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It sounds like the setup to a joke. A rap musical that reimagines America’s Founding Fathers as lyrical gangsters?
That’s the elevator pitch for Hamilton, which, against the odds, opens on Broadway this summer after a sold-out run at New York’s Public Theater. Hamilton might not have had A-list stars onstage, but there were plenty in the audience. Robert De Niro, the Clintons, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Roberts, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rupert Murdoch, Questlove from the Roots, and The Avengers director Joss Whedon all made the time to see it. The show’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, recalls Paul McCartney coming backstage to say how much he enjoyed the show before the Beatle admitted: “It was hard getting tickets.” For the record, the average price of a Hamilton ticket sold on StubHub, the online marketplace, was $700.
No one is more surprised by the show’s breakout success than Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book inspired the musical. Chernow, 66, held court at the Public one night in March, telling donors to the PEN American Center about the first time he heard Hamilton’s opening number. Chernow couldn’t help but break out into song himself, awkwardly rapping about “the $10 Founding Father without a father / Who got a lot farther / By workin’ a lot harder / By bein’ a lot smarter / By bein’ a self- starter.” Added Chernow with a laugh, “When Lin finished this 4-1⁄2-minute song—which had accurately condensed the first 30 or 40 pages of my biography—I thought, Either he writes very tight, or I write very long.”
On the first warmish afternoon in March, Miranda—a Tony winner for his first show, In the Heights—arrives at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan to talk about his groundbreaking show’s surprising path to Broadway. This stately residence (which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year) has wide-plank wood floors, period-perfect heavy wood furniture, and commanding views of the Hudson River. It’s a fitting location for today’s talk. Vice President Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s foil in the play and his real-life killer, briefly lived here in the 1830s, back when this was all Dutch farmland. Miranda would sometimes come here while writing the show, setting up his keyboard in Burr’s old bedroom. When tourists would occasionally peek in, curiously eyeing this 35-year-old talent from behind a velvet rope, he’d sometimes consider playing along: “I’m Aaron Burr!” he’d joke. “Look, my ex-wife’s commode is in the other room!”
Miranda, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt from his alma mater, Wesleyan, has his hair pulled back into a ponytail. He looks less like the creator of the hottest ticket in town than like the affable neighbor who carries an old lady’s groceries up the stairs. Bleary-eyed, he says, “I need to find out if there’s a world where coffee exists.” Even his breakfast order is lyrical. Caffeine-secure, we sit down to talk about the similarities between Alexander Hamilton and Tupac Shakur (his words, not mine).
Miranda got the idea for Hamilton in 2008. As he read Chernow’s biography on vacation, these historical characters started jumping off the page, shouting at him in rhyme and verse. (“To put it mildly, that’s not a typical reaction to one of my books,” Chernow said at the Public event.) But Miranda couldn’t shake the ghost. Alexander Hamilton was freakishly relevant to him. The life of the man on the $10 bill, Miranda explains, is the ultimate badass-from-the-streets story. Born out of wedlock and orphaned around the age of 12, Hamilton was raised penniless in St. Croix and had his assets seized before moving to the mainland. Following his own wild ambition, he served as George Washington’s aide during the Revolutionary War, wrote most of the Federalist Papers, and became America’s first secretary of treasury. Historic? Sure. It’s also positively Dickensian. Hamilton’s importance has long been overlooked—perhaps because rivals like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams outlived him by decades. Still, the textbook snub is kind of funny considering Hamilton kicked off a states’ rights debate that’s still raging today. He was also the model of a modern major politician, becoming embroiled in one of the nation’s first political sex scandals after cheating on his wife with a married woman and paying her husband hush money. What better way to tell such a quintessentially American self-made immigrant’s story than as a rap musical performed by a largely black and Latino cast?
Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda Jr., was himself a self-starter who came to the mainland from Puerto Rico to get a graduate degree from NYU. Later, Luis founded a consulting firm, the MirRam Group, advising Mayor Ed Koch (among other politicians) on Hispanic affairs. At age seven, Miranda made one of his first onstage appearances, introducing his father at a swearing-in ceremony. Politics was part of his diet. There’s a thrilling song in Hamilton in which Burr details the art of backroom political negotiations in early America, singing about “The Room Where It Happens.” Says Miranda, “The real shit happens in the backroom. I’ve seen it firsthand.”
Miranda’s own story is familiar to anyone with immigrant parents. He was torn between two worlds: Lin-Manuel at home in Inwood but Lin at school. He loved Les Misérables (his first Broadway show), but he was equally fluent in Nas and Busta Rhymes. Luis had hoped his son would go to law school. Instead, Lin-Manuel taught seventh-grade English at Hunter College High School for cash while writing In the Heights in the basement of the Drama Book Shop. There were odd jobs, too, such as writing music to underscore radio ads for politicians like Eliot Spitzer and Fernando Ferrer. Lin-Manuel describes the work as “60 seconds of generic, hopeful salsa,” pulling his iPhone out of his pocket to play a Spitzer track, a deep cut from his iTunes library: “It was like pastiche. It paid well.”
