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'It’s like going to Disneyland': Utah high school students react to seeing 'Hamilton'

SALT LAKE CITY — "Alexander Hamilton. My name is Alexander Hamilton."

Those simple lines were all it took to get approximately 2,300 high school students and teachers from across Utah clapping, cheering and even screaming at such a high volume that they nearly drowned out Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton: An American Musical" as it unfolded on the Eccles Theater stage Friday afternoon.

That enthusiasm continued throughout the entire musical. The students cheered when the Schuyler sisters took the stage for the first time, laughed at King George’s antics, gleefully responded to Thomas Jefferson’s return from France and reacted to the cabinet battle arguments as if they themselves were active participants.

Granger High School students applaud for their classmates after performing a "Hamilton"-inspired rap at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 4, 2018. More than 2,000 high school students attended the matinee showing and performed their own
Granger High School students applaud for their classmates after performing a "Hamilton"-inspired rap at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 4, 2018. More than 2,000 high school students attended the matinee showing and performed their own "Hamilton"-inspired performances followed by a Q&A with the "Hamilton" cast.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

It was as if pop stars had taken the stage, but in a sense, that's just what the Hamilton Education Program has done for these students: It has transformed American history into a pop culture phenomenon.

Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in collaboration with Miranda, the program, also known as EduHam, made its Utah debut last year, getting 40 public Title 1 schools involved. At its heart, the program had students examining and analyzing primary source documents — including documents that influenced Miranda as he created "Hamilton."

After exploring documents dating back to 1757 through 1804, Hamilton's life span, students again followed in Miranda's footsteps, transforming their analyses into a short song, monologue or poem. Of the hundreds of performances that students prepared, 15 were selected and performed by more than 30 students Friday morning before the "Hamilton" cast took the stage in the afternoon.

"These students who see this show … they're the most knowledgeable audience these performers will ever have in front of them," Tim Bailey, a Utah native and Gilder Lehrman's director of education, told the Deseret News following the student performances. "Not only do they know the content, they're invested in the content and so they understand the nuances. … These guys get it at a level that your average audience (walking) in here on a Friday night is not going to have."

Before the performances — which ranged from a ukulele song about Valley Forge to a rap about the Boston Tea Party — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox offered the students a word of advice.

"'Hamilton' is about finding your voice," he told the students. "And all of you have something to give and you need to find your voice, whatever your talent is. … Here's what I'm asking you to do: Find your voice and then help (others) find their voice, because that's what really matters."

"Hamilton" cast members Elijah Malcomb who plays John Laurens/Philip Hamilton, left, Kyle Scatliffe who plays Thomas Jefferson/Marquis de Lafeyette, and Fergie Philippe who plays Hercules Mulligan/James Madison speak to high school students at the Eccles
"Hamilton" cast members Elijah Malcomb who plays John Laurens/Philip Hamilton, left, Kyle Scatliffe who plays Thomas Jefferson/Marquis de Lafeyette, and Fergie Philippe who plays Hercules Mulligan/James Madison speak to high school students at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 4, 2018.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Each student performance was introduced with gusto by "Hamilton" cast members Elijah Malcomb (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton), Kyle Scatliffe (Marquis de Lafayette/Jefferson) and Fergie L. Philippe (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), who later participated in a cast Q&A with the students.

Annsheri Reay of Monticello High School performed a rap about Abigail Adams — set to the beat of "Hamilton's" "Cabinet Battle #1."

While Reay admitted to being a little nervous before her performance, she said the students' cheers in the crowd encouraged her.

"I am from a small town with like 250 kids in school. I'm not used to this," she said following her performance. "It was just amazing being out there onstage — a Broadway stage — seeing the lights shine down on me. … This just doesn't happen to small-town girls."

With her own performance over, Reay could look forward to seeing "Hamilton," an opportunity she said was "a dream come true" since she knows "all 46 songs by heart."

"It's one thing to listen to it and learn the history, and it's another thing to experience it firsthand right in front of you," she said. "It's like going to Disneyland."

Three students from the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in Salt Lake City performed a rap about Lafayette — a historical figure they believed to be especially impressive since he became a major general at 19. Although the students enjoy rapping, performing in a venue such as the Eccles Theater gave them a new kind of experience.

Horizonte Instruction & Training Center students Simiuela Kavapalu, left, Siupeli Kavapalu and Zachary Taylor perform a "Hamilton"-inspired rap at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 4, 2018. More than 2,000 high school students attended t
Horizonte Instruction & Training Center students Simiuela Kavapalu, left, Siupeli Kavapalu and Zachary Taylor perform a "Hamilton"-inspired rap at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 4, 2018. More than 2,000 high school students attended the matinee showing and performed their own "Hamilton"-inspired performances followed by a Q&A with the "Hamilton" cast.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

"It's different, 'cause from our side of town, coming to this type of thing is not really something (people) would want to go to, so we chose to be different and experience what's really out there," said Simiuela Kavapalu. "'Hamilton,' (I) heard it was a Broadway show, wanted to give it a try and learn. I like history, so I'm glad to be here."

Salt Lake City now joins an ever-growing number of cities that have participated in the EduHam program, including New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. The program aims to reach 250,000 rural and low-income students by the end of 2020.

"We hear stories nationally about how it has changed lives and not just for the students, but for the teachers," Bailey said. "It's changed the way they teach, it's changed the way they reach their students, it's changed their perspective on what you can do in a history or an English classroom with their students. ... (It's) a big deal."