'Hamilton' Education Program Takes Over Pantages Theater

Courtesy of Jordan Riefe
'Hamilton' cast member Ruben Carbajal with Los Angeles high school students

LAUSD students perform 'Hamilton'-inspired songs for 2,400 of their classmates and enjoy a Q&A with cast members before being treated to a special matinee performance of the hit play — all to kick off Edu-Ham.

"Shut up, you're not my dad!" was the refrain from UCLA Community School trio Riana Bea, Precious Tolentino and Sunshine Torres as they nailed it in their original number inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda's acclaimed musical Hamilton. They were just three of the dozens of high school students from throughout Los Angeles who got to perform in front of 2,400 of their peers on the stage at Hollywood's Pantages Theater Thursday afternoon as part of the Hamilton Education Program, or, as the kids say, "Edu-Ham."

"It represents a community that's marginalized," is how Axel Tirado from Mendez High School interpreted the Broadway hit for The Hollywood Reporter. "It shows anyone can make it. Even as a person of color, you go through a lot of adversity and obstacles, you can still achieve your goal." Axel and his classmates Kalani Ball and Christian Cortez performed a stirring rendition of their composition Revolution Folk Song.

"I was really nervous!" gasped Jadelynn Nguyen, from the School of History and Dramatic Arts. She wrote and performed Thomas Paine Rap along with Angel Hernandez and Jerome Cruz. "I did all the research and I found a word and I found something that rhymes with it. We made the beat then we rehearsed. And no matter how much we rehearsed, it was still nerve wracking."

After successful runs in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, the educational program hit Los Angeles on Oct. 12, the first of three all-student performances that will include 7,800 students. Working through a curriculum integrated into normal classroom lessons about Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers, students came up with their own musically inspired interpretations. In addition to their time in the spotlight, they enjoyed a Q&A with cast members and an afternoon performance of the show.

"They're taking it seriously. They're not just out there singing Lin-Manuel Miranda. They're doing characters that aren't even in the show. They're running with it!" That was the biggest surprise for James Basker, president of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, whose mission is to highlight history in popular entertainment for educational purposes. With the support of Miranda, producer Jeffrey Seller and author Ron Chernow, whose book of the same name inspired the show, the institute financed the program through private contributions.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy and 11 Tony Awards, Hamilton set records at the box office on its way to seizing the public's imagination. In the Trump era, this hip-hop musical about a rag-tag army of immigrants who overcome long odds to beat back their oppressors has become even timelier. Come January there will be five iterations (including London) playing simultaneously.

A movie adaptation of Miranda's previous hit, In the Heights, was expected in theaters in 2018, but the current chaos at The Weinstein Co., which is producing the film, has put the project in jeopardy. Details are sketchy on a Hamilton movie, but Miranda confirmed it would happen in a THR podcast earlier this year.

Los Angeles native and cast member Ruben Carbajal, who plays John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the current leg of the tour, was eager to emcee the student event at the Pantages. Hamilton marks a career first for Carbajal, who was a child actor on commercials and TV shows like NBC's 2003 series Kingpin.

"We didn't get picked up, but it was one of the best experiences I've ever had," he recalled in the hours before the afternoon performance. "It wasn't until I was on Kingpin that I saw people of color in prominent roles. An actor named Yancey Arias played my father in that miniseries. We still keep in contact and that was a huge influence."

Carbajal sat for a Q&A with cast members Isaiah Johnson, Jeffrey Duffy, Raven Thomas, Jennifer Locke and Andrew Wojtal, guided by questions submitted by the students. "If we all come together as a people, who the government is to serve, and have a voice, we can innovate," ensemble member Duffy told the kids. He said working on the play made him a more considerate citizen and encouraged them to "brush fear off and live in the community with all people in mind because if we're going to get anywhere, it's going to be together."

Thomas emphasized how important it is for people of color to see themselves represented onstage and onscreen. Jadelynn Nguyen, from the School of History and Dramatic Arts, drove the point home. "Adding people of color, we're giving what America really is about, which is all these races combining to be America," she concludes. "It's not about the white man or the black man. It's about unity in the sense that everybody is equal, even if it doesn't seem that way. We're all human beings."

The Hamilton producers made tickets to the October 12 matinee performance available for $60, all of which is covered by the Toys "R" Us Children's Fund, the charitable arm of Toy"R"Us, Inc.