Rapping a Revolution: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Others From ‘Hamilton’ Talk History


This article by ROB WEINERT-KENDT appeared in The New York Times.

“If Hamilton were on Twitter, he would have been a worse oversharer than me,” said the composer-performer Lin-Manuel Miranda recently over lunch at Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan. Mr. Miranda, who won a Tony for the score of “In the Heights,” was holding forth on Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first treasury secretary, who is the unlikely subject of his new musical, “Hamilton,” now in previews at the Public Theater. In contrast to such relatively taciturn rivals as Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Mr. Miranda said, “Everything we know about Hamilton, we knew when he was alive, because he told us.”

Likewise, anyone who follows Mr. Miranda’s lively Twitter feed knows all about his 3-month-old son, his obsession with “Les Misérables” and the roster of celebrities and friends seeing his show on a given night. Before lunch, Mr. Miranda tweeted a photo of himself working on his laptop at the tavern, a Revolutionary War haunt of Hamilton’s and Burr’s, and the place where George Washington held a farewell dinner for his officers.

A meeting of old and new, Colonial and millennial, is the quintessence of “Hamilton,” in which Mr. Miranda — who wrote the book, lyrics and music, and stars in the title role — uses a hip-hop, R&B and pop score to retell America’s founding story. The much-anticipated musical, already extended through May 3 at the Public, is widely rumored to be headed for Broadway.

The hip-hop element does not feel like a kitschy anachronism; this is not “Epic Rap Battles of History,” although “Hamilton” includes its share of epic rap battles. It’s told that way because, while reading Ron Chernow’s exhaustive 2004 Hamilton biography, Mr. Miranda was struck by the parallels between Hamilton — an illegitimate immigrant from the West Indies who rose to power largely by the sheer force of his rhetoric — and such hustlers-turned-moguls as Jay Z.

“By the second chapter, I was like, ‘I know this guy,’ ” Mr. Miranda said. “Just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island — this is a guy who wrote his way out of his circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself. This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”

But whereas the score of “Heights,” a feel-good musical inspired by Mr. Miranda’s largely Dominican neighborhood of Inwood (he himself is of Puerto Rican descent), was, by the composer’s estimation, about “one-third rapped to two-thirds sung,” the ratio in “Hamilton” is close to an inverse.

“With ‘Heights,’ we took great care to make sure everyone felt very taken care of: ‘We’re gonna be rapping, and you’re gonna get a lot of information at the same time,’ ” Mr. Miranda said. “I wanted to be a little more selfish with this — I wanted the lyrics to have the density that my favorite hip-hop albums have.” That’s why Mr. Miranda initially billed the project as “The Alexander Hamilton Mixtape”: “It was easier to think of it as a hip-hop album, because then I could really just pack the lyrics.” He soon realized, he said with a laugh, “I only know how to write musicals.”

To find performers who could deliver the show’s mix of rap and musical theater, Mr. Miranda and the director, Thomas Kail (who also directed “Heights”), drew in part on the talent pool of Freestyle Love Supreme, a rap improv troupe they co-founded. Its alumni include Christopher Jackson, who was in the original cast of “Heights” and here plays George Washington, and Daveed Diggs, a rapper with the trio clipping, who is double-cast as the Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson.

Mr. Jackson and Mr. Diggs joined Mr. Miranda for lunch at Fraunces Tavern, as did Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Hamilton’s archrival, Burr. Amid the Colonial surroundings, the four had a spirited, collegial discussion about American history, hip-hop and musical theater. These are excerpts from the conversation.

I think the shorthand stereotype of Hamilton is that he was, to mix metaphors, “all about the Benjamins.”

Lin-Manuel MirandaYeah, that’s a simplification. He was definitely for strong, robust central democracy, and he definitely created our financial system. That doesn’t mean “all about the Benjamins.” This is a guy who died in debt. This is not a tycoon.

(A server pours tap water.)

See, that alone is anachronistic, because there was no good fresh water in those days. We’d be drinking ale. It was safer to drink ale.

So are you Mr. History now?

Miranda No, I know just enough to have written my show. But I do love the fact that everyone’s just a little soused for the entire revolution. Everyone’s drinking beer all the time. Except for Hamilton, who preferred wine.

