Frankly, driving to the theater, I had concerns. Most of the audience were Title One students — young people from economically challenged families, kids who often do not have the opportunity to participate in the arts. Many had never seen a play. Some had never been to Salt Lake.
Add in a complex score and challenging political story. Would this experiment be a three-hour onstage disaster? Would the kids walk out? Get bored? Get distracted? Click on their phones?
But when I walked into the magnificent Eccles Theatre I had no doubt about what was going to happen. I was clobbered by the energy in the air, like nothing I have ever felt in countless trips to the theater. Over 2,000 Utah high school students jam-packed into the room where it happened. Students from every part of the state. Some had traveled seven hours to get to the theater. Some walked.
At 1:30, with a single spotlight, an immensely talented actor burst on the stage and belted out the iconic first words of Hamilton:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The students went wild. They screamed. They shrieked. Hundreds sang along — word for word. For my generation, it was a flashback to the 1964 Beatles invasion. I was overwhelmed. I put my face in my hands, covering my emotion. Watching, there before my eyes, as a generation connected with their nation’s founders. In a deep, emotional way that cannot be done — other than through the arts! The music, dance and spoken words had done their magic — creating a bond as nothing else can.
Miraculously, the energy, enthusiasm and intensity level of the students maintained for the entire show. Attention focused on every word of the acrimonious debate between Hamilton and Jefferson on the topic of how to deal with the national debt. Our students sobbed as Hamilton lost his son. They laughed and inhaled every word as King George smugly predicted the demise of his colony. They cheered wildly as fledgling America won its improbable victory. These students felt America in their soul, maybe for the first time.
When the curtain came down, Utah students stood, cheered and screamed. But more than just appreciation for a magnificent theater experience, these youngsters (many of them minorities) felt our shared American heritage, the complexity of our history and felt the exposed humanity (sometimes quite ugly) of our founders.
This experience points out why Utah must do better in funding the arts. Large funding increases for the immensely successful Beverley Taylor Sorenson educational outreach are a must. An urgency in providing strong additional support for arts groups across Utah should be the highest priority for our state and local communities. Without arts, we have no soul.
Finally, arts and culture bring people together. This remarkable week of “Hamilton” education events brought together far-left liberals (like me) and the right-wing person who made it happen, House Speaker Greg Hughes. Representatives like Ken Ivory and Kim Coleman, along with Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the Eccles Foundation with super-lobbyist Spencer Stokes, who found money. Add in the real workers, from the Utah State Board of Education, Salt Lake County, Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, Salt Lake City, the fabulous folks at Broadway Across Utah and of course the remarkable Lin-Manuel Miranda with the entire Hamilton theater family.
The arts in Utah matter. At this moment in our history, they may be more important than ever before. They may be the thing that can save us.
Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, represents District 2 in the Utah Senate.