Spotlight: ‘Hamilton’ on the Bill

Hip-hop history is headed our way. Here’s how Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical became the must-see of a generation.

First the good news. Then the other good news. One: Alexander Hamilton is about to pay us a visit. Two: He’ll be back. Soon. You’ll see.

Hamilton, the improbable upstart of a musical that pairs history with hip-hop to tell our birth-of-the-nation story via a Founding Father who raps like Biggie Smalls, opens at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 22 for a sold-out, three-week run. If you scored tickets, lucky you. If you didn’t, not to worry. Unlike its title character—an idealistic immigrant and self-taught soldier-statesman who became George Washington’s right-hand man, played a major role in shaping everything from our currency to our Constitution, then ebbed into obscurity after being shot dead in a duel in his mid-40s—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s operatic, Revolutionary War-era epic is assured of a long and prosperous life.

Joseph Morales (front) plays the title role in the touring version of “Hamilton,’’ coming to the Dr. Phillips Center starting Jan. 22. (JOAN MARCUS)

Three and a half years into a run that could continue well into the next decade, Hamilton remains Broadway’s highest-grossing musical. Newer productions are doing well in both London, where the audiences occasionally sing along, and Chicago, where there’s a spin-off museum devoted to the show and its namesake: How many musicals do you know of that spawned their own museum? The touring company bringing Hamilton to Orlando, with Joseph Morales in the title role, is one of two that began crisscrossing North America last year, and a film of the stage show, with the original Broadway cast, has already been made and could open in movie theaters as early as 2020.

With its gritty morality tale about power, politics, and the mercurial workaholic on the ten-dollar bill, Hamilton is one of those rare, zeitgeist-surfing, spontaneous-combustion creations that feels like it got here just in time. Here is a 10-step primer on how that happened—and why.

1. READING, WRITING & REVOLUTION. In 2008, Miranda is a high-energy, 28-year-old New York actor, songwriter, budding playwright, rap-artist fan—and an accomplished freestyle rapper in his own right. He is fresh off the success of his first musical, In the Heights, about the upper Manhattan neighborhood where he grew up, when he picks up a hefty book to read on a beach vacation: historian Ron Chernow’s groundbreaking, 800-plus-page biography, Alexander Hamilton. Miranda, as the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, is inspired by Chernow’s finely characterized account of Hamilton’s improbable journey from the remote Caribbean island where he was born to New York City, as a teenager who would soon became a primary architect of a newly built nation. Miranda is overtaken by an audacious notion: What if, using the fractious poetry of rap, you could tell the story of Hamilton and his rebellious 18th century compatriots in 21st century slang?

2. PAST MEETS PREZ. May 14, 2009. Invited to perform at the White House as part of an “Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word,” Miranda is nervy enough to use the occasion as a trial run for his freshly minted concept. It’s not a musical in his mind, not yet. He’s begun creating it instead as a “concept album”—a themed, loosely connected series of rap passages. When he steps onto the stage in the East Room and explains that he’s going to present the opening number of his work in progress about “someone who embodies hip-hop—Alexander Hamilton,” people in the audience take it for a joke and laugh. Nervous but undeterred, in a voice filled with a rising urgency that shifts into outright passion, he begins storming through a blistering, four-minute, tightly compressed narrative rap, outlining the story of Hamilton’s hard-fought ascent from poverty to power. Michelle Obama is the first to get it. You can see it register in her face. In a now-legendary YouTube video of the event, she beams and snaps her fingers as the President rocks his shoulders next to her and breaks into a broad smile. When Miranda finishes, they lead a standing ovation. It won’t be the last.

3. SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW. Soon, Michelle Obama has company. A man named Oskar Eustis has been shown the YouTube video and is equally enthralled. Eustis is artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, whose mission is to nurture and showcase promising new plays; it’s where A Chorus Line was developed. He understands instantly that by drafting visceral, street-corner poetry to tell the country’s origin story, Miranda is using the same strategy Shakespeare employed when he had the characters in his dramas, particularly those in positions of power, converse and soliloquize in rhyme—“thereby ennobling both the language and the characters who spoke it,” as Eustis would later write. He contacts Miranda to begin convincing him that he has more—lots more—than a “concept album” on his hands.

