent Wednesday morning, some 1,300 juniors from 17 New York City public schools lined up outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

They took selfies as they excitedly waited to see “Hamilton,” the Tony Award-winning cultural phenomenon about our nation’s founding that is one of the most coveted tickets on Broadway. Prime orchestra seats cost more than $800; they were seeing it for just a Hamilton, or $10.

Their luck was the result of a month of hard work and a unique educational partnership between the show, the New York City Department of Education and two NYC organizations.

Thanks to a $1.46 million grant from the
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Thanks to a $1.46 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and a curriculum from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 20,000 city public school students from Title 1 schools have a chance to see "Hamilton" and learn about the history that inspired the hip-hop musical.

The program kicked off last spring, with select Wednesday matinees devoted to student audiences, and will run as long as it can, with plans to expand to other cities with "Hamilton" productions, such as Chicago.

It all started with the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

"He always wanted students to have some way to see the show and be involved -- he was the driving force behind it," said James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

The show approached the institute to develop an
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The show approached the institute to develop an in-class curriculum based on "Hamilton" that the students would study, leading up to seeing the show. Gilder Lehrman also developed a website where students can explore interviews with the cast and an archive of documents from the era.

"There is no one single way to teach American history, and when this came along, those of us who had seen the show felt there was a huge power in this show to get the attention of students and capture their imagination," Basker said. "In education, imagination is the most important thing. If you can't capture and excite the imagination of students, they're never going to care about your subject."

Instead of an exam, students create their own performance piece, such as a poem or dramatic scene, and representatives from each school perform it on stage before they see "Hamilton."

At the recent matinee, friends Jaelen Smith and
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

At the recent matinee, friends Jaelen Smith and Adante Power, AP U.S. history students at Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts in Manhattan, were among the more than 30 students selected by their school to perform their piece before their peers on the "Hamilton" stage. The two wrote a letter from Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson about slavery.

"It's a battle of personal need versus public justice," said Power, of Bedford-Stuyvesant. "We thought it was a good subject -- it still speaks to values today."

In addition to seeing "Hamilton," both were thrilled to perform on the Broadway stage.

"I love performing," said Smith, of Co-op City. "It's just a wonderful opportunity."

The matinee was a hot ticket for the
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

The matinee was a hot ticket for the students; Brooklyn High School of the Arts had about 100 tickets for its 200 juniors studying U.S. history. The school held auditions and took academic achievement into consideration when selecting which students could attend.

"It was a fierce competition, but really fun though," said Frank Proudfoot, assistant principal of the arts and a U.S. history teacher at the Downtown Brooklyn school. He was already incorporating the "Hamilton" soundtrack into his classroom before this opportunity.

"It allows the students to really get interested in the history in a fun way," he said. "You'd never think the creation of the government would be of interest, but songs like the 'Cabinet Battle' really made it come alive."

After the student performances, the schools were also
Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

After the student performances, the schools were also treated to a Q&A with members of the cast, where topics ranged from the show's diversity to the cast's favorite moments, followed by the production of "Hamilton."

"They're steeped in the founding era -- they've spent three to four weeks studying the founding era," Basker said. "Better than most audiences, they know the plot and the allusions."

For many students, such as Remi Lewis, an AP U.S. history student at Brooklyn High School of the Arts, this was their first Broadway show.

"I would love to perform on Broadway," said Lewis, of Williamsburg. "I want to be a musician. Singing to a crowd builds up your confidence."

Participating in the "Hamilton" education program has proven to impart its own level of confidence, too. Gilder Lehrman has seen long-lasting impacts for students who participated last school year.

"This year as seniors, they're still showing signs of a new kind of confidence as they write their application essays to college about their experience of 'Hamilton,'" Basker said. "They use lines from the show -- 'I am not throwing away my shot,' and 'I wanna be in the room where it happens.' Teachers are telling us this has the potential for a long-term, beneficial effect."


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