Ricardo Cabrera and Luis Romero of Seaside Middle School | Photo Royal Calkins
By Royal Calkins
Even in the Orpheum Theatre, overflowing with jumpy eighth-graders and latecomers trying to figure out why there were so many 12-year-olds in the seats, there was no way to miss Marc Del Piero. He was the big guy wearing his best black suit and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on him, and I’ve known him for years.
It was just before 1 p.m. Wednesday, matinee time, opening day for the first wave of Monterey County eighth-graders to be shipped to San Francisco to see Hamilton, the musical that changed the way a generation of youngsters views U.S. history. It’s the surprise megahit that mashed rap music, strong performances and the Constitution into the unlikeliest Broadway sensation, and Del Piero was the unlikely originator of what seemed to everyone around him to be his most ridiculous idea ever. To take not just some Monterey County eighth-graders to San Francisco to see the play, but to take every Monterey County eighth-grader to San Francisco to see the play, nine thousand of them spread among five matinee performances in the coming months.
Afterward, the review from the 1,800 kids rushing to the charter buses Wednesday was somewhat mixed. The boys were saying “It was good” or “It was okay” or “I liked it.” Wednesday’s group had been studying the play for weeks at their schools — Seaside Middle, San Benancio, La Paz Middle School in Salinas, Castroville Middle — and for some of the boys it seemed as though the bus ride was the best part of the day.
The girls were different. Their eyes were wider, their smiles bigger.
“I loved it,” said Lisa. I couldn’t tell which school she was from. “I knew all the words.” She started singing something from the play. I’m not sure which song but the girl next to her started singing, too.
“It was the best thing I’ve ever seen,” said a girl with braces on her teeth and a yellow sweater draped over her shoulder.
“No names please,” her teacher instructed her and me. Student privacy and all that.
Luis Romero’s teacher at Seaside Middle School wasn’t as strict. She didn’t mind if his name was attached to his declaration that “the dancing was great.”
A day later, Del Piero was still grinning when he said the youngsters he had a chance to chat with, mostly from Castroville and Seaside, all said they had had a good time.
“One said he had ‘never seen such tall buildings before’ because he had never been to San Francisco or any city before,” he said. “Some of the boys were repeating the rap lyrics. One said that his class had been learning about Hamilton in class for the past two weeks, and one girl said she had never had an interest in history or the Constitution until she saw the play and realized how her classroom work was connected to the characters in the play.
“She reaffirmed our belief that the tickets to the play are of far greater value if attendance is preceded by the classroom teaching of the special constitutional curriculum that we caused to be prepared by (the Monterey County Office of Education) for the students.”
'He admitted that he initially thought my idea was a little nuts.' Marc Del Piero
In case you missed the fuss leading up to it all, this whole Hamilton thing is being paid for by the Dan and Lillian King Foundation created by those departed heirs to the giant King Ranch in Texas. It is taking about $2 million in foundation assets to cover the tickets — the face value for my comped ticket was $186 — the transportation and the instructional costs.
For a full account of how it came about, check out Joe Livernois’s earlier piece in Voices. For now, suffice it to say that when the foundation board wanted advice on how to spend money from the sale of the King home in Pacific Grove, they turned to Del Piero, the water lawyer, former Monterey County supervisor, bankruptcy trustee, reformed Republican activist and big thinker.
Former Monterey County water official Steve Collins, who helped organize the event, recalled that he and others involved with the King Foundation “sort of humored” Del Piero when he brought up the Hamilton idea. But Del Piero is more of a doer than a listener. So, nearly two years ago, he sent an email to Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis, inviting them to bring the touring production to an off-off-off Broadway venue, Monterey County.
They declined but talks ensued. Remarkably, they led to something besides talk.
“The biggest challenge,” Del Piero said after the Wednesday performance, “was getting people to believe that taking every Monterey County eighth-grader to the Orpheum Theatre was really an achievable dream.”
He said that initial email in October 2017 led to a series of emails and conversations. Tickets for the eighth-graders were purchased at the reduced rate offered for group purchases.
I asked Del Piero before the show if there was a chance this could happen again next year when today’s seventh-graders have moved up in the world.
“Ask me in a few weeks,” he replied.
Del Piero handed out praise for Collins along with the president of Discovery Bus Company of Castroville and Deneen Guss, Monterey County superintendent of schools.
He said the MCOE staff originally shared Luis Miranda’s view about the slim chances of pulling it off.
“In the end, by the time of our first play date, they all became believers as our Monterey County community came together as a truly selfless team to achieve this small miracle for our kids.
“I guess most people do not normally expect that really big ideas for the benefit of our entire county are really achievable any more,” Del Piero said. “Maybe, sadly, it’s because with all the divisiveness and bad news that proliferates our country’s news cycle a lot of people no longer believe that big hopes or big dreams can actually come true. But that is because they are adults. Kids still dream big.”
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that the tickets were purchased by the King Foundation at the cost offered to customers who purchases tickets in bulk. Also, neither the Hamilton production nor the Miranda family operate a foundation.
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