4. PAST MEETS ANOTHER PREZ. It takes six years of shaping and reshaping to develop Hamilton, long enough for one presidential administration to give way to another. Finally, with Miranda performing the title role and insisting on a cast composed of blacks and Hispanics—partly because he’s dedicated to creating more roles for minority actors, including himself, and partly in keeping with his goal of creating “the story of America then, told by America now”—Hamilton opens at the Public Theater on Feb. 17, 2015, to unanimous acclaim, then moves to Broadway five months later for more of the same. Much more. Miranda wins a coveted $625,000 MacArthur Foundation grant, awarded to breakthrough creators. Hamilton nabs the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The New York Times calls it “a show that aims impossibly high and hits its target.” The Wall Street Journal pronounces it “the best and most important Broadway musical of the past decade.” But the most telling review of all consists of just two words. It’s from someone who hasn’t even seen the show. “Highly overrated,” he tweets.

5. TIMING IS EVERYTHING. With its celebration of a man who might be considered the country’s alpha immigrant—he was the only Founding Father who wasn’t born in mainland America—Hamilton makes its appearance on the American scene at a time when talk of travel bans and a border wall dominates a national debate, one that is weirdly summed up by the disparate attitudes of two modern presidents toward a wildly successful song-and-dance creation. One is so simpatico with Hamilton that he jokes he’s due a Tony of his own for having hosted its audition. Another is outraged because, on a night when his vice president, Mike Pence, is in the audience, a cast member, surrounded by the other actors, calls out to him from the stage as Pence is leaving the theater in order to read a statement Miranda and others had hastily crafted in his dressing room: “We, sir—we— are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.” Pence had paused, listened, left the theater smiling, and said later that the moment didn’t bother him. But President Donald Trump, calling the staging of the message inappropriate, delivers a tweeted pan, demanding an apology he never gets.

Jon Patrick Walker as King George III. (JOAN MARCUS)

6. KING ME. So: You’ve created a musical that wins every award under the sun. It’s the hottest ticket on Broadway. Celebrities ranging from Barbra Streisand to Beyoncé to Tom Cruise to Kanye West are turning up in the audience and coming backstage to rave. But when it comes to heads of state, all you’ve managed is to break even. You need a tie-breaker. It comes from an unexpected corner. With the show poised to open in London, Miranda is concerned about how the Brits will respond to scenes depicting the revolutionaries celebrating their victory over the Redcoats, not to mention a musical number in which a foppishly-portrayed King George III sings a coy, spurned-lover breakup song, chastising the colonists for deserting him:

You’ll be back. Soon you’ll see.
You’ll remember you belong to me.
You’ll be back. Time will tell.
You’ll remember that I served you well.

Miranda needn’t have worried about the Brits, who turn out to be bloody good sports. They cheer for the revolutionaries and sing along on the chorus of the royal done-me-wrong song. When he attends a no-hard-feelings benefit performance, Prince Harry, King George’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, walks on stage after the curtain call, shakes hands with Miranda—then grabs a microphone and feigns singing the song himself, as if he’s there to audition for the part, as if he’s come on stage just to say: Well done. Good show. Bob’s your uncle.

7. THE ODD COUPLE. Nobody rolls out red carpets and stages televised glitz-fests to pass out awards for Best History Lesson. If they did, Hamilton would have walked away with that one, too. Though Miranda took his share of artistic liberties, he zeroed in unerringly on key characters, relationships and events to deliver a realistic portrait of Hamilton as a conflicted but inspiring hot mess against a vividly dramatized backdrop of the battling and bartering involved in the Colonial kerfuffle. Miranda was able to deliver a show with the resonance of a Ken Burns documentary because of the blueprint provided by Chernow, a fellow New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn Heights and signed on as the show’s historical adviser. Far from being a cloistered academic, and having spent several years as a journalist before turning to history, he had written his Hamilton biography with a narrative flair, a reporter’s eye for detail, and far more attention to Hamilton’s personal life than previous biographical efforts. What you wind up with is an intensely patriotic creation via musical theater, itself an indigenous American art form, about a Caribbean immigrant, told using a form of expression with African roots that developed in the black community, as produced by a scholar-meets-showman collaboration between a Jewish, Cambridge-educated English major and a Puerto Rican hip-hopper 31 years his junior. Is this a great country, or what?

