'Hamilton' and Its Innovative Education Program Arrive in Los Angeles
The production aims to give high schoolers a chance to experience the Broadway smash — and participate in a hands-on curriculum — but the 21-week run in Hollywood comes with fresh challenges.
Every Wednesday afternoon, thousands of low-income teens in New York and Chicago are in the room where it happens, seeing the musical Hamilton for $10. With the show making its long-awaited opening at the Hollywood Pantages on Aug. 16, come this fall L.A. high schoolers also will have the chance to experience the Broadway smash. "There is no audience more honest on earth than 17-year-olds — they're unjaded and scream at any action or kissing," says Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical's creator and original lead, who earned an Emmy nomination for hosting Saturday Night Live and next stars in Disney's Mary Poppins Returns. "By the time they get to the theater, they're buzzing. They've learned about the show and this chapter in American history, and they're ready to go."
These Title I public school students, all participants in the Hamilton Education Initiative (aka #EduHam), first complete a hands-on, online curriculum — created by Hamilton producers in conjunction with New York's Gilder Lehrman Institute — that not only introduces them to the people and events of the United States' founding, but also challenges them to pen performance pieces in the same way that Miranda composed his show about the life of Alexander Hamilton. On the morning before watching the musical, students from each school perform their works onstage for each other and the cast. "These kids are writing these incredible poems and dances and songs and scenes, not just from the perspective of George Washington, but also Sally Hemings and Phillis Wheatley — it's this incredible way to explore how history isn't told," he says. “We really don’t treat Hamilton as the be-all, end-all of American history — it’s a musical! It’s as much as we can cram into two hours and 45 minutes! — but it’s been a great jumping-off point."
The idea for #EduHam sprouted back when Miranda still envisioned Hamilton as a mixtape and his 2009 performance of the now-opening number at the White House went viral online. "In the six years I was writing Hamilton, teachers were already using the song in classrooms — YouTube comments said, 'My social studies teacher showed us this,' " he recalls. "As the show began to have success, we realized [the] need to prioritize kids in a real way, because this is going to be a tough ticket."
But Miranda, producer Jeffrey Seller and director Tommy Kail didn't want to simply offer discounted tickets for students. They were introduced to Gilder Lehrman by Ron Chernow, the author who wrote the Hamilton biography on which the musical is based, and the resulting curriculum — which teachers usually implement over two or three weeks — has since expanded to include research materials on more than 40 historical figures, and is also available in a simplified version for teachers of ESL students.
“It makes it more tangible and come alive in a way that’s really hard to do with that era in history,” says Andrea Moverman, who was already playing the show’s songs in her U.S. history courses at Millennium Brooklyn High School — to explain concepts like partisan debates and government financial plans — before participating in #EduHam. Adds Naseem Haamid, a student at the Bronx's Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, “Young people love hip-hop, so making a show where he’s rapping important dates and legislation and breaking history down, it makes it easier for students to understand and to connect, [as opposed to] when it’s in a textbook, or a teacher’s giving information and we just have to regurgitate that.”
#EduHam follows the show into each new city thanks to Miranda's father, Luis A. Miranda Jr., who became the founding president of the Hispanic Federation, a leading Latino nonprofit, and has advised the likes of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Charles Schumer. Each city means starting from scratch, and the 21-week L.A. run comes with fresh challenges for the program.
"In New York, kids jump on the subway to get to the theater — we don't need buses," explains Luis. "And the Pantages is the largest venue where Hamilton will be — but we also need a place for the kids for lunch, and nothing around it is big enough to accommodate. It's still a work in progress." Mayor Eric Garcetti tells THR that though LAUSD "is still evaluating transportation costs, once they have completed that process, we can determine together what needs to be done to make sure that as many children as possible get this opportunity."
To support the program, which nearly 40,000 kids have experienced so far, the production sells the hottest tickets in town for their $70 cost value; private entities — like the formative participant The Rockefeller Foundation and now including corporations like Google — donate $60 per seat. The $10 each kid contributes gives them "skin in the game," says Luis. Adds Gilder Lehrman president James Basker, "[The producers] are forgoing millions of dollars in revenue so kids can get to the show. It's not exactly traditional philanthropy, but these people wanted kids included, and this is the most efficient way."
Miranda stresses that seeing the show live has its own lasting effect on these audiences: "This is not a typical Broadway audience that's overwhelmingly white with an average income of $150,000. To see these kids experience Hamilton onstage — a story told in the music they listen to, with a multiracial cast that looks like them — it's magical."
In 2018, Hamilton launches a national tour, with hopes to include student matinees at every stop. "In Salt Lake City, I don't have to raise a penny because the legislature appropriated dollars!" says Luis. "This cuts across [political] lines because it's a unique experience for kids." So far, #EduHam's biggest tour obstacle is implementing the program during the summer, when school isn't in session. Beyond the U.S., it is undecided whether the initiative will be implemented in conjunction with the show's London run.
In addition to #EduHam, Hamilton continues to birth initiatives like the viral #Ham4All Challenge supporting immigrant rights (brainstormed by Sara Elisa Miller, Lin-Manuel's philanthropy director). "With social media, you can take your pick of horrible things going on everywhere. You can't let it all in, you'll drown," says Lin-Manuel. "But there's no shortage of things we can do to make the world a better place." Adds Luis, "Exciting initiatives like this will always find funding in major cities, but the kids in Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas and smaller places that probably elected Trump are the ones who will suffer," especially as the president threatens to cut funding to arts education. "We need to do everything we can to make sure that won't happen."
Taylor Weatherby contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.