Teenagers poured into the auditorium, eyes alight with excitement, as teachers struggled to guide them into seats, the students’ enthusiasm impossible to contain. Was this some special surprise assembly? Not exactly. These high school juniors from around the New York City metro area were gathered in the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 15 for an experience even more rare than seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer-winning musical running there, though they got to do that too: They were there for EduHam.
Thanks to a collaboration involving Hamilton’s producers, the Rockefeller Foundation, the city’s Department of Education, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Hamilton Education Program—as it’s officially known—brings students to the Rodgers to present original pieces inspired by the show and the history behind it, following a special curriculum developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute. The EduHam initiative, which launched in New York in April 2016, now also accompanies the Chicago production and the musical’s U.S. tour.
That day in March featured one act apiece from 10 schools in the greater NYC region, with classmates and instructors on hand to cheer them on. Many of the students at the Rodgers that day had never been in a Broadway theatre before—and a handful of them were performing on the set of the hottest production in town.
Each installment (the latest is happening today) of the program, which takes place every month or so during the school year, begins in the morning with the day’s emcees—in March, company members Syndee Winters and Roddy Kennedy hosted—performing an original rap about the program, which leads into the student performances. Next comes a question-and-answer session with the emcees and other members of the cast. And then, after lunch: an exclusive matinee of Hamilton for the students performing, their classmates, and their teachers.
There was an especially palpable connection between the Broadway performers and the crowd, particularly because many cast members aren’t all that far past their high school days. J. Quinton Johnson, who plays Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, graduated from the University of Texas in 2015; he told the audience about his journey from Austin to Broadway. Another standout moment came when Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, discussed the play’s themes. “The show strips away the mythology of the Founding Fathers,” he enthused. “They had the same potential you do.”
The depth of the students’ original pieces from earlier in the day strongly supported that vote of confidence, showcasing what they’d learned about the Revolutionary War period in performance styles ranging from monologues to poems, raps, and songs. One act highlighted the program’s capacity for empowering students: Ashley Avallos and Angie Salvador from Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies made an impassioned and moving plea for advancing women’s rights. Their piece, “Dont Forget About Us,” echoed Angelica’s line in the show demanding that Thomas Jefferson “include women in the sequel” to the Declaration of Independence, but took as its main inspiration the words of a historical figure not featured in the play, Abigail Adams. The premise for their piece was sparked by part of a letter Adams wrote in March 1776 to her husband, future president John Adams. “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors,” stated Abigail.
Though that correspondence isn’t mentioned in Hamilton, musical theatre aficionados may be familiar with Abigail’s sentiment, as it’s the basis for a recurring theme in the Adamses’ epistolary duets in the musical 1776. Avallos and Salvador threaded pointed questions throughout their piece, beginning with, “To be left out, emotionally broken, left to deal with the pain alone, to wonder why we are forgotten? / Why are we left alone with the thoughts about why we, as women, are not included in any life decisions?” Those questions quickly turned to statements, followed by cheers and applause, as they concluded their performance: “Feminism isn’t the superiority of women but instead the fight of equity women deserve!”
If only Angelica could have seen these minds at work.