BEAVERCREEK — When choral director Sean Hurley told his students at Coy Middle School that a cast member of the acclaimed musical “Hamilton” was coming to visit, his 208 choir students could barely contain their excitement.
“I teased the students for about a week,” he said. “Then when I told them a cast member from ‘Hamilton’ was coming, you would have thought everyone won the lottery that day.”
Stephanie Jae Park, who plays the titular Alexander Hamilton’s supportive and fiery wife Eliza, visited the class on Tuesday. She will be performing with her colleagues at the Schuster Center in Dayton through Feb. 6.
Park led the kids in a vocal masterclass and coached them in a five-part, a capella rendition of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” the final song of the musical. Park also performed Eliza’s featured number “Helpless,” and ended by answering students’ questions about her career and the theater industry.
“I feel very responsible to set a good example and to be a good role model, but mostly I’m just grateful. It’s so awesome to see musical theater continue to thrive as an art form, and it’s super inspiring to see “Hamilton” specifically inspiring students to learn more about history, and just see what it feels like for themselves to do it themselves, to be artists. It means so much to me,” Park said.
The roughly eight bars of music she taught are the most “vulnerable” section, as the orchestra drops out and the full weight of the music rests on the vocalists.
“This is the most exposed part of the show,” she told students. “There’s no instruments, just the singers on stage.”
Standing shoulder to shoulder in the school cafeteria, Park eventually stopped keeping time for the choir, as the students locked in harmony with one another on their own, a moment Hurley described as “magical.”
“It’s such a cool moment to hear students take ownership of what they do,” Hurley said. “Being a singer is the most vulnerable instrument, because it is literally us. There’s no other medium, it’s just our body and the sound we make.”
Students also performed an enthusiastic rendition of “My Shot,” which Coy eighth grader Annika Linquist said they rehearsed only once the day before.
“I have no words, it was just amazing,” Linquist said. “I’ve never gotten to do that before. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
Christopher Rice-Thomson, another member of the “Hamilton” cast, spoke to and performed for Troy High School music and theater students Tuesday. Rice-Thomson said he understands how invested many students are in musical theatre and wanted to encourage them to follow their dreams.
“It’s really a pleasure,” he said. “I remember being a high school student and loving theater so much. And to have an opportunity like this would have been life changing, really. I think it’s so important to give back to communities, and that’s one of my favorite parts of traveling around is getting to meet students from different places. All of the students here asked such educated and smart questions, and it was just really a wonderful morning with them.”
Park, who has been with the touring cast of Hamilton for almost two years, said she found working with the younger generation inspiring, adding that she had few opportunities to see live theater herself growing up.
“I wasn’t able to see that much, but when I did, it meant everything to me,” she said. “I just find it inspirational and hopeful for the next generation, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of them as artists as well. I can’t wait to see who the next Hamilton’s going to be, because who knows, it could be someone right here. It could be any one of these students here who are inspired today.”
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” became a musical theater sensation after its debut in 2015, blending hip-hop with traditional music theater tunes. Hamilton also became famous for elevating people of color in the theater industry, casting minority actors as predominantly white historical figures.
“It’s breaking a barrier of what musicals used to be and what musicals can be,” said Hurley. “It’s taking these busts that we have of these people, like composers or poets, or Hamilton himself, and actually making them human again.”
In Hamilton, the “ten-dollar founding father” declares himself to be “just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry/and I’m not throwing away my shot,” a mindset that speaks volumes to Hurley’s students.
“There’s a lot of the American experience in this. It’s about America and being that young, angsty country coming up really connects with kids these days, because kids have a lot to say and not a lot of people who will listen. And this musical forces people to listen.”
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