Composer, lyricist, and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about his critically acclaimed new work.
How did you come to write a musical about a founding father of this country?
I was looking for a book to read on the beach during a vacation in Mexico and happened to pick up this amazing biography about Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. I had written a paper in high school about the duel in 1804 between Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr, but that was all I knew about the man. I had thought that maybe I could get a funny rap song about the duel out of it, but this book just grabbed me. By the end of the second chapter I was like, “How can anyone not have made this story into a musical?”
What was it exactly about Hamilton’s story that grabbed you?
I said to myself, “I know this guy” — because his story is an immigrant story, which I find myself drawn to. I didn’t know that he was an immigrant until I read the book. This is a guy who pulled himself up from out of nothing and helped to create our nation. He was like some character from a Charles Dickens story. He was born illegitimate; he was an orphan by the time he was 10 and he was penniless. Just on the strength of his writing he got himself a scholarship to come to New York at age 17.
Hamilton also reminded me of my father. My father was about the same age as Hamilton when he came here from Puerto Rico to study, and he learned to speak English only while he was doing his studies here. He later served as a special advisor to Mayor Koch and ran political campaigns through his own consulting company. Writing the story has helped me understand my father and his ambition.
What convinced you that this should be a hip-hop musical?
It’s a rags-to-riches story — an American story — and it’s also the hip-hop story. All of Hamilton’s successes and all of his failures were due to his verbosity, his ability to argue and debate and use his words. That’s what hip-hop at the end of the day is. It’s the culture that’s built out of people pulling themselves out of their circumstances by the way they put words together. And these weren’t battles over who was the best rapper: These were battles over what kind of country this should be. What could be more interesting to rap about than that? We take it as a given then that hip-hop music is the music of revolution, but I think the score is a love letter to both hip-hop and musical theater.
The Hamilton cast features actors of color portraying the leading players of the Revolution. Is that one way in which you make this story feel contemporary?
This is a story about America then told by America now, so the cast looks like what America looks like now — which, I think, enhances the immediacy of the story. It is a very human story. The people who created our country had faults, had disagreements, and their relationships were fraught and complicated. Washington is not a stone-faced white dude: He is a guy who bears the burden of history at a really young age and is terrified of what his legacy will be. The political arguments Jefferson and Hamilton have in the show are the fights we are still having.
Did you do much research on the period and the personalities?
I read Hamilton’s letters — everything we know about him we knew when he was alive, because he told us. I also visited a lot of places in New York that are connected with the Revolution, like Fraunces Tavern, where, after the British evacuated New York, Washington delivered his farewell address to the officers. And through sheer good luck I was offered a space to write in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in my own backyard, Washington Heights. I love that we have this block in the middle of Washington Heights and you can just travel back in time.
After writing this show, and performing the title role these past few months, how do you feel about Hamilton?
I’ve spent six years trying to get into his head. There are very few things in American life that we don’t owe some debt to Hamilton. First of all, the debate over the role that government plays in our economy, the role that Wall Street plays — these are things that Hamilton helped to shape as our first Treasury Secretary. There are so many highs and lows in his life. There’s great drama; there’s a great love story; there is incredible political intrigue. Hamilton carries so many contradictions within him — he is both thoughtful and boisterous, he is brilliant and self-destructive. The way I hold the 10 dollar bill is different now because that’s my dude!