On Sept. 30, I had the incredible pleasure of accompanying 132 Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts scholars and staff to a matinee performance of the groundbreaking Broadway musical Hamilton. The show tells the story of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, a poor, immigrant orphan from the Caribbean island of St. Croix who became George Washington’s right-hand man and the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury. And the way that story is told is as revolutionary as the time during which it is set.
Hamilton is a hip-hop musical—he’s called the “ten-dollar Founding Father”—with a rap and R&B score that brilliantly transforms 18th century historical figures into contemporary young rebels out to change the world. Like its groundbreaking predecessors Oklahoma!, Hair, A Chorus Line, and Rent, Hamilton is a game-changer, bringing a younger and more diverse audience to Broadway and introducing a new generation to the magic of theater by making U.S. history thrilling and relevant.
I saw Hamilton with a number of Success Academy leaders when it was running Off-Broadway, and we knew it was an important piece of theater that our scholars had to see, especially since they will study the American Revolution in more depth in an Advanced Placement U.S. History course. Last month, they finally had that chance.
The scholars watched, transfixed, as Alexander Hamilton schooled Thomas Jefferson in a fierce rap battle over the establishment of a national bank. The energy in the theater was electric as the Founding Fathers, who most Americans typically picture as bewigged, marble busts, sprang to vivid life with a look and sound resembling Biggie Smalls and Destiny’s Child.
Immediately following the performance, HSLA scholars got a rare treat: an in-depth discussion with members of the cast. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who stars in the show and wrote the script, music and lyrics—and recently won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant—along with Success Academy Bronx 4 parent Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, fielded many insightful questions about the creative process and the dedication necessary to become a Broadway-caliber actor.
Q: Why did you do a show about Hamilton?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I picked up this book [Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton] on vacation and got to this part where a hurricane had destroyed St. Croix, and Hamilton as a child wrote a poem about it. The local people used that poem to take up a collection to send him to the U.S., which was then just 13 colonies, to get his education, and I thought, ‘That’s the most hip-hop thing I’ve ever heard. If a kid writes about his struggle and the strength of his writing pulls him out of those circumstances—that’s the hip-hop story.’ Writing about the struggles and hardships you face and being able to flip it and make it into something beautiful, that to me is a fundamentally hip-hop story.
Q: What advice do you have for people who are going into show business?
Christopher Jackson: Read as many books as you can get your hands on about every subject you can imagine. [Just about every scholar and teacher smiled and clapped.] I’ve never met a successful actor who was not well read, who wasn’t informed about what we’re doing. The book Lin based this musical on is about 700 pages. It’s as exhaustive on one particular subject as you can imagine, and he found a way to squeeze all that information through his imagination and then to what you saw today. You have to study. Every single performer today has spent an entire lifetime studying endless hours of dance class, endless singing lessons, constantly reading about the subject matter they’re working on, constantly being engaged with the world and what’s going on in not just entertainment, but also politics — every single thing you can soak up informs what you do. You’re still very young. Explore and enjoy every aspect of life and soak up as much of it as you can, and if you’re passionate about it, find a place to study it.
Hamilton is making theater an important and relevant art form for a new generation. I am proud that Success Academy provides access to inspiring arts experiences for our scholars, and I hope this opportunity has inspired our scholars to become the next generation of important creative voices in American musical theater.