In the Heights—a love story about immigrants in Washington Heights— was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, but Hamilton somehow feels like a quantum leap forward, a rich and layered look at the creation of our nation. Miranda has turned our Founding Fathers’ disagreements—policy and ethical debates between Washington and Jefferson and Madison—into epic rap battles. Hamilton is depicted as the smartest person in the room, arguing with Jefferson and Adams and anyone who will listen about states’ rights and the need for a central banking system. Unfortunately he wants everyone to know it. The two-hour-40-minute musical inevitably rockets toward his showdown with Burr, but the thrill is in the ride. King George, draped in a red velvet cape and clutching a gold scepter, provides genius comic relief, singing a poppy valentine to his dearly departed colonies: “I will send a fully armed battalion / To remind you of my love.”
The libretto is littered with Easter eggs that will appeal to hip-hop nerds and theater geeks alike. “When I’m alone in my room / Sometimes I stare at the wall,” Hamilton raps, referencing LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” When Burr chants, “I’m with you but the situation is fraught / You’ve got to be carefully taught / If you talk, you’re gonna get shot,” he’s bringing Sweeney Todd and South Pacific together in one perfect couplet. Says Miranda, “I live in this Venn diagram where musical theater and hip-hop and history meet.” The other night, Miranda had a drink with Joanne Freeman, a re- nowned professor at Yale, and the two joked about Hamilton “like he was our crazy, weird uncle.”
The show is an intellectual exercise, not to mention a test of stamina. (Miranda’s Hamilton speaks more words here than any of Shakespeare’s male protagonists save Hamlet.) But the real magic trick is how the show never feels too clever for its own good. It’s novel, but it’s no novelty act. When one character sings, “Don’t this shit make my people wanna rise up,” it feels like a post-Ferguson, post-Baltimore anthem. And the show celebrates America by taking the Founding Fathers off the rock in South Dakota and humanizing them.
“America was always an experiment, and they were making it up as they went along,” says Miranda. “And we’re still doing that!” Asked to pinpoint the show’s political takeaway, he says, “Everyone take a fucking breath. Because the fight we’re having is old. It’s not new. ’Twas ever thus.” In one of the last moments of the show, Hamilton declares, “America, you great unfinished symphony / You sent for me.” Put that on a campaign button—talk about hope and change.
Hamilton moves to the 1,300-seat Richard Rodgers Theater this summer, a homecoming of sorts for Miranda; this is the same theater where In the Heights played for three years before closing in 2011. Still, the transfer is not without risk. The last cool-kid historical musical to move from the Public to Broadway on the back of strong reviews was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which closed after a swift 3-1⁄2 months, failing to recoup its $4.5 million budget. The one swipe against Hamilton has been concerns over its running time. Miranda laughs it off: “The critics say ‘cut for time,’ because it’s the easiest thing to say.” He plans to make small cuts before Broadway, but little else about the production will change. “It’s about making whatever time it ends up being fly by,” he says. “It’s about clarifying, cutting little moments here and there, and making sure the audience is with us—and to give the audience breaks when we’ve filled their brains.” He adds with a smile: “I’m building scores the way I used to make mixtapes for girls.” We take one last look at Burr’s bedroom—looking for ghosts, really. I wonder if Miranda sees any of himself in Hamilton. He thinks about it for a second. “I don’t think I’m as ambitious,” he says, “or as efficient. Ham- ilton couldn’t take an affront to his honor without saying, ‘Let’s go outside.’ I’m easier at taking criticism. I read reviews. I can take a punch. But I think that sense of a ticking clock—that we only get one life and we don’t have a ton of time—I share that with him.” At 35, Miranda is certainly making the most of his time. In a three-week span late last year, he was writing and rehearsing Hamilton while he and his wife, Vanessa (whom he met in high school), moved to Washington Heights and celebrated the birth of their first child, a boy named Sebastian. When Hamilton’s son Phillip is killed onstage in Act II, the anguish in Miranda’s performance feels genuine. “Living out a parent’s worst fear every night is enormously cathartic,” he says. “It’s a place to put all that anxiety so I don’t put it on my kid.”
As we wrap up, Miranda steers the conversation away from questions about Tony Awards and expectations on how long this show might run. “The word of mouth has been the audience freaking out,” he says. “That’s the only thing you need in this business.” He’d rather talk about the challenge of maintaining his newly long hair. (“It’s a pain in the ass. It takes forever to dry. But I’m learning about conditioners.”)
Mostly, it seems, he’s just looking forward to more people seeing the show and hopefully leaving the theater inspired. It’s already happening. Busta Rhymes sat in the front row at Hamilton in February, a sight that Miranda describes as surreal. During the aforementioned “rise up” section, which contains a nod to Busta’s “Pass the Courvoisier,” Miranda noticed the rapper whispering to a friend and smiling—and apparently taking notes. Rhymes was due to perform at the Theater at Madison Square Garden the following night in a concert commemorating the Bad Boy Records–versus–Death Row Records feud.
“At intermission,” Miranda says, “Busta Rhymes called his friend and said, ‘I need a crown, I need a scepter, I need a king’s coat. That’s how I have to look.’ ” Miranda can barely believe this story himself as he’s telling it, insisting that I go on YouTube and watch the concert myself. “Go look!” Miranda says. “He’s dressed like King George! He got the biggest ovation of the night.” All hail.