Are Productions Like "Hamilton" the Cure for What Ails Art Education?

It's trivia time.

If we were to ask you, "What's the most effective way to boost audience engagement in theater, reach new audiences, improve arts education for low-income students, and net a foundation grant in the process?" the answer, obviously, would be, "Create killer programming."

But no one prepared us for the phenomenon that is Hamilton.

The smash musical is best described as a hip-hop-infused exploration of America’s revolutionary era. What's more, most of the familiar characters who appear on stage—think George Washington, the dastardly Aaron Burr, and of course, the production's namesake—are played by actors of color. President Obama is a fan, as well. He took his daughters to see the show back in July.

And now it looks as if a lot more young people will be experiencing Hamilton. The Rockefeller Foundation and the producers have agreed to an arrangement whereby 20,000 New York City 11th graders, all from schools with high percentages of students from low-income families, can see Hamilton at a series of matinees beginning next spring and running through 2017. The foundation will allocate $1.5 million to subsidize student tickets and develop educational materials that will help students contextualize the show.

Of course, this isn't the first time a foundation has enabled kids to enjoy the theater. But the partnership is nonetheless important and historic for a litany of reasons.

First off, the program is the largest of its kind for a single production. This is no doubt due to the inherent educational value of the piece itself. Its modern, multi-ethnic approach toward American history personalizes the travails of the founding fathers. Viewers no longer view them as a bunch of dead, old white guys. Victoria Bailey, the executive director of the Theater Development Fund, put it a bit more poignantly, noting, "We had students who were in tears because they felt like they were American for the first time."

Then there's the fact that the program is the "largest for a single production and the first to so fully involve the school district."

Which brings us to our next point. As we've noted repeatedly here at IP—most recently in a post about the NYC-based Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation—the state of arts education funding in the city, particularly for low-income students, is dire. How dire? According to a 2014 report by the New York City comptroller, many public schools in the city do not offer any kind of arts education—zero, zilch, nada—and the lack of arts instruction disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods. For example, more than 42 percent of the schools that do not have state-certified arts teachers are clustered in the city's poorest areas, namely the South Bronx and central Brooklyn. This partnership aims to reach kids in similarly underserved neighborhoods.

Finally, this brings us to the "education" component of the Hamilton program. The nonprofit Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History will create a curriculum for teachers and also plans to create a website with copies of the primary documents that undergird the book and lyrics, as well as teaching materials about Hamilton and his revolutionary brethren.

In a perfect world, there'd be enough money to fund in-school art education programs and supplemental experiences such as Hamilton. But in this imperfect world, an "either/or" choice is often the reality. And so the success of Hamilton could compel administrators to say, "Well, sure, our school lacks art equipment, but a foundation-funded theater-going experience can be just as life changing for our kids." In other words, where will the money have the greatest impact? (Or, to look at the challenge through a darker lens, why not just entirely pass the arts education buck to foundations?)

We'll table that discussion for another time, and instead revel in the historic implications of this program. Ms. Bailey sums up the urgency of the situation best, noting, "It's actually kind of imperative that this happen— that they figure out a way to get young people in—because it's going to be a while before there would be access another way."