In the American summer of 2008, seven years before the Broadway premiere of his musical juggernaut Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda went to Mexico. For some light holiday reading, he took along a 700-page historical biography called Alexander Hamilton. This tells you something about Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is short and intense and intellectually competitive (no Dan Brown for him); and it also tells you something about Alexander Hamilton, whose life was not the stuff of the average academic doorstopper.
Alexander Hamilton is crucial to the history of the United States of America, yet, despite appearing on the $US10 note, he is (or was, before his eponymous musical) often described as “the forgotten Founding Father”. He was born illegitimate, then an almost insurmountable social disgrace, in or around 1755 in the Caribbean. He was abandoned by his father at 10 and lost his mother at 12. Penniless and orphaned, he was nevertheless so superlatively bright that, after his “wondrous” description of a hurricane was published in a local newspaper, the wealthy residents of his town clubbed together to send him to the US for an education.
In New York, Hamilton became George Washington’s closest aide during the revolutionary war, a military hero, and compressed three years of legal study into nine months (he would become known as the most eloquent advocate at the New York bar). He was one of the chief instigators, signatories and defenders of the American Constitution. He wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, the seminal essays that ratified that Constitution.
He was appointed the first US Treasury secretary, and created large swathes of the US federal government from scratch: the first budget systems, the first tax systems, the customs service, the first monetary policy. He not only founded the first US central bank (the direct forerunner of the Federal Reserve), but also created the first five securities ever traded on Wall Street. He founded the US Mint, the National Coast Guard, the New York Post newspaper (which still exists today), and co-founded the New York Manumission Society, an anti-slavery organisation instrumental in ending the international slave trade.
One final fact: on July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton fought a duel with the then US vice-president, Aaron Burr, after a dinner party conversation went awry. On a rocky beach in New Jersey, Burr shot him in the stomach, and the following day Hamilton – not yet 50 – died from the wound.
Lying in his hammock in Mexico, Lin-Manuel Miranda was electrified by Hamilton’s story, and became obsessed with a single thought. Not that Hamilton reminded him of himself (Miranda, like Hamilton, is academically gifted, gregarious, uxorious, and has worked tirelessly for years to reach the top of a tiny elite in his field, despite starting out as an unlikely outsider).
Nor was Miranda thinking that Hamilton’s story was tailor-made for a musical – even though he had just won four Tonys for his first Broadway musical, In the Heights, a paeon to his Hispanic-American roots. What gripped him was the idea that Hamilton, a man who wore silk stockings, fought with flintlock muskets, and died more than 200 years ago, seemed exactly like a modern-day hip-hop star.
From the outside, this sounds – despite the wild success of Hamilton on two continents (and perhaps about to be three, with its arrival in Australia next year) – completely ridiculous.
“In Alexander Hamilton, you have someone born into very difficult circumstances who used words to elevate himself out of those circumstances, and then died violently because of those words. That’s a classic hip-hop story.”
Tommy Kail, Hamilton’s director
But Miranda was adamant. As Tommy Kail, Hamilton’s director, explains: “In Alexander Hamilton, you have someone born into very difficult circumstances – profound poverty, no parents, no support – who used words to elevate himself out of those circumstances, and then died violently because of those words. That’s a classic hip-hop story. It’s the story of Tupac or Big.”
For the uninitiated (that is, me): Tupac Shakur and Christopher George Latore Wallace (aka the Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, or Biggie) were two of the most famous rappers of all time. Born into poverty in New York and abandoned by their fathers, each showed great academic talent, in particular for English, and became hugely successful within the densely verbal genre of hip-hop. Both were murdered in violent, rap-related gun crimes in the 1990s.
Lin-Manuel Miranda had loved hip-hop since he was a teenager, so the conception of Hamilton as the proto-hip-hop artist seemed natural to him, if to no one else.
As Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton, remembers it: “Almost the first thing he said to me after we were introduced was, ‘Ron, as I was reading your book on vacation, hip-hop songs started rising from the page.’ ” Chernow laughs at the memory. “And I said, ‘Really?’ That is not exactly a typical response to one of my books.”
From these beginnings, Hamilton – which would go on to win 11 Tony awards and a Pulitzer prize – took seven years to bring to Broadway. But even as it developed into its full musical form, it seemed hard to believe it would actually work.
“Everybody, and I mean everybody, who wasn’t directly involved in the production thought the whole thing was just crazy,” Chernow recalls, laughing.
“It was like Springtime for Hitler in The Producers. I would tell people about it, ‘Well, it’s a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton,’ and people would just look at me like I was insane. It must have been quite worrying for Lin, especially in the early years. A hip-hop musical about a Founding Father of the US? The whole thing was so …” He pauses, searching for the word. “It was just so implausible!”
High in a glamorous office block just off Broadway more than a decade after his Mexico epiphany, Lin-Manuel Miranda is sitting in a low couch, wearing a dark suit jacket with a pocket square; shiny black hair cut short. He appears very dressed up for someone who usually wears untucked shirts and trainers, but explains quickly that he’s been at a corporate event at the Empire State Building. (He has an endorsement deal with American Express.)
“My father picked this outfit,” he says. “And look!” He tugs his pocket. “This square is sewn in! That’s how you know you’ve been styled by your father.”
Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda jnr, came from his native Puerto Rico to New York University in the 1970s as a student. He founded and runs a political consultancy. Miranda’s mother, Dr Luz Towns-Miranda, is a clinical psychologist and also of Puerto Rican heritage.
“When I was reading Ron’s book, the person I was thinking most about was my father,” says Miranda. “He came here not speaking the language at 18, on a scholarship just like Hamilton. And with that same attitude that you’re going to have to work twice as hard to make it half as far as everyone else.
“Hamilton is the original immigrant in that regard: he always had 25 jobs and he always asked for more, and that is very true of immigrants like my father. When I understood that he was the immigrant among the founders, I was like, ‘I know that dude.’ ”
Miranda grew up in Inwood Hill Park, north of Washington Heights, a strongly Latino neighbourhood of upper Manhattan where “there was music coming out of every f…ing pore of the place. My parents were always playing music.” Often, this was the cast albums of musicals, which both father and son adored. Miranda still remembers seeing the Disney musical Little Mermaid when he was nine.
“I remember Under the Sea beginning: this calypso, Caribbean number, and it just blew my mind. It felt so contemporary. I remember feeling literally light-headed in the theatre.”
Miranda was a precocious kid – he gained entry to Hunter College elementary school, a competitive selective public school in New York City, at only five – but as he grew up, his love of music and drama trumped other academic pursuits. And as a teenager, this passion began to broaden to include rap and hip-hop.
“In Hamilton, you will see just as many love letters to hip-hop as you will to musicals. You’ll see a Rodgers and Hammerstein quote up against a Biggie Smalls quote, up against a Jason Robert Brown reference, up against a Mobb Deep reference. I’m trying to create on-ramps to this weird intersection where I live, for the people who like the same stuff.”
Not such a weird intersection, as it turns out. Since it opened on Broadway on August 6, 2015, Hamilton has rewritten the rules of musical ticket sales and profitability. Every year since its premiere, it has made more money than any other show on Broadway: more than The Book of Mormon; more than Wicked or The Lion King; more even than Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
In just under five years, Hamilton has grossed more than $US636 million; in the last week of 2018, it became the first show in Broadway history to clear $US4 million over eight performances. Every year from 2016 to 2019, its gross revenue beat everything else by a comfortable margin: last year it reportedly grossed $US159 million, which was $US45 million – almost 30 per cent – more than its nearest rival, The Lion King.
This bonanza flows in many directions. First and foremost, it flows to Miranda himself. In 2016, The New York Times reported that Miranda was earning an estimated $US6.4 million a year from the Broadway production. Hamilton made about $US30 million profit that year; in the 2017-18 season, according to The Wall Street Journal, it made $US73 million, more than doubling Miranda’s cut.
