Nearly 3,000 students got the opportunity of a lifetime Thursday to connect with history and experience the cultural phenomenon Hamilton, a musical about the United States' early days as a nation.
The excited crowd at the San Diego Civic Theatre included about 50 students from three of the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) Juvenile Court and Community Schools.
They were experiencing the award-winning musical as part of the Hamilton Education Program, which includes an accompanying curriculum that challenges students to create their own works of art based on Alexander Hamilton and early U.S. history. It was the largest Hamilton Education Day yet, organizers said.
"It was an awesome experience," one of the students said after the performance. "I learned a lot of new things."
The students were able to see the musical for free thanks to sponsors Qualcomm, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Toys R Us Children's Fund.
Before the show, Rory O'Malley, who played King George, asked the audience how many were seeing a Broadway-style musical for the first time, and most of the students clapped.
"We're so lucky to be your cast today," O'Malley told them.
Six students from SDCOE's San Diego SOAR Academy at the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility participated in the lessons and attended the performance.
The excursion was particularly powerful for these students as many of them haven't had the opportunity to experience these types of arts and cultural events, said Brian Day, a supervising probation officer who escorted the students.
"It's huge," he said. "This is part of them reconnecting and reintegrating into the community."
There were also students from SDCOE's Monarch and Reflections Central schools.
Before attending the performance, most of the students spent several weeks studying U.S. history and putting together their own projects inspired by the musical.
The curriculum and using primary sources made history come alive for the students, said Cindy Stallo, a teacher at Reflections Central School. The lessons were so powerful that Stallo said she's hoping to take a similar approach when teaching other content areas.
"In a two-minute song, the students were able to really capture that part of history," she said.
One of the students who visited from the San Diego SOAR Academy school wrote a song about the Battle of Fort Washington. Another wrote a poem about Hercules Mulligan. Both said they learned a lot by doing so and proudly shared some of their new knowledge.
Some of the students said the experience has encouraged them to delve deeper into U.S. history.
Andrea, one of the students who participated from Monarch School, wrote a monologue about Hamilton's wife that she's excited to be able to perform in front of her classmates soon.
"It was really cool to be able to learn and get more insight – to get some of the backstory," she said.
In total, the audience included more than 2,800 high school students from 46 schools in San Diego and surrounding counties. All the schools have a high percentage of students from low-income families.
"The arts matter, and thanks to the Hamilton Education Program, San Diego County students saw, heard, and felt history come to life through this blockbuster show," said Paul Gothold, county superintendent of schools.
Before the musical, students from 15 schools performed songs, poems, scenes, and monologues they wrote as part of the pre-show curriculum. Their enthusiastic peers applauded the performances as if they were at a rock concert.
There was also a question and answer session with five of the cast members. Students had the opportunity to submit their queries, and the diverse group of performers offered inspirational messages about following their dreams, working hard, and making positive choices.
"You have so much talent and power that live inside you," said Isaiah Johnson, who plays George Washington. "You can do it right now. There's no reason to wait until you're an adult or wait until you're financially free…. You can change the world."
Karli Dinardo, co-dance captain for the musical, encouraged the students to work hard, stay humble, and support those around them.
"There's always silent strength in you," she said. "No dream is too big."
Hamilton is the story of America's founding father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation's first Treasury secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, Hamilton is the story of America then, as told by America now.