Will Jakala loves the song “Guns and Ships” from the musical “Hamilton” so much that he knows every word by heart.
While he’s got the words memorized, the 11-year-old from Edina said he isn’t sure what some of them mean. But on his first day of camp, he learned the definition of “quagmire.”
“They’re teaching me, and it’s really great,” he said during a session of Musical Theatre from “Hamilton” and Acting camp at Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. “I love, just, the context. It’s so cool.”
The blockbuster musical doesn’t open at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis until Aug. 29, but Jakala and hundreds of other young Minnesota fans found a way to spend their summer rapping along to “My Shot” and jumping up in the air to “Guns and Ships” at “Hamilton” camp.
At least three Twin Cities area institutions are using Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit hip-hop Broadway biography of Alexander Hamilton to teach “young, scrappy and hungry” kids singing, acting and dancing skills — while sneaking in literacy and even a little American history.
CTC and Sarah Jane’s Music School in northeast Minneapolis both planned camps this summer with a “Hamilton” focus, while Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins made a song from the show a part of its Opening Night camp.
Twin Cities area “Hamilton” camps are particularly well-timed, with the U.S. tour’s upcoming Minneapolis stop, but schools and theaters across the country — from Music Theatre Philly to Seattle Public Theater — are offering similar programs.
During CTC’s “Hamilton” camp, which had five weeklong sessions this summer, it was 1776 every afternoon, as kids ages 11 to 14 spent a week working with a voice teacher and a choreographer. CTC ended up nearly doubling the number of “Hamilton” sessions because so many parents wanted to sign up their kids.
Beyond the words
Inside the mirrored rehearsal room, Jakala started off the “Guns and Ships” solo, rapping, “How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower somehow defeat a global superpower?” while several other kids chimed in with the next lines. Voice teacher Eric Mayson energetically slammed the accompanying piano chords, keeping the singers on beat while leading the 12-plus campers in the chorus as they sang “Lafayette!”
“Nice, y’all!” Mayson said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! The energy is great.”
Once the singing began to jell, the kids started learning the movements — pulling up one elbow, then the other, spinning their hands and kicking in unison.
“We chose the songs that kids love, that have a solid, steady pulsing tempo that would be easier for them to feel in their bodies,” said dance teacher Kendra “Vie Boheme” Dennard, who is playing Graziella in “West Side Story” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
Since so many of the kids come in knowing all the words, the teachers have an opportunity to focus on the meaning and the history.
“What we try to do is slow them down into the content,” Dennard said.
“Hamilton” is so popular that it’s become a cultural phenomenon, even among kids who aren’t into musical theater. It’s not the first time a musical has had that kind of power, though.
Dennard said she didn’t quite understand “Hamilton” fever until she recalled her obsession with the 1994 rock musical “Rent.”
“I could literally sing the entire soundtrack of ‘Rent,’ top to bottom, and I could sing all the parts,” she said. “It’s that cultural piece. ‘West Side Story’ was the same way. ‘Rent’ was the same way. ‘Hair.’ The shows that reflect the times, literally.”
Three years after its Broadway debut, “Hamilton” mania shows few signs of slowing down. Sarah Jane Perbix, owner and director of Sarah Jane’s Music School, decided to offer “Hamilton” camp after her piano students came in clutching the show’s songbook every week, she said.
Local actor and singer Evan Tyler Wilson, who teaches year-round at Sarah Jane’s, is running the camp. He said he’s going to let the kids decide which songs to focus on.
“We wanted to really empower them, especially because we have a pretty good feeling that most of the kids will have already been listening to the soundtrack and know it by heart,” he said, adding that he plans to focus on rhythm, pitch and harmony.
The camp, in session Aug. 6-10, is for ages 12 and up. But as soon as the school announced the camp, so many grown-ups asked if they could sign up, too, that Perbix is planning an adult singalong this fall.
History on the side
The dozens of 10- to 13-year-old campers taking part in Stages Theatre Company’s Opening Night program this summer performed the musical’s “My Shot” as the big closer in their showcase for family and friends, said Nikki Swoboda, the theater’s education director.
The song, Alexander Hamilton’s fast-paced revolutionary rap to “rise up” against the British, gave the camp’s two teaching artists the chance to talk about the words that Miranda chose in lines such as “dag I amaze and astonish” or “I’m just like my country; I’m young, scrappy and hungry.”
They broke down what the lines mean, and discussed how the characters might really have spoken in the 1770s.
Kids love “Hamilton” not only for Miranda’s music, which is heavy on hip-hop and includes jazz, blues and R&B, but because the show is tied to what’s in their history books at school, Swoboda said.
“It’s beautifully dense, there are parts to the story, there are complex characters, and yet the language is just fun. You feel empowered when you are singing and rapping along,” she said.
Stages’ teachers managed to slip a little history into camp discussions. During a session right before the July 4th holiday, they asked the kids, “Everyone’s going away for the 4th. Do you know what this is about?”
“Ohhhhhh,” was the collective response as they made the connection, Swoboda said.