He’s now also receiving (more generous than Broadway) rewards from three additional North American productions (with another due to begin in Los Angeles this March) and a London production in the West End.
All in all, he’s estimated to have made well over $US50 million from Hamilton on stage – a figure that will only grow when the Australian production begins, not to mention other potential productions, such as that anticipated in Germany. He also earns a percentage of merchandising, book and cast album royalties, while a filmed version of the stage performance will be released in October 2021, with Miranda as a producer.
Despite never needing to work again, Miranda has maintained both his pace and success. He wrote seven songs for Disney hit film Moana while working on Hamilton (and was nominated for a Best Song Oscar); he played lamplighter Jack in the 2018 movie Mary Poppins Returns; and when we speak he’s putting the finishing touches to the movie based on In the Heights, which will be released this year. He’s also slated to direct and produce a film adaptation of the musical Tick Tick…Boom! this year.
Neither the workload nor the money comes as a surprise. Take Hamilton: Miranda is not just the creator, composer, lyricist or librettist, he’s all four (and was also, for the first year of the Broadway run, its lead actor). As in the life of Alexander Hamilton himself, undeniable talent combined with truly extraordinary drive have brought their rewards.
But Miranda’s not the only one being showered in riches from Hamilton. Along with producer Jeffrey Seller, who with his co-producers shares in approximately 40 per cent of profits, director Tommy Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and musical director Alex Lacamoire have all made, literally, millions.
So has Ron Chernow, for the “underlying rights” as original creator, as well as Luis Miranda, Lin-Manuel’s father, who has no formal credit in Hamilton but is close to his son (not to mention being his stylist), and who gets 1 per cent of the show’s profits.
Over the past five years, a single Hamilton seat has fetched as much as $US1150 at the box office, and up to $US2500 on reselling sites.
In fact, the rivers of gold flow right down to the 30-odd members of the original cast and six stage managers, who, after tense negotiations with producers during 2016, also share in 1 per cent of profits from the show.
What this illustrates is that Hamilton has performed that rarest of all art-related objectives: it’s made a lot of people rich. And not via movie tie-ins or celebrity names or sales gimmicks, but directly via phenomenal grassroots demand for tickets.
Over the past five years, a single Hamilton seat has fetched as much as $US1150 at the box office, and up to $US2500 on reselling sites. In Australia, tickets go on sale on May 5. As it turns out, almost everybody wants to live at Hamilton’s unique nexus of hip-hop and knee breeches.
It’s hard to reconcile, or even imagine, any of this until you actually see Hamilton, especially when you’re neither a musical theatre aficionado nor a hip-hop fan (guilty). I went on a cold New York night, and waiting for the curtain to go up I was conscious of an inappropriate weariness, comprised of jet-lag and the sneaking guilt that always assails me at these moments: that I, a card carrying musical theatre cynic, should not be in the building in the first place.
This is an historically accurate debate on the assumption of state debt, staged as a drop mic rap battle, and it’s still awesome.
Then the show began, and cynicism dropped slain onto the patterned carpet of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Suddenly I was in a world of 18th-century buckskin and broadcloth, enclosed by a burnished wooden set arching like the ribs of a ship, backed by an orchestra containing viola, violin and cello. Whatever I had been expecting (Graffiti? Breakdancing? Tap shoes and wigs?), it was not this.
Hamilton is, essentially, the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life – which, despite being an extremely adventurous one, is pretty much the standard stuff of drama. But it’s also the story of the European founding of the United States of America, which is not.
And this is the unusual genius of Hamilton: not only to move you with a single human story, but to rivet your attention to subjects like taxation and the customs service. It’s a rare piece of theatre that makes you think, “My god, this is an historically accurate debate on the assumption of state debt, and it’s being staged as a drop mic rap battle, and it’s still awesome!”
