NEW YORK - Last Thursday evening, while Republicans held their first presidential debate on television, America’s founding fathers held their own debate — on Broadway.
"Hamilton" — a new hip hop musical about the man on the $10 bill — had its long-anticipated opening. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and stars in the show, says the idea for the piece hit him while sitting on a beach, reading Ron Chernow’s 832 page biography of the country’s first treasury secretary.
"I just thought [Alexander] Hamilton’s life story contains multitudes, particularly in the way Ron unlocked it; in the way that Hamilton is sort of the proto-American immigrant story, the trauma of his early years and how that kind of created a crack in the foundation," said Miranda, who spent six years writing the musical.
For his part, biographer Chernow says he was initially skeptical that his book could be turned into a musical, much less one that uses rap as its main source of expression. But he agreed to meet with Miranda.
"He came over to my house, he sat on my living room couch, he started snapping his fingers and he sang the opening song and I absolutely marveled at what he had done, because I realized he had condensed the first 40 pages of my book accurately, into a four-and-a-half minute song," he said.
Rags to riches
Hamilton’s life really was like a Dickensian novel, filled with coincidence and changing fortunes. He brought himself out of poverty, immigrated to New York and became a leading figure in the American Revolution, as an aide to George Washington. He wrote most of the Federalist Papers, created the National Bank, was involved in the first national sex scandal, and managed to create enemies, from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to Aaron Burr, who famously killed Hamilton in a duel.
In researching American history, Miranda found echoes of today's headlines.
"The fights we had then, in the formation of our country, will be the fights we have a hundred years from now, 200 years from now," he said. "They will be: what is the role of the state versus the role of the larger country? What is our responsibility to other countries that are not our own? The two battles — cabinet battles — in our show are about those two things, because they’re going to outlive us. We’ll always be having those fights."
There are other parallels to contemporary issues, such as gun control and immigration.
"We lose three characters to gun deaths in our show — [set in] 1780-something — a thing even more in the news now," he said. "The fact that some of the best military commanders in our very first war were immigrants who came here to help us and help make this country a better place and help to found this nation."
In telling the story from a remove of two centuries, Miranda and his director, Thomas Kail, made the decision to have the show performed by a multiracial, multiethnic cast.
"Tommy’s goal was to eliminate any distance between the contemporary audience and the story," Miranda explained. "That’s what the music aims to do, that’s what the entire production aims to do. And, so it’s a story about America then, told by what America looks like now."
Old story made new
One of the repeated lines in Hamilton is “who lives/who dies/who tells your story.” And Miranda wants to make sure that this story is told by as many different people as possible, once the run on Broadway is done, years from now.
"When this is done as the school play, it opens up the show to the entire school, and that’s something I’m really excited about," he said.
Critics and audiences are already excited: the show received rave reviews on its Broadway opening and the box office advance now tops $32 million.