Are the rest of you history buffs, too?

Christopher Jackson I’m sort of a history nutjob. When we started “Heights,” I think we all had a copy of “Team of Rivals” [Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln’s cabinet].

Miranda I was totally into making that into a musical, and then the movie “Lincoln” came out and I was like, I can’t even touch it now.

Jackson To me there’s nothing more fascinating than a roomful of young people just trying to look at the world and seeing how they can affect it as they’re being affected by it. To be empowered, to have the chutzpah to say: “I can do this. There’s something for me to affect, and so I’m going to, until someone says no, and then I’m going to push against that.”

One thing about telling the story with hip-hop and R&B is that it reminds us: These were young guys, for the most part.

Miranda Not just young people but people. We have deified them so much; they’re on rocks in South Dakota. But they were people, and the flaws they had creep into everything we have now. The fights Jefferson and Hamilton have in the show are the fights we are still having.

We’re a stone’s throw from Wall Street here. Do you think Hamilton would feel at home there today?

Miranda I don’t know. This was not a guy who just said, “Let everyone go.” He was constantly fiddling with the experiment that was his financial system. I don’t think this is a big deregulation guy.

Burr, meanwhile, is not known for his stake in these debates but mainly as the guy who shot Hamilton in a duel.

Miranda Burr was tough to write, because he published almost nothing, and all of the biographies on him are either insanely defensive or are, like, he’s the villain — he’s Iago. Finding a real guy in there was a great archaeological challenge. He is known for this one act, but he was also an early feminist; he raised his daughter like anyone would raise their son. So there are redeeming human qualities there.

Leslie Odom Jr. What fascinates me is how intertwined Burr and Hamilton were.

Jackson He was one of the first people Hamilton met in America.

Miranda And you can see how Hamilton could be attracted to Burr, because Burr finished Princeton in two years. Hamilton was, “Oh, you’re like me.” I think of Hamilton as, like, Harry Potter: He knew he had powers but he didn’t know what for, and then he gets to this town where everyone’s got powers: “Oh, you speak Parseltongue, and you’re an orphan, too.” There is this attraction, but they’re fundamentally different people.

Could you have cast this show, say, 10 years ago? Was there a talent pool of performers who could rap, act, sing and dance?

Miranda Sure.

Daveed Diggs The skill sets had been out there for a long time, but the crossover of the worlds didn’t exist, and still doesn’t, really. Lin’s kind of the only one doing this — the only one who’s bold enough to write rap for rappers and trust that an audience is going to be able hold on.

You’re a hip-hop artist in your own right, but Lin has written your raps in this show.

Diggs I’ve also been an actor for a long time, so I approach this as I would any role. There’s this thing about authenticity when you rap, right? Whether or not it’s real, it has to feel real. That’s what hip-hop is — it’s about meeting the music where you are, and then you add on top of that. It’s about coming at it with your full self.

The founding fathers were white, and many owned black slaves. The cast of “Hamilton” is mostly nonwhite. Can you tell me about your thinking as you wrote and cast the show?

Miranda This was a constant conversation between me and Tommy. Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance — our story should look the way our country looks. Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it’s a very powerful statement without having to be a statement.

As for the question of slavery, which is the great original sin of this country, it’s in the third line of the show. But it’s this thing that keeps getting kicked down the field. Hamilton and Burr were part of the [abolitionist] New York Manumission Society, so they were actually very progressive. But there’s only so much time you can spend on it when there’s no end result to it.

Odom Jr. In the first two minutes of this show, Lin steps forward and introduces himself as Alexander Hamilton, and Chris steps forward and says he’s George Washington, and you never question it again. When I think about what it would mean to me as a 13-, 14-year-old kid, to get this album or see this show — it can make me very emotional. And I so look forward to the day I get to see an Asian-American Burr.

Miranda That’ll be the note that goes with the school productions: If this show ends up looking like the actual founding fathers, you messed up.

Diggs I have to say, the dollar bill looked wrong after that first workshop. I was like, “That really should be Chris Jackson.”

Miranda I’ve taken to calling the bridge near where I live the Chris Jackson Bridge.

For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/theater/lin-manuel-miranda-and-others-from-hamilton-talk-history.html?emc=edit_th_20150208&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=41473240

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