If you have yet to see Hamilton on Broadway, avoiding it because of the “hype” or the ticket prices, rethink the “hype” about the “hype.” I cannot recommend the production enough. I have not reviewed it because I cannot put into words its greatness and ineffability. I have seen it seven times, including the time I and a friend saw it being workshopped at Vassar a few years before it arrived in 2015 at the Public Theater. The summer performance workshop at Vassar College, before Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the song “The Room Where It Happened” (in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Eliza Jumel Mansion), was fantastic. I introduced myself to Ron Chernow who was there, and told him to get ready. He was going to be selling a lot of books. (Chernow wrote Hamilton upon which much of Miranda’s musical is based).
Is Hamilton deserving of the hype and awards (2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 11 Tony Awards, 8 Drama Desk Awards, Grammy Award)? Should Miranda have won that MacArthur “Genius” Grant? Is it portentous that President Donald Trump tweeted that he heard it was a “highly overrated show?” Suffice to say, if the prices or the hyperbole are keeping you away, you are missing a superb production that cannot be compared to anything on Broadway before or since. Hamilton is about the best and worst of what makes our country the amazing experiment of which we are all a part, whether citizens or not, whether legal immigrants or not.
To offer New York City teenagers an opportunity to see Hamilton – many have never been to a Broadway performance because Broadway is so egregiously pricey – the producers have formed a partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the NYC Department of Education to bring students with their teachers to matinee performances of Hamilton. Before seeing the performance, students from high schools around the city present their creative work (songs, vignettes, poems) related to the time of Alexander Hamilton in American history. After their presentations, they enjoy a Q and A with cast members.
I attended on Wednesday, May 24 and was pleasantly surprised by the efforts of the students, some of whom had never performed before a live audience before (1300 students, teachers and others). One thousand three hundred students from 19 schools attended, with teachers and others, and students from 14 schools presented their projects. I had the opportunity to briefly speak with five students who performed.
Madison Banks from Bronx Collegiate Academy wrote the “Hamilton Song” and performed it with with power, showing she was comfortable before a live audience. She belongs to a global traveling choir and performs anywhere there are open mics in NYC. She’s performed poetry and sung at venues in Greenwich Village, as well as the Apollo Theater, the Harlem School of the Arts, and the Nuyorican Cafe. Madison is interested in evolving and pursuing her creative talents and would love to be an entrepreneur exercising her acting, singing, and writing skills. When I asked her about colleges, she mentioned Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her teacher Nicole Schindel, who had shepherded her through the application process, attended Hamilton Day with her.
Three young ladies I spoke to from University Neighborhood High School performed a feminist poem about the Schuyler sisters: “Schuyler Sisters’ Poem.” When I spoke to Tyler Johnson, Hawa Sall, and Benita Campos, they told me that they had wanted to draw attention to the importance of women during the American Revolution, and how women had been rendered invisible, though they made their husbands’ exploits possible and greatly contributed to their successes. The “Schuyler Sisters’ Poem” drew loud vocal appreciation and applause from both young men and young women in the audience at the line, “There is more to us than what we do in bed.” Tyler, Hawa, and Benita, completing their junior year, are in a Baruch College program preparing to excel in law and medicine after they graduate high school. Columbia University and Fordham University are two of their choices for college. The young ladies were accompanied by their teacher Kelly Haff who had helped them with the project.
From Martin Van Buren High School, Treniece Johnson wrote and performed the “Freedom Fight Song.” Though I was told she was nervous, her performance went smoothly and students joined in speaking/singing the refrain about fighting for freedom. Her song confronted a crucial problem which we still face today as our democracy comes increasingly under pressure from foreign adversaries threatening our election processes. Additionally, we must maintain our free speech and free press rights, the lifeblood of freedom, as they are coming under increasing attacks by those who would muzzle unfavorable opinions and mischaracterize facts as fake.
Johnson’s song reminded us that one must continue to fight for freedom. Though the Constitution guarantees freedoms, there are those who would curtail citizens’ rights in order to consolidate and increase their own power base. It takes our active participation in the struggle to prevent usurpers from wielding extraordinary power that constitutionally they do not have. We must “fight for freedom” in the courts, in the press, and in our protests.
After the 30 students performed, M.C. and host Donald Webber, Jr., who portrays Philip Schuyler, James Reynolds and the Doctor in Hamilton, conducted the Q and A with cast members J. Quinton Johnson (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Sasha Hollinger (ensemble), Gregory Treco (standby for Aaron Burr, George Washington and Lafayette/Jefferson), and Lauren Boyd (ensemble). The excellent advice from cast members included the exhortation, “Be prepared in everything you do in order to be ready to receive what is available.”
By that point students were ready to receive the performance of Hamilton after lunch. And I thought about how thrilled I was to introduce myself to Luis A. Miranda, Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dad and an icon in his own right. Mr. Miranda graciously paused a moment in his busy day for a selfie with me. For the 40,000 students and teachers who are having the incredible opportunity of seeing Hamilton on Broadway, a special thanks and appreciation must go to Hamilton, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the NYC Department of Education. For all of us there on May 24, 2017 it was an experience of a lifetime.
As a postscript, if you never get to see Hamilton on Broadway, Miranda is working to put the show on film. Like Treniece Johnson’s “Freedom Fight Song,” the film will be a reaffirmation of the ideals of our nation, ideals which we are constantly striving to realize, though at times there are setbacks. If we are not there yet, the voices of American citizens will continue to “Rise Up” to be heard loudly and clearly these words from The Declaration of Independence: “These truths are self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
“If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.” (Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2)