8. TRADITION, TRADITION. Much of the buzz about Hamilton has focused on the incorporation of rap into a mainstream art form in a manner that isn’t watered down, glibly appropriated, or patronizing:  This isn’t Frank Sinatra in Birth of the Blues. Miranda, who memorized rap albums front to back as a teenager and cried as a kid at the end of Beat Street, a mid-’80s movie about hip-hoppers in the South Bronx, understands the power of rap to compress a message in double-time: That four-minute rap at the White House covered the first 40 pages of Chernow’s book. But Miranda has equivalent cred as a theater nerd, going back to the adolescent clan he developed after landing the lead role in his high school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie. He uses rap to an advantage, yes, but he and his think-tank collaborators at Public Theater have also stocked Hamilton with a checklist of equally engaging musical theater go-to’s. There’s the hero on an idealistic quest (see Man of La Mancha). There’s the drama of human beings swept up in historical events (See Les Mis). There’s a score that includes jazz, blues, and show tunes—strategically, to help establish character, as when an out-of-touch Thomas Jefferson, who hasn’t been around to participate in the nation-shaping rap battles back home, returns from Europe with Bob Fosse-style jazz hands, singing “What Did I Miss?”

9. IT TAKES A VILLAIN. Another favored ingredient in great America musicals is the presence of an evil character with redeeming qualities (See Wicked, see Phantom of the Opera, see Sweeney Todd). The ready-made villain in Hamilton is the man who killed him: Vice President Aaron Burr. He’s both the teller of the tale and the Cain of the story, going all the way back to its genesis as the speaker whom Miranda was portraying in that 2009 White House soliloquy—one which concludes with a morose admission: “and I’m the damn genius that shot him.” The real-life Burr was an ambitious but glib politician known for shifting his position to suit the circumstances: When he first meets Hamilton in the musical, he advises him to “talk less, smile more.” That was never the real-life Hamilton’s style. Principled almost to a fault, he erred in the other direction, arguing vociferously, writing voluminously, making enemies he needn’t have made. But it was always clear where he stood. That contrast between the two men—spelled out in Chernow’s book and dramatized in Miranda’s musical—is still being played out on a daily basis by power brokers whose history is yet to be written. It’s the key to what makes the musical a morality play at heart. You might call it a story of American politicians then, applicable to American politicians now.

10. CONSIDER THE SOURCE. In the mythology of show business, the comeback occupies a special place. Shout out to Alexander Hamilton, who died in 1804, for being one of the greatest of all time. He was fatherless. He was motherless. The former deserted his young family, the latter died from what they simply called “a fever” back then. Whatever vacuum and vacancy their absence left in him he filled up with ambitions, achievements, and womanizing. But for all his flaws and forays—into war, into writing, into politics, into economics—a single theme stands out: He was someone who charged headlong into chaos, and more often than not made order out of it. As someone who saw his own roots disappear, he couldn’t fathom why not all of his revolutionary compatriots shared his passion for turning a loosely linked collection of colonies into a country. He once wondered, in frustration: “Am I then more of an American than those who drew their first breath on American ground?” He was so instrumental as the architect of a strong federal government and a central banking system that George Will once observed that there is no need for statues or buildings devoted to him: The greatest monument to Hamilton is the world we see around us. There was some discussion, not long ago, about taking his portrait off the ten-dollar bill. Partly because of the impact of the musical, the idea seems to have quietly evaporated. Lin-Manuel Miranda is happy about that. He says that for the rest of his life, he’ll never look at a ten-dollar bill the same way again.

He’s not the only one.

Categories: Art & Entertainment