If you have yet to see Hamilton, an American Musical on Broadway and have been 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 on 2015 at the Public Theater. The summer performance workshop at Vassar College, before Lin Manuel Miranda wrote “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. He wrote Hamilton upon which much of Miranda’s production is based.
Is Hamilton deserving of its “hype” (2016 Pultizer Prize for Drama, 11 Tony Awards, 8 Drama Desk Awards, 2016 Grammy Award)? Should Lin Manuel Miranda have won the MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant? Is it portentous that President Donald Trump tweeted that he heard it was a “highly overrated show?” Suffice to say, the jokes about prices are humorous, the hyperbole is clever. If it is keeping you away, you are missing a superb production that cannot be compared to anything on Broadway before or since its inception. Hamilton is about the best and worst of what makes our country an amazing experiment of which we are all a part, whether citizens or not, whether legal immigrants or not.
To offer the opportunity of seeing Hamilton for New York City teenagers, many of whom may have never been to a Broadway performance because Broadway is so egregiously pricey, there has been an ongoing initiative to offer a Hamilton experience for city teenagers. Hamilton has formed a partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the NYC Department of Education to bring various schools and their teachers to a matinee 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 America’s history. After their presentations, they enjoy a Q and A with cast members who they see after lunch performing in Hamilton.
I attended on Wednesday, 24 May and was pleasantly surprised by the efforts of the students, some of whom had never performed before a live audience before of around 1300 students. Nineteen schools with teachers and students attended. 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 the live audience. She belongs to a global traveling choir and performs anywhere there are open mics in NYC. She’s performed poetry and also sang at venues in Greenwich Village, 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, 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 shepherded her through the application process and attended with her enjoying Hamilton Day.
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 assured me that they wanted to draw attention to the importance of women during the American Revolution and the fact that they are rendered invisible, though they made their husband’s exploits possible and greatly contributed to their successes. The “Schuyler Sisters’ Poem” raised loud vocal appreciation and applause from both young men and young women in the audience when they repeated the line, “There is more to us than what we do in bed.” Tyler, Hawa and Benita are in the Baruch College program preparing to excel in law and medicine after they graduate high school. Like other students in the audience, they are completing their junior year. I heard Columbia University and Fordham University as two of their choices for colleges they would like to attend. The young ladies were accompanied by their teacher Kelly Haff who 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, 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.
Treniece 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 to redress overweening governmental grievances.
After the thirty students performed, the MC and host Donald Webber, Jr. (he portrays Philip Schyler, James Reynolds and the Doctor), conducted the Q and A during which members of the cast answered questions. The following cast members were present: J. Quinton Johnson (portrays Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Sasha Hollinger (ensemble), Gregory Treco (standby for Aaron Burr, George Washington and Lafayette/Jefferson), and Lauren Boyd (ensemble). Some 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 was thrilled to introduce myself to Luis A. Miranda, Jr., Lin Manuel Miranda’s dad who is an icon in his own right. He 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 24 May, 2017 it was an experience of a lifetime.
As a postscript, if you never get to see Hamilton on Broadway, Lin Manuel Miranda is working to put Hamilton 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 that, “…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.” (The Declaration of Independence.)
“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)