Want a $10 ticket to “Hamilton”? Try enrolling in a New York City public school.
Tickets to the Broadway sensation — and presumptive Tony Awards champion — may be going for $500 a pop for the rest of us, but through a special program created last fall, students at some Title I city schools have the chance to snag the hottest ticket in the town for a sawbuck. At a recent student matinee, those kids filled the house with a palpable sense of excitement, and the scene outside the theater felt a little like a rock concert.
But don’t call them pushovers.
“They’re really tough audiences,” said Tony nominee Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in the show. “Kids do not give it up. New York City kids, too? They’re not giving it up for any hokey nonsense. They actually force us to be more honest.”
The rest of show’s cast and creators also seem to have embraced the idea that they’re learning as much from the students as the kids learn from them. Emceeing a showcase of student talent with creator-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson, Tony-nominated for his turn as George Washington in the musical, told his young audience, “Nothing makes us happier than to have you in the house.”
Last fall, the producers of “Hamilton” partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the New York City Department of Education to launch the $1.46 million program centered around a monthly series of matinees, offered to some 20,000 students for $10 a ticket (with the balance subsidized by the Rockefeller Foundation). Kids prep for the show with a two-month regimen of history studies, facilitated by the program’s study and performance guides. The morning of the matinee, students convene on the Rodgers to watch young representatives of their schools get up on stage and present historically themed raps, songs and monologues.
The program seems a natural fit for a Broadway musical with such an obvious educational component. It doesn’t hurt, too, that the initiative also serves as an effective PR counterbalance to the hype that the only way to get a ticket to “Hamilton” is to shell out hundreds of dollars for premium seats (and that the people doing so at the moment are, in contrast to the diverse ensemble onstage, largely white).
During an hourlong presentation on the morning of the May matinee, students performed everything from a song with a Caribbean rhythm in tribute to Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace (“Yes you best believe it, that such a great man was born into the Caribbean,” went the tune by a trio from Schuylerville Preparatory High School) to a monologue inspired by the early African American writer Phyllis Wheatley to a rap battle over the competing perspectives of the Boston Massacre.
The Broome Street Academy Charter High School paired a rap performed by 16-year-old Tootie Uwaifo with the stylings of human beatbox and fellow student Chris Zaragoza. If the goal of the program is to awaken interest in history through empathy, it seems to be working. “I used a primary source about the Whiskey Rebellion,” Uwaifo said of her piece. “I knew what I wanted to do because I could picture myself in that situation.”
After a panel discussion with members of the “Hamilton” cast and creative team, the students returned for the show itself. They proved an attentive, vocal audience, gasping at the British brutality suggested by moments in the show’s choreography, cheering at every verbal jab that Hamilton landed in a cabinet meeting and reacting with editorial turbulence when the protagonist became entangled with a woman who’s not his wife.
“What I’ve enjoyed is the sound of their inner monologue while they’re watching the show,” said Renee Elise Goldsberg, one of the actresses nommed for a Tony for “Hamilton.” “It kind of helps me rediscover the show, because I am so much more aware of being a storyteller and crafting a performance.”
Kids may make a tough crowd, but there was no question at the May matinee that they were also an appreciative one. “I like the perspective of seeing history in a musical,” said Mariolis Sanchez of the Facing History School, during the matinee’s intermission. “It captures your attention more, and it makes you want to learn more about history.”
“We’ve been learning about history, so this is like more exciting to me,” agreed Ebony Cortez, a student a Pelham Lab High School.
For Cortez, as for many of the students in the crowd, “Hamilton” is her first Broadway show. To the theater industry at large, such first-timers represent the future of the business, with early exposure engendering the kind of habitual theatergoing that will sustain live entertainment in the years to come.
“Honestly, I like it,” Cortez said of “Hamilton,” sounding surprised by her own reaction. “I feel like this is a good experience for me.”