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Why thousands of students are seeing Broadway smash ‘Hamilton’

May 8, 2016 at 12:19 PM EDT
This spring, 20,000 public high school students from low-income neighborhoods in New York City will get the opportunity to see “Hamilton,” the Broadway smash hit nominated this week for a record 16 Tony Awards. Students can see the show as part of a new classroom curriculum designed around the show to encourage creativity and foster student interest in history. NewsHour’s Saskia de Melker reports.

By Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman

Read the full transcript below:

Saskia de Melker: “Hamilton” is about the personal and political lives of Alexander Hamilton and America’s other Founding Fathers.

Christopher Jackson: Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide, Left him with nothing but ruined pride

Saskia de Melker: It stars a cast of mostly black and latino actors performing a musical score steeped in hip-hop and rap. The show is sold out through January 2017, with box office tickets often costing hundreds of dollars apiece. But now, 20,000 students from New York City public schools serving low income populations will see the show, for just 10 dollars each. The show’s producers and the Rockefeller Foundation are underwriting the cost.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton. And there’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait.

Saskia de Melker: Hamilton is played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote the music and lyrics.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Not every student who comes to see the show is gonna have a life in the theater. But they are gonna have to reckon with how much Hamilton got done in his life. And that is going to spark a little bit of, “Well, what am I gonna do with my life?”

Saskia de Melker: When the students attend their Wednesday matinee, it is the culmination of a larger educational initiative.

Teacher: So go to your research on either page 16 or 17

Saskia de Melker: It starts with an interactive study curriculum by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Over several weeks, these 11th graders scroll through timelines of major events; watch video clips of the musical’s actors explaining historical writings;

Daveed Diggs: So this is a letter that Lafayette wrote to Hamilton

Saskia de Melker: And listen to lyrics, to see how they incorporate historical documents.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: When we finally drove the British away, Lafayette is there waiting in Chesapeake Bay!

Paul Zuppello: What did you learn that is absolutely essential to telling your story?

Saskia de Melker: History teacher Paul Zuppello teaches at a high school in Manhattan. He believes using the musical shows his students that history is more than just names and dates.

Paul Zuppello: This has really helped them understand that if you view history as a narrative, you almost don’t need to worry about remembering the nitty gritty. You’ll remember those things because you’re going to remember the story.

Okieriete Onaodowan: And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Saskia de Melker: What did you know about Alexander Hamilton before you started learning about him through the musical and through the curriculum at school?

Malcolm Grant: I knew he was on the 10 dollar. And I knew he was Treasury Secretary for George Washington. And that’s it.

Saskia de Melker: At Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, Malcolm Grant, Christian Gowan, and Danny Ingrassia spent several weeks immersed in the subject.

Malcolm Grant: When I was introduced to this, I was like history on Hamilton, I wasn’t really interested that much. But then you know, you take a feeling of what we have today in this generation, and then add that to something that’s centuries ago with Hamilton and our Founding Fathers. And that’s very interesting.

Christian Gowan: I enjoy music a lot, mainly hip hop and rap and everything. So having it be displayed to me this way. It stuck in my head.

Danny Ingrassia: Anything with a hip hop, flavor to it, it’s definitely more interesting than opening a dusty history book and trying to, like, fish out old information.

Dana Holness: They feel like what we do here is sort of outdated.

Saskia de Melker: Dana Holness is their English teacher.

Dana Holness: And giving the kids those kind of options  just to me makes education seem relevant.

Saskia de Melker: After engaging with the Hamilton material, the curriculum hones the kids’ language, writing, and performance skills by having them write their own musical riffs.

Danny Ingrassia: Yeah it’s true that Jefferson was second president, but it’s only because Hamilton didn’t have the residence.

Dana Holness: Let’s try it again. So, go back. Christian, do your last four lines.

Danny Ingrassia: And the government was rotten to the core, so the people sparked a Revolutionary War.

Danny Ingrassia: We broke it up into three separate parts. And mine, my part is more directed on his influence on the bank and America developing at the time.

Christian Gowan: It wasn’t just for the fact that I get to learn about a Founding Father, It was mainly I get to expand my horizon, do something I never thought I’d do in my lifetime.

Christian Gowan: He resided in St Croix, he was just a little boy deployed into the world trying to discover joy.

Dana Holness: He’s excited to have a voice, which is the same thing that those men wanted. They wanted a voice. I think it’s been really cool to just see them, like, enjoy school, enjoy the creative process.

Saskia de Melker: For Lin-Manuel Miranda, bridging the classroom and the stage is nothing new. Thirteen years ago, before his acting career took off, he was a 7th grade English teacher at the New York public school he attended.

Saskia de Melker: How did your experience as a teacher influence how you see Hamilton being used in the classroom?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I’ve learned all of my best teaching experiences when I was sitting in the back, and I was just keeping the ball in the air for the students to discuss. And they were finding the connections in whatever we were reading or whatever we were learning about. And this– this curriculum works in a similar way. It’s not about, “Here are the facts of Hamilton, the musical. Put them in your brain.” It’s, “This is one story. What are more stories? What are more stories from this time, from this era? Maybe stories that haven’t been heard yet.

Daveed Diggs: And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted, Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up,Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of, The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter”

Saskia de Melker: On the day they went to the show, the students interacted with the cast. Christopher Jackson plays George Washington.

Christopher Jackson: You’ve got to read about our forefathers so that you know, you can appreciate what they did right and try to improve upon what they didn’t get right.

Saskia de Melker: And a group of students from each participating school got to perform its piece on stage, in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda. There was a rap from the perspective of Hamilton’s nemesis, Aaron Burr.

Student: I took him down, got a position at the seat of Congress. I joined the Continental Army, I’m the man in progress.

Saskia de Melker: There was a song about the Boston Tea Party.

Student: So we took their tea and dumped it into the sea.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Have a blast guys. We can’t wait to see what you’ve made.

Saskia de Melker: And the trio from Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy got their shot.

Christopher Jackson: We want to welcome Malcolm Grant, Christian Gowan, and Daniel Ingrassia! Come on out fellas!

Christian Gowan: Alexander Hamilton, Legend, Man, Myth. Bastard abandoned when he was just a little kid.  Living with his mother, strong befallen under, father didn’t keep it covered so he also had a brother. Resided in St. Croix, he was just a little boy, deployed into the world trying to discover joy.

Saskia de Melker: How much of this is about students who maybe don’t always get that chance to be put out there and be heard?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: It’s everything. That ability to be heard whether it’s in a classroom or it’s on a stage, it’s so important.  That creativity. It’s important to harness it and find outlets for it  that are constructive.

Saskia de Melker: For students like Danny Ingrassia, the lessons from “Hamilton” are personal.

Danny Ingrassia: His father walked out on him. I mean like my father passed away when I was ten years old. So I mean that definitely resonates with me and it’s comforting to know that people throughout history, not only Hamilton, but many characters, have, you know, overcome a lot of obstacles.

Anthony Ramos: The ten dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self starter, by 14, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.

Saskia de Melker: The “Hamilton” education program is also trying to increase diversity at the theater. Last year, 80 percent of the Broadway audience was white, with an average age in the mid-40’s. The boys from Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy were part of the very first student audience. The initiative to integrate the show into classroom studies will continue into the Fall.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: It forces you to engage personally with something that could just be a bunch of facts you learn for an A.P. test. And in doing that, you create empathy. In doing that, you create an ability to engage with history in a way that’s more than memorization. It’s, “These were people who lived and died. And they were flawed.” And our country’s flawed, because they were flawed. Because we’re all figuring it out. And there’s lessons to be mined there.