On the one hand, it’s hard not to admire the efforts of Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Scarborough, Canada, near Toronto. A teacher and her students made as thorough a pitch as possible to be the first high school to produce the musical Hamilton, seemingly having staged several elaborate numbers from the show in their effort to be recognized. While YouTube videos showed a only simple set, the lights, costumes and sound demonstrated how much time and effort was spent trying to get the attention of the creators of Hamilton, with full out performances of multiple numbers from the show.
There’s no doubt that pretty much every high school as well as college theatre troupe in the US and Canada (and perhaps even ones outside of North America) shares Wexford’s desire to produce Hamilton. There are numerous professional venues that are still trying to book the show, be it as a tour or sit-down production, and no doubt plenty of Equity and non-Equity companies would relish the opportunity to perform the musical.
Of course, Hamilton has connected with young people in a way probably unrivaled since Rent, making the pleas from young people particularly potent. We are living in the time of Hamilmania, as a single musical has captured the interest and imagination of theatregoers and non-theatregoers alike. Everyone wants a piece of Hamilton, or Hamilton itself.
On a practical level, it was always highly unlikely that Wexford’s efforts would succeed. At this point, Hamilton isn’t even confirmed for a professional Canadian debut, let alone a high school one. Performance rights have not been made available beyond official companies derived from the Broadway production. If permission were to be granted uniquely to Wexford, the outcry from high schools everywhere would be deafening.
Of greater concern is that the Wexford videos didn’t appear to be simply demos to make their case. An article from the CBC says, “They’ve [Wexford] already performed an unauthorized presentation of material from the show, parts of which were captured on video.” So there’s more than what YouTubers were seeing? How much of Hamilton was staged at Wexford?
The CBC spoke with the teacher behind the project, Ann Merriam:
“After seeing it the first time, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to see it again, I’m going to tell everyone I know to see it, and I’m going to introduce it to my kids and school and have them perform it,'” she told CBC News in an interview.
Merriam said her school’s performances of the show were “an unbelievably meaningful” experience for the kids.
This suggests something much fuller was presented at Wexford Collegiate, very possibly violating the copyrights of the very artists whose permission is being sought. It’s one thing to work on numbers from Hamilton in a class, but another if what took place rises to the level of performances, even if only in front of the school’s student body. Whether or not the “performances” were advertised or charged for, Wexford may well have crossed a line, and indeed may be teaching some very bad lessons about respecting copyright, even as they were asking permission to produce the show legitimately.
As of the evening of June 16, the same day the Wexford videos were first featured by the CBC, they were gone from YouTube, due to a copyright infringement claim. So if the goal was to get their appeal noticed, Merriam and her students succeeded, but not in the way they wanted. Perhaps the videos were scooped up preemptively by automated copyright protection services, but the jury’s out.
If much time and money were spent to produce this elaborate pitch, one can’t help but be concerned about the wisdom of the effort at all, both in the allocation of resources and the precedent of performing too much of the material to which the school was apparently fully aware it didn’t have the rights. If either Merriam or the CBC overstated what was actually performed, that’s unfortunate, but since the videos were not parodies or amateurish tributes by a handful of fans, they possibly went too far as recorded material. Arts Integrity both called and e-mailed Merriam before 11 am on the 16th, while the videos were still available, for more clarity on the project, but neither inquiry received a response.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has already said how much he looks forward to seeing Hamilton done by high school students, and you can’t blame Wexford for trying to be the first. However, in the process, the school became an object lesson for other high schools (or any theatre group) thinking of similar gambits, with Hamilton or any show not yet available for licensing. Artists control and are compensated from the works they create through copyright, and violating it is not the way to plead your case.