You Need to See These Local High School Students Bring Down the House on the ‘Hamilton’ Stage [Video]

On March 13, as part of the Hamilton Education Program, also known as #EduHam, 1,900 Chicagoland high school students from 29 area schools packed the CIBC Theatre to watch peers from 14 schools perform on the “Hamilton” stage. They created original works inspired by their studies of American history through a special integrated curriculum about Alexander Hamilton and the nation’s founding fathers, and their performances were nothing short of spectacular. Here are some highlights.

The atmosphere as the diverse selection of the top 14 performing groups and individuals took the stage, each enthusiastically introduced by “Hamilton” cast member and program emcee Jared Howelton (check out his cameo in the afternoon’s opening performance in the above video), was refreshingly supportive.

Every student in the audience created an original work as part of the program. Braden Allison of James Whitcomb Riley High School explained the creative process that led him to write his “Patrick Henry Song,” inspired by Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. “I wanted to pick a very dramatic piece,” says Allison, a musical theater fan who cites Stephen Sondheim as one of his key influences. “I did a little research and realized Patrick Henry wasn’t very vocal. He didn’t speak out much until this one moment. I found it fascinating to see a person who starts off kind of shy, to speaking in front of a giant group of people, and slowly through their passion growing louder and louder. It all felt very musical to me.” (Be sure to catch Allison’s full performance in the video below.)

Following the performances, students participated in a Q&A with a panel of “Hamilton”‘s Chicago cast members, then were treated to the experience of a lifetime: a matinee performance of “Hamilton” by the complete starring Chicago cast.

In addition to bringing new educational approaches into the classroom and giving students a new way to approach history, the Hamilton Education Program makes it possible for these students to watch a full-length production of “Hamilton” for just $10 a student thanks to subsidies provided by an anonymous donor, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, and the Polk Bros. Foundation.

The March 13 performance marked the 75th matinee run as part of the program, which was rolled out first in New York thanks to an initial grant of $1.46 million by the Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation then committed an additional $6 million to support the national expansion of the program to Chicago and other cities across the United States.

Part of the reason the program has been so successful, explains Lois MacMillan, the Hamilton Education Program senior education fellow for Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which partners with “Hamilton” producers and the Miranda family on the program, is that “all 2,000 students in the theater have skin in the game. There is a great deal of curriculum done to get in the door, then every kid has to create a performance piece,” says MacMillan, who received the Grammy Museum’s 2018 Jane Ortner Education Award for her use of hip-hop to support her American history curriculum.

“You can’t create this out of nothing,” she says. “They get the content first. They learn it, the teachers teach it. And then they create the performance pieces. Even a sixth grader can do rap if they understand the history behind it.”

MacMillan hopes to see this approach to education extend far beyond the Hamilton Education program. “We really should be doing this in the classroom all over the place,” she says. “And that’s what we’re hoping to start. And I think that’s what Lin-Manuel Miranda has in mind.” She says they regularly emphasize to students why learning about and understanding our history is so important: “It is about skin in the game. I love my country. I want the best for my country.”

Watch highlights from all 14 student performances here:

Schools participating in the March 13 program included:

  • 21st Century Charter School
  • ACE Amandla Charter High School
  • Alexander Hamilton High School
  • Aspira Business and Finance High School
  • Baker College Prep
  • Berrien Springs High School
  • Crete Monee High School
  • Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep
  • Elgin High School
  • Fenger Academy High School
  • Foundations College Prep
  • George Rogers Clark Middle/High School
  • Golder College Prep
  • Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago
  • James Whitcomb Riley High School
  • Jefferson High School
  • Kenwood Academy
  • Muhammad University of Islam
  • Reuther Central High School
  • Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy
  • Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy
  • Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz – ACERO Schools
  • Steinmetz College Prep
  • Theodore Roosevelt High School
  • Thornton High School
  • Waukegan High School
  • Waverly Senior High School
  • Wendell Phillips High School
  • Wheeling High School

Editor in Chief of Make It Better, Brooke Geiger McDonald is a Chicago native and Northwestern University grad with a Master’s in English Literature from King’s College London. She’s worked for O, The Oprah Magazine and Shape magazine in New York and for various book publishers in London. Back home in Chicago, she’s outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include organizations focused on environmental conservation and combatting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram: @brookegmcdonald


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