Juniors Skylar Gertonson and Luis Herrera perform an original work for Hamilton cast
by Melanie Jongsma
CHICAGO, Ill. (October 18, 2017) – “We’re proud of you!” shouted TF South students as their classmates, Skylar Gertonson and Luis Herrera, were separated from the pack and taken to a backstage entrance. Gertonson and Herrera would be among the Hamilton Education Program performers during the morning session, one of 15 acts chosen by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to perform in front of their peers and the Chicago cast of Hamilton.
The day was the culmination of the Hamilton Education Program, which TF South Principal Jake Gourley learned about and applied for several weeks ago. Three US History classes used curriculum materials provided by Gilder Lehrman. The curriculum included a Student Performance and Study Guide designed to involve students in the process of researching historical documents, interpreting them, and synthesizing them into an original creative piece that would convey a historical truth. Students who completed the project earned tickets to the Chicago production of Hamilton.
As a bonus, students whose projects best fulfilled the requirements outlined in the curriculum were awarded the opportunity to perform their works on the Hamilton stage. Twenty-seven Chicago-area schools participated in the Hamilton Education Program, and each school was allowed to submit one of their class projects to Gilder Lehrman for review. Gilder Lehrman judges were specifically looking for:
- Clear evidence of exemplary research in primary sources
- Clear evidence of exemplary historical integrity
- Production is highly creative and original, well written, and well performed
They chose 15 of the projects to be performed on the Hamilton stage, for an audience that included 1,800 students as well as members of the Chicago cast of Hamilton.
Gertonson and Herrera’s choice
The curriculum had provided a list of suggested events that students could choose to focus their projects on. Gertonson and Herrera selected the 1777–1778 Winter at Valley Forge because, said Gertsonson, “It would not only give a perspective into the relationship between Washington and Hamilton, but would also give insight into the desperation during the time and would really make for a great song.” Herrera confirmed, “Valley Forge definitely made America’s will during that time—the will to fight and to get independence, which we still stand for.”
Gertonson, who crafted the lyrics for their collaborative piece, has been writing since middle school, though she concedes that her earliest middle-school works were “not very good.” Herrera, who digitally composed the instrumentals for the piece, has been in band since fifth grade, where he has tried to learn “music overall.” The two previous collaborated on projects for a sophomore-year English class. They have no specific plans for a future project, but they are willing to continue their creative partnership.
AP US History Teacher Matthew Tiffy was impressed with the creativity of the students—not just Gertonson and Herrera, but all who participated. “There were several great performances,” he said. “To be honest, any number of them could have been used.” Teacher Julie Kelly, whose class was also part of the program, believes that the extra work Gertonson and Herrera put into rehearsing and refining their performance is what put them over the top. “They really took it seriously,” she said.
Wednesday morning, October 18, the 66 students, 3 teachers, and a couple additional escorts boarded two buses and headed downtown. Arriving more than an hour later, they were surprised by the crowds already surrounding the theater—hundreds of students from area high schools were lined up outside the doors. The event was well organized, with a host of staff shepherding the students from their buses, across the streets, into the theater, and into their seats. “What is all this?” asked a passerby about the long lines at the doors at 9:30am. On finding out about the Hamilton Education Program, she nodded her head and seemed impressed.
Gertonson and Herrera were among 24 performers representing 15 high schools. Performances began around 10:15am, when Ari Afsar (who plays Eliza Hamilton in the Chicago production) took the stage to welcome the audience. As onstage host of the morning, Afsar introduced each performance by mentioning the name of the school and the names of the students performing. TF South’s Gertonson and Herrera would be 13th of the 15 performances. Waiting backstage, they were able to watch the other performances on a monitor.
Gertonson had set as a personal goal, “I want to get over my stage fright today.” She was determined to eliminate any nervous habits such as swaying or looking away from the camera. “Especially since I’m playing George Washington,” she said at the outset of the day. “He’s a very confident figure, and he knows what he wants to say and when he wants to say it. I want to be very confident today and get more into my role.”
Herrera had similar feelings: “I get very nervous with performing, and you can’t really do that with Hamilton, considering how he’s very outspoken—he always speaks his mind. Anyone that approaches him, they’re probably gonna get a verbal beat-down by Hamilton. He speaks his mind very freely. I don’t think he got nervous very often.”
Gertonson and Herrera seemed to realize those goals, stepping into their roles and inhabiting their characters more powerfully than they had ever done:
Following all 15 performances, the audience of 1,800 students was treated to an onstage Q and A with members of the Chicago cast—Ari Afsar (Eliza Hamilton), Montego Glover (Angelica Schuyler), Sam Aberman (swing), Chloé Campbell (swing), and Candace Quarrels (ensemble). At 11:30am, most of the audience headed across the street to the Palmer House for a brown bag lunch, while the student performers stayed at the theater to be interviewed by ABC7 and CBS. Those interviews were scheduled to be broadcast as part of the 5:00pm and 6:00pm newscasts. TF South students did not return home in time to see them air, but the broadcast-quality videos can be found on both stations’ websites. The Lansing Journal captured the raw footage of the full interviews in order to share them here.
Evelyn Holmes of ABC7 spent several minutes with Gertonson and Herrera:
Vince Gerasole of CBS managed to fit them in just before stage and sound set-up began:
Gertonson and Herrera made it to the Palmer House, where they met up with their classmates before being quickly whisked away for an interview with LNN. The Lansing News Network plans to include some scenes in an upcoming “This Week in Lansing” segment.
Then, the show
The students were ushered back to the theater after lunch, and they settled into their seats just before the show began at 1:30pm. In addition to studying the era in their history classes, many of the students had been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for months, or even years.
Even that preparation left them unprepared for the live musical. The staging, lighting, costumes, and acting brought everything together and provided a rich context and new insights into the people they had been studying. The student audience cheered loudly and laughed at the fast-paced wordplay. They were moved by the betrayals and inspired by the sacrifices. They related to the characters and understood old history in a new way.
Matthew Tiffy believes that an experience like this is an amazing opportunity for his students. “This is a play that’s gone above and beyond,” he said, recounting some of the resources provided by Gilder Lehrman as well as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personal interest in helping students. “It’s perfect,” said Tiffy. “A lot of kids can connect to the Hamilton story in several different ways. They can say, ‘That guy’s kind of like me.’ There’s a connection. And they can see that history applies to what’s going on today.”
In Skylar Gertonson’s words, it’s all about “The true spirit of America—where we came from and how we got here.”
And Luis Herrera adds this reminder to people who may not believe they have a part in America’s story: “You can still do it. Even if you’re shy.”
TF South High School is located at 18500 Burnham Avenue in Lansing, Illinois.
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a nonprofit organization devoted to the teaching and learning of American history. They provide resources and programs for K–12 educators and students in all 50 states and 39 foreign countries.
Hamilton, winner of 11 Tony Awards including Best Musical, 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 nation’s first Treasury Secretary.