One of the hallmarks of genius is an ability to spot connections between seemingly disparate things and then go on to create something that reveals the world in a new light. The young lyricist-composer-performer Lin-Manuel Miranda made such a connection about seven years ago, during a break from the Broadwayrun of his musical In the Heights, in which he was also starring. Miranda was, he says, “just chilling” in Mexico, reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, when suddenly: “I was like, This is an album—no, this is a show. How has no one done this? It was the fact that Hamilton wrote his way off the island where he grew up. That’s the hip-hop narrative. So I Googled ‘Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical’ and totally expected to see that someone had already written it. But no. So I got to work.”
The result, as you may have heard, is Hamilton, a musical that uses the vernacular of hip-hop (not to mention R&B and Broadway) to turn the life of the “ten-dollar Founding Father” into the story of the immigrant experience and the birth of a new nation. With a stunning multiethnic cast under the masterly direction of Thomas Kail, it exploded onto the stage of the Public Theater in February for a three-month run, driving critics (including this one) mad with joy, drawing insanely starry crowds, sweeping the Obie, Lortel, and Drama Desk awards, and setting off a frenzy for tickets. Happily, Hamilton isn’t history—it’s coming to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre this month, and it is, quite simply, miraculous. “Lin’s telling America’s origin story with people and music that look and sound like what America looks and sounds like today,” says Jonathan Groff, who gives a comic turn as a foppish King George III. “It’s a game-changing piece of theater.”
Miranda spent a full year writing the first song, which he performed at the White House in 2009 (I dare you to watch the video on YouTube and not get a chill from the sight of a son of an immigrant rapping about the son of an immigrant to a son of an immigrant who became America’s first African-American president). It took him another year to write the electrifying “My Shot,” in which Hamilton declares, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.” Miranda says, “It’s my ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ Every couplet needed to announce: ‘Hamilton is in the world, and nothing will ever be the same.’ ”
I catch up with Miranda at the offices of the show’s producers, where he arrives straight from a matinee of The Visit, the dark Kander and Ebb musical starringChita Rivera. “I’m freaking,” he says. “I mean, Chita, those songs.” Restless, hyperverbal energy seems to be Miranda’s default setting. In jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers, with a goatee and brown hair grown long for Hamilton, he looks, at 35, still boyish, almost handsome, even with dark circles under his large, puppyish eyes (he and his wife, Vanessa Nadal, have an eight-month-old son). If he represents the future of musical theater, he’s also the latest in a long line of first- and second-generation American songwriters, stretching back at least to Irving Berlin, who have shaped our country’s sense of self.
The son of a political consultant and a psychologist who both came here from Puerto Rico, Miranda grew up in northern Manhattan, near Inwood Hill Park, listening to his parents’ salsa records and original-cast albums. At seven he saw his first Broadway show—what else?—Les Misérables. “Now it’s part of me on a molecular level,” he says. By the time he was a freshman at Hunter high school, he’d beat out a senior to play the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance. “All the girls have to pretend to fall in love with you, and all the guys have to pretend to follow you,” he says. “Why would I do anything else for a living?” As a senior, he directed West Side Story. It wasn’t until he saw Rent on Broadway, at seventeen, though, that he found a way into telling stories of his own: “The notion that a musical could take place today and sound like today was groundbreaking to me.”
But Miranda was more than just a Broadway nerd. He was also a salsa nerd and a hip-hop nerd, obsessing over Rubén Blades and Juan Luis Guerra and parsing the rhymes of A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan. Even now, he’s equally fluent quoting the late rapper Big Pun (“Dead in the middle of Little Italy little did we know that we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly”) and Sondheim (“While her withers wither with her”). “I do live at the center of this very weird Venn diagram,” Miranda concedes. He drew from his many influences for theTony-winning In the Heights, a musical love letter to an upper Manhattan Hispanic enclave that he wrote at Wesleyan and developed after graduation with another alum, an aspiring director named Thomas Kail. “It was the beginning of a conversation that’s never stopped,” says Kail. The two began putting on hip-hop improv shows called Freestyle Love Supreme, along with future castmates Christopher Jackson and Daveed Diggs, a West Coast rapper, and occasional help from Alex Lacamoire, Heights’s and Hamilton’s orchestrator and musical director. “Our community has a pretty active bullshit meter,” Diggs says. “But Lin is so unapologetically himself, and that’s undefeatable.”
After In the Heights, as Miranda struggled with Hamilton, Kail said, “You know, Lin, you took two years to write two songs. If we could crank it up a little, maybe we could see what we’ve got.” Six months later, Miranda performed ten new songs for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. The response was thunderous. “I saw John Kander’s face light up during the rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson,” Miranda says, “and I knew that we had something.”
When the curtain rises on that something this month, audiences will find themselves face-to-face with a past that feels as alive as the present, with Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan), Thomas Jefferson (Diggs), and George Washington (Jackson) strutting onto the stage—a rap crew in costume designer Paul Tazewell’s frock coats and breeches—and Burr asking:
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
From Kail’s fluid staging to Andy Blankenbuehler’s sexy, propulsive choreography, the number crackles with the fierce urgency of now. David Korins’s bi-level set of shipbuilders’ wood and brick invokes an unfinished country, populated by an ensemble that looks on as the action unfolds, witnesses (as we are) to history. “Musicals are about transitions,” Kail says. “I knew that every scene change would be done by the people who were building America.”
At the center is Hamilton, who arrives in New York as a striving eighteen-year-old in 1773 and quickly becomes George Washington’s right-hand man, coauthor ofThe Federalist Papers, Secretary of the Treasury, main player in a proto–Monica Lewinsky scandal, and victim of a fatal bullet in an infamous duel with Burr. As written and played (with soulful intensity) by Miranda, Hamilton is brilliant, ambitious, and idealistic, driven by an outsider’s hunger for success and a haunted awareness of his own mortality. As one lyric puts it: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” He’s a flawed hero who, like his creator, believes in the power of words to change the world. Quoting effortlessly from the Notorious B.I.G. and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Miranda’s score is a verbal melting pot, bursting with invention, big ideas, mind-bending rhymes, and unabashed emotion. He knows how to lay down a beat—and how to write a ravishing melody. Lacamoire’s lush and jaggedly percussive orchestrations bring it all to life.
The cast is outstanding, from Anthony Ramos in the dual roles of John Laurens and Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, to Jackson, who captures Washington’s nobility and vulnerability. Then there’s Jefferson, just back from five years in France. “He comes out singing a jazz tune that your parents might listen to, asking, ‘What have I missed?’ ” Diggs says. “He has to play catch-up very fast. There’s so much Oakland, which is where I grew up, in Jefferson. The presentation of cool—that is something we do very well.”
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