Exclusive: Michelle Obama Talks Arts Legacy and Power of Hamilton

Special Features   Exclusive: Michelle Obama Talks Arts Legacy and Power of Hamilton In this exclusive Q&A, First Lady Michelle Obama speaks about the arts legacy she wants to leave behind, the importance of art in schools and the cultural impact of Hamilton.
First Lady Michelle Obama joins performers on stage following the White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show in the East Room of the White House, May 25, 2016.
First Lady Michelle Obama joins performers on stage following the White House Turnaround Arts Talent Show in the East Room of the White House, May 25, 2016. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

On May 25, students from across the country, including four schools from the New York City area, will perform for First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House as part of the Turnaround Arts Talent Show.

Launched in 2011 by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Turnaround Arts initiative is aimed at high-need, low-performing elementary and middle schools where students have little, if any, access to arts education. By working with local program partners, including state agencies, school districts and educational organizations, Turnaround Arts establishes sustainable arts programs that are changing the lives of students across America and paving the way for future generations.

In 2014, Mrs. Obama opened the doors of The White House to invite students involved in the Turnaround Arts program to perform the first-ever Turnaround Arts Talent Show, in which young performers worked alongside such artists as Sarah Jessica Parker, Alfre Woodard and more. Past participating artists have also included Misty Copeland, Kerry Washington, Josh Groban, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Elton John, among many others.

Over the past eight years, the Obama Administration has put a strong emphasis on the arts, inviting numerous Broadway performers and artists from the music industry to perform at the White House in celebration of America’s artistic cultural heritage.

The Obamas themselves have also been frequent attendees of Broadway shows, taking in such productions as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, A Raisin in the Sun, The Trip to Bountiful, Motown, Memphis, The Addams Family, Kinky Boots, The King and I and Hamilton—the dynamic, multicultural political juggernaut first performed for The President and First Lady at the White House.

Playbill.com was given the opportunity to submit questions to The First Lady, who spoke about the arts legacy she and the President hope to leave behind, as well as the lasting impact of Turnaround Arts and the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton.

Theatre and the arts are often seen as extracurricular activities. Since launching Turnaround Arts, you’ve seen how the introduction of arts within schools completely changes the environment. Attendance, behavior, grades and parental engagement are all positively affected. Why do you think the arts have the ability to achieve this?
Michelle Obama: We’ve been blown away by the impact the Turnaround Arts program has had on schools across the country. Class attendance is way up; math scores have risen by an average of more than 20 percent; and reading scores have improved by more than 10 percent.

But when you think about it, that’s not all that surprising. After all, the research clearly shows that kids who are involved in the arts have better grades and fewer behavioral problems, and they’re more likely to graduate and go to college. For so many of these kids, their engagement in the arts is what gets them out of bed in the morning. It gives them something to look forward to. And while they might show up to school every day because they’re excited about their art, music or theatre class, once they’re in those seats, we can teach them math, reading and science—and we can use the arts to get them excited about those subjects, so they’ll improve their academic performance as well.

That’s why I’m so thrilled that the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities will be forging a new partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to implement and expand the Turnaround Arts program. The Kennedy Center will be bringing its world-renowned arts education programming to even more schools—and even more students—across the country. I am so grateful to the Kennedy Center for making this commitment, and I cannot wait to see all the young people they engage and inspire and all the schools they help transform.

What kind of artistic legacy do you want to leave behind?
MO: One of my goals as First Lady has been to open the doors of the White House as wide as possible and showcase a variety of American art forms. Over the years, we’ve hosted all kinds of performances—including country, jazz, modern dance, Broadway show tunes, and more – just about any genre you can imagine, we’ve had it at the White House.

And when we host these performances, we ask performers to come a few hours early and run workshops for young people, particularly kids from underserved communities who wouldn’t normally have a chance to visit the White House. More than anything else, that’s the artistic legacy I want to leave behind—a legacy of openness, inclusion and inspiration for our young people.

You’ve spoken about your passion for theatre—and you’ve hosted theatre performances, including by the cast of Hamilton, at the White House. What is it about the power of theatre that made it something you wanted to highlight and share with young people?
MO: I had the privilege of seeing the Off-Broadway version of Hamilton last year, and I loved every minute of it. The cast was extraordinary—some of the most talented, diverse performers you’ll ever see. And they really made history come alive, revealing all the intrigue, heartbreak, drama and glory that run through our past and showing us how the folks in our textbooks were real people with real talents, but also real flaws.

I was so excited to share the magic of Hamilton with young people, because I believe that this is how history should be taught. And I wanted to get them excited about learning about our nation’s past—I wanted to light a spark in them so that they would walk away eager to learn more.

And just as important, I wanted to expose more young people to the power of theatre, because so often, our kids just don’t have access to it, or their families simply can’t afford it. Lin-Manuel [Miranda], the creator of Hamilton, and the cast and crew have done so much to bring the show and its lessons to young people from all different backgrounds, and I would love to see more efforts like that all across the country.

What would you like to see every-day citizens doing to help foster the arts within their own communities? Are there ways—ranging from the individual to big businesses—that we can get involved and make a difference?
MO: I think the Turnaround Arts program offers a perfect example of the many ways people can support the arts in their communities. That program is a real team effort—everyone plays a role, from teachers embracing the arts in their classrooms, to parents encouraging their kids to get involved, to businesses that donate money and supplies.

People across the country can also do their part by standing up and speaking out for the arts. When you hear that the schools in your community are cutting arts programming, write a letter in your local newspaper or show up for a school board meeting to push back. Encourage local businesses to help support arts education. And be sure to show up for as many performances, exhibits and concerts as you can—every ticket sold and seat filled makes a difference.

Adam Hetrick is the Editor in Chief of Playbill.com. His work also appears in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on twitter @PlaybillAdamH.