A Revolution on Broadway

In the midst of an election campaign obsessed with immigration and budget deficits, the Broadway hit Hamilton relates the story of America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, who was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis and whose policies rescued the new nation from bankruptcy.

The show’s creator and star is Lin-Manuel Miranda. Now 36 years old, he grew up in New York’s Puerto Rican community. Before Hamilton, the multi-faceted composer, lyricist, rapper and actor was best known for the 2008 musical In the Heights. That show won a Tony Award for Best Original Score and a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and earned Miranda a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical. In a sign of high expectations, he was a 2015 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Neither the appeal of Alexander Hamilton’s story to Miranda nor the show’s mixture of music and politics comes as a surprise.  His father, Luis Miranda, Jr., served in three New York City mayoral administrations, including as director of the Mayor’s Office for Hispanic Affairs from 1984-1987. He has also consulted on a number of successful political campaigns.

Lin-Manuel acknowledges the influence of what he calls “the family business,” saying: “My view of politics is simultaneously realistic, cynical and hopeful. I’ve seen people who get into it for the right reasons and who really want to be of service and make people’s lives better.  I’ve seen that the people who vote on things don’t always get to make the decisions, that there is a room where things happens.  The best we can do is elect people we believe in to be in that room. We’re never going to get to make the decisions ourselves.  That’s just how it works. I’ve seen that first hand.”

That experience not only informs the show, but its implicit focus on an immigrant leader dealing with national financial issues also resonates with the current political campaign, Miranda says.

“Every time a [2016 presidential] candidate drops out,” Miranda recalls, “I see a million people posting our song about the Reynolds’ pamphlet,” in which Hamilton denied accusations of corruption but tacitly admitted a scandalous affair.

“He’s never gonna be president now, never gonna be president now,” Miranda sings. “It’s become an internet meme.”

What’s more, he added about “our two main characters—Hamilton and Aaron Burr--one is an idealist and one is an operator.  That’s also what we deal with” in this year’s election. “Do you throw your lot in, do you throw your vote to the person who may not be electable, but who has resolute beliefs? Or do you throw your lot in with the person who you don’t quite know what their opinion is but you like what they’re about? You like them, but you don’t quite know what they stand for.”

Reflecting his decidedly mixed view of politics, Miranda concedes,  “I think we’ve seen that push-and-pull reflected on both sides of the aisle this elections season.”

The story behind the creation of Hamilton is almost as theatrical as the life of its subject or the musical itself. Taking a vacation from In the Heights, Miranda was looking for a beach book, and perhaps improbably chose Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Immortalized today on the ten-dollar bill, Hamilton co-authored The Federal Papers, which catalyzed ratification of the Constitution.  He served as the new nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, setting up its financial system and rescuing it from bankruptcy.  In the end, however, his scandalous personal life led to his death in a duel at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr.

A few months after reading the biography, Miranda in 2009 was rapping what would become the show’s opening number at a White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. “I recognized the arc of a hip-hop narrative in Hamilton’s life,” Miranda was quoted in a New York Times interview. He also called hip-hop the perfect musical style for describing the American Revolution, because it is “the language of youth and energy and of rebellion.”

By 2012, Miranda was performing an extended set of pieces based on the life of Hamilton. In January 2015, the finished musical opened at the Public Theater downtown before moving to Broadway.

Hamilton is a wildly popular success, playing to sold-out crowds. Tickets are not avaible until November. “The joy of the show,” Miranda says, is that “there are no stars in our show, there’s no hit songwriter’s catalog. People are walking out of our theater moved by the story, and they tell their friends and that’s how we ended up in this amazing, enviable position we’re in.

The show is also a critical triumph:  It’s already won a Grammy for best original theater musical, and is a leading contender for a Tony and a Pulitzer.

In the wake of Hamilton’s success on Broadway, Miranda acknowledges “we’re really aware that not everyone can get to New York, not everyone can get to Broadway.” Plans are underway for productions in Chicago this fall and in San Francisco in the spring of 2017.  A third production is also in the planning stage. “We want those productions to have the same quality as on Broadway and as quickly as possible, “ he adds.

A book about the show, Hamilton: The Revolution, which traces the show’s development from idea to Broadway, will hit bookstores this spring.  It features the complete text of the show, with two hundred annotations by Miranda, as well as essays by Jeremy McCarter, who was a critic for New York and Newsweek magazines before spending five years on the artistic staff of the Public Theater, where he witnessed the musical’s genesis.

As for Lin-Manuel himself, his next project is set far from the New York City locales of In the Heights and Hamilton. He is currently collaborating on the score and lyrics for an animated Disney movie, Moana, with Grammy-winner Mark Mancina and Te Vaka lead singer Opetaia Foa’i. Set in the ancient South Pacific, it features the voice of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the demigod Maui. The movie will tell the story of a spirited and fearless teenager who, with help from Maui, sets out on a daring mission to find a fabled island and fulfill her ancestors’ quest.  Moana opens at movie theaters this Thanksgiving.

By John Coppola