Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sensation “Hamilton” certainly no longer needs an introduction, but its expanding education program is breathing new life into the universally acclaimed musical.
After runs in New York and Chicago, the Hamilton Education Program came to the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles Thursday afternoon for the second of three all-student audiences of “Hamilton.”
In total, over 7,800 Los Angeles area high school students will get the opportunity to experience “Hamilton” through EduHam, one of several history education programs at Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The $60 tickets are fully covered by funders from the Rockefeller Foundation, Toys R Us Children’s Fund, and the Annenberg Foundation.
Thursday’s program kicked off with original student performances inspired by Miranda’s show. There was a palpable energy in the room as the audience clapped along with students who got the chance to sing, act, and rap about historical figures including Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and King George.
James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, has seen “Hamilton” over a dozen times, but what he looks forward to most is witnessing the clever and unique student works.
“We had two performances this morning of Abigail Adams by high school girls. Abigail Adams is not in the show,” Basker pointed out. “They’re not responding to the show, they’re responding to their own discovery of her in documents. They give her voice on stage today, and it’s totally original.”
One of Thursday’s Abigail Adams-centered songs came from Apollonia Cuneo, a junior at John Marshall High School.
“Abigail Adams is a name you might not know,” Cuneo sang before transitioning into a rap reminding Abigail’s husband John Adams to, “Remember the ladies.” Mid rap, she dropped a line that drew a massive applause: “Keep in mind, all men will be tyrants if they could — Donald Trump.”
Cuneo said her teacher inspired her to write about Abigail Adams. “I liked the fact that it was a rap sandwiched between two songs,” she told Variety. “It was funny that I put in the Donald Trump part. I was writing it and I thought about it and I was like, this still stands true today.”
Amber Iman, who plays Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds on the national tour, emceed the event and later moderated a Q&A session with fellow cast members. Students submitted questions asking members of the cast about their familiarity with U.S. history before joining the show and how to break into the industry.
Students prepped for EduHam by studying American history through a special integrated curriculum about Hamilton and the nation’s Founding Fathers. Amanda Mejia, a U.S. history teacher at School for the Visual Arts and Humanities in Los Angeles, said incorporating musical elements into the curriculum brought her class alive.
“They were able to see the historical integrity is still there, even though it’s a song,” Mejia said. “It just added life, it added color to everything we’re learning about with the American Revolution.”
Mejia said she was looking forward to witnessing her student’s reactions to the show, most of whom have never been to the theater before. In preparation to see “Hamilton,” Mejia said 118 of her 120 students created and performed a historical rap or poem in class.
“What I found the most surprising is the kids I thought were going to be the most incredible who had the best academic skills were not the best performers. The best performers and the best songs came from the students who are actually failing my class and are now passing because of the project,” she shared. “This really gave a voice to the kids who don’t always do as well.”
She added, “It just reminds us that kids learn in different ways. As teachers, we have to provide a lot of opportunities, a lot of different options so that they can show what they know. Some kids are really talented in music, and they don’t get that opportunity to shine in the traditional essay-writing conventional school way.”
Basker said he hopes “Hamilton” changes the chemistry of students learning about the founding era, which he jokes is normally like castor oil. (“You have to take it, it’s good for you, but it doesn’t taste good,” he quipped.)
“I’ve never seen anything like it in 40 years as an educator,” Basker said. “These kids are finding it the sexiest, most compelling period in American history because they get to enter into it personally, take ownership of events and then give voice to their version. They’re really reclaiming the founding era for themselves.”
Julia Harriman, who participated in the cast panel and played Eliza Hamilton in Thursday’s performance, calls students the “most rewarding” audience.
“They really catch the little things, like the little humor and the mannerisms on stage,” Harriman said. “There’s this energy that you can feel right when you walk on stage. They’re a lot more vocal as well.”
And sure enough, the audience roared as the lights dimmed and Aaron Burr came on stage to kick off a matinee of “Hamilton.”