After almost a month and a half with no performances, Broadway in Hollywood’s production of “Hamilton” returned to the Pantages Theatre on Wednesday with a special audience: 2,600 Los Angeles public high school students.
“I can’t imagine a better way to start our last six weeks here in the Pantages,” James Viggiano, company manager for the Los Angeles company of “Hamilton,” told Variety — adding that the return also marks the production’s last leg at the Pantages. “The cast always looks forward to having a house full of students because it’s an energy unlike anything else.”
As countless theaters across the country know all too well, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to significant delays and uncertainties for bringing live performances back to the stage. According to Viggiano, the current Los Angeles production of “Hamilton” was originally set to begin in March 2020 — but the show was shut down that month (on March 12, the day that was supposed to be the company’s first preview performance) due to public health concerns. Rehearsals didn’t start again until July 2021, with “Hamilton” performances finally taking the Pantages stage in August. But on Dec. 24, another layoff began due to the omicron variant.
“Starting and stopping is never easy, but fortunately the folks in and around the show are wonderful and really thoughtful about how we do that,” said Jeff Loeb, general manager of the Pantages. “We’re kicking off this restart with an ‘EduHam’ performance, so we have [over] 2,000 Title I LAUSD students in the building — all of which were required to do a performance art piece based on a source from the Founding Era — and so we don’t have 2,000 students, we have 2,000 performers in the building watching ‘Hamilton.’ It’s a pretty special event.”
In addition to marking “Hamilton’s” most recent return to the Los Angeles stage, Wednesday’s performance was part of the Hamilton Education Program (or EduHam) — a program that seeks to blend history, learning and artistic expression/performance in classrooms across the country.
‘Hamilton’ producer Jeffrey Seller, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Rockefeller Foundation started EduHam in 2015. Through the program, students studying U.S. history receive a special curriculum over several weeks — which includes primary-source research on historical events and figures (like Alexander Hamilton), song analysis and the task of weaving what’s been learned into an original performance.
Jennifer Lico, a high school senior at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools who attended Wednesday’s performance, joined two friends to make a project that examined the election of 1800 — communicating key information through a parody song to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.”
“It doesn’t really matter what class I’m in, I like mixing in music with [anything I do],” said Lico, who plans to major in political science in college after graduation. “I guess that’s why I like ‘Hamilton’ — because it’s educational, but it’s also creative and something that gives me entertainment.”
Link Mize, a social studies teacher at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools’ New Open World Academy, has been involved in EduHam since the program was implemented at the Los Angeles Unified School District around 2017. Throughout his 16 year-long career as an educator, Mize notes that it hasn’t been common to see this kind of performance brought into the classroom.
“That’s what makes this particularly special — it doesn’t just teach the kids how to be creative, but it teaches teachers how to bring in music and creativity, which is not something that lesson plans usually allow for… [But] this project gives a lot of examples of how it could actually work — you’re showing your understanding, whether you’re showing it through a rap or through an essay,” said Mize, who has also noticed that creative projects allow many students to be able to express themselves and understand the material more, as writing evaluations are not always as accessible.
EduHam has, of course, shifted in recent years as remote learning and critical COVID-19 protocols impacted both the classroom and live performance experiences. In April 2020, “Hamilton” and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History launched EduHam at Home, a free online program and extension of both the Hamilton Education Program and the Hamilton Education Program Online, which is used for EduHam students that don’t have access to live performances.
Live performances for Los Angeles high schoolers in EduHam curriculum were paused over the past couple of years, but the Pantages team worked with LAUSD, the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office and multiple other city/municipal partners to make this year’s performance possible. 28 LAUSD schools participated in the most recent Wednesday matinee and post-performance Q&A with a few members of the cast. Another 30 schools will attend next Wednesday (Feb. 16).
Both Lico and Mize also underline the importance of having programs that allow students to both gain exposure to the arts and attend performances at Los Angeles landmarks like the Pantages through school.
“This kind of opportunity doesn’t come very often, especially for our kids,” Mize said. “Over 90% of our school qualifies for free lunch, which means they’re living below the poverty level, so something like this is an opportunity that is life-changing for a lot of them… It’s every single one of my students’ first time in the Pantages.”
There’s still more work to be done. Lico hopes that these kinds of opportunities can continue to expand across the country. “None of us think, ‘Oh, one day I’ll see a Broadway show’… it’s so expensive. Having this opportunity [is] educational, but it’s also once-in-a-lifetime and it’s something that a lot of us look forward to,” said Lico. “I hope that there are other students in low-income communities who will be able to see these things… I want it to spread.”
Loeb added that witnessing performances like “Hamilton” through EduHam “isn’t just a field trip.” “This is an opportunity for [students] to envision perhaps a career they never thought of before… It really gives them a chance and an exposure to see all the different careers that are potentially associated with being in the arts.”