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Summer camps capture ‘Hamilton’ mania for Minnesota kids

August 3, 2018

Will Jakala loves the song Guns and Ships from the musical Hamilton so much that he knows every word by heart.

While hes got the words memorized, the 11-year-old from Edina said he isnt sure what some of them mean. But on his first day of camp, he learned the definition of quagmire.

Theyre teaching me, and its really great, he said during a session of Musical Theatre from Hamilton and Acting camp at Childrens Theatre Company in Minneapolis. I love, just, the context. Its so cool.

The blockbuster musical doesnt 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 Mirandas 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 Janes Music School in northeast Minneapolis both planned camps this summer with a Hamilton focus, while Stages Musical Theatre 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. tours upcoming Minneapolis stop, but schools and theaters across the country from Music Theatre Philly to Seattle Public Theater are offering similar programs.

During CTCs 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, yall! 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 its become a cultural phenomenon, even among kids who arent into musical theater. Its not the first time a musical has had that kind of power, though.

Dennard said she didnt 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. Its 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 Janes Music School, decided to offer Hamilton camp after her piano students came in clutching the shows songbook every week, she said.

Local actor and singer Evan Tyler Wilson, who teaches year-round at Sarah Janes, is running the camp. He said hes 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 Musical Theatres Opening Night program this summer performed the musicals My Shot as the big closer in their showcase for family and friends, said Nikki Swoboda, the theaters education director.

The song, Alexander Hamiltons fast-paced revolutionary rap to rise up against the British, gave the camps two teaching artists the chance to talk about the words that Miranda chose in lines such as dag I amaze and astonish or Im just like my country; Im 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 Mirandas music, which is heavy on hip-hop and includes jazz, blues and RB, but because the show is tied to whats in their history books at school, Swoboda said.

Its 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, Everyones going away for the 4th. Do you know what this is about?

Ohhhhhh, was the collective response as they made the connection, Swoboda said.

Erica Pearson 612-673-4726

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