This achievement is, once again, uniquely Lin-Manuel Miranda’s. Writing Hamilton was a labour of love, and sometimes the love was laborious indeed. Originally conceived as a concept album – “the Hamilton mix-tape”, as Miranda puts it – the first two songs took almost four years to produce; the literary equivalent of breaking rocks in a quarry.
But today it stands at 23,000-odd words, and runs for 234 minutes, which, as Kail says, “is about as long as a play can be”. It’s longer than Macbeth or The Merchant of Venice. And hip-hop, as it turns out, is not dissimilar to Elizabethan English in the freight its words can carry, and the dizzying exhilaration of their delivery.
But alongside all this verbal virtuosity, perhaps Hamilton’s real power lies in simple musical moments that skewer the heart. It’s Quiet Uptown is a duet in the second act about the death of a beloved child. It’s my favourite song of the show, and I’ve listened to it perhaps 30 or 40 times in the past three months. Every single time (including the first time in the silent theatre), I burst into tears.
And I’m not the only one. In his book about Hamilton, journalist and Pulitzer Prize jurist Jeremy McCarter described how, when Miranda first delivered this song, his actors cried while singing it and the production team cried while listening to it.
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton’s choreographer, whose five-year-old daughter Sofia was fighting cancer while the show was in production, found it so unbearably sad he was unable to choreograph it. Most tragically of all, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theatre, where the show was developed and premiered off-Broadway, lost his 16-year-old-son Jack to suicide only a fortnight before the show’s first sing-through.
Almost immediately, Miranda sent Eustis and his wife, Laurie, a demo of It’s Quiet Uptown. As he later put it: “There is nothing you can say. And yet, I had a song about this. So I wrote to Oskar saying, ‘If this is useful, then lean on it, and, if not, delete this email.’ ”
Eustis and his wife did find it useful. “Every line of It’s Quiet Uptown feels like it’s exactly correct to my experience,” Eustis has since explained. “It was the only music we listened to for a long time, and we listened to it every day, and it became a key thing for the two of us.”
Michelle Obama has described Hamilton as “the best piece of art, in any form, that I have ever seen”. It’s been called both a genre-defying and -redefining musical. Miranda, the great musical lover, isn’t sure this is true. What is true, though, is that it’s a show in which he, a Puerto Rican American, can be a hero, and in which actors from ethnic minorities – often Latino, Asian or African American – can star.
His first musical, In The Heights, was, he recalls, an exercise in, “Can we Hispanic people not be knife-wielding gang members from the 1950s for once?” He laughs. “There are already two major musicals about that already: it’s a very over-represented part of the story.”
Miranda grew up conscious that there were no lead roles for him in the musical canon: he could be a side-kick, or a bad guy, but not a hero. Even more than this, he often felt different from the regular characters he saw on stage or on screen. “I grew up feeling a little out of place everywhere,” he says. “And if you’re slightly ‘other’ everywhere, you’re going to end up being a writer, because there’s a part of you that’s always outside yourself, observing.”
In Hamilton, Miranda has created a world in which this “other”, whether by ethnicity or personality, takes centre stage. Daveed Diggs is a half-black, half-Jewish man who played the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the original Broadway cast. “I’m a black man playing a wise, smart, distinguished future president,” he told an interviewer in 2016. If he’d seen such a character as a kid, he confessed, it might have changed his life. “A whole lot of things I just never thought were for me might have seemed possible.”
And Leslie Odom jnr, an African-American man of great elegance who won the best actor Tony for his portrayal of Aaron Burr (beating Miranda, who was nominated for Alexander Hamilton), once said the role of Burr is “arguably the best role for a male actor of colour in the musical theatre canon. You get to show all your colours. Nobody asks us to do that.”
It’s not only the actors who feel this. Director Tommy Kail seems a generous, self-deprecating man, but there’s nothing low-key about his feeling for Hamilton. “I felt like this show was asking for all of me,” he says, shaping his hands into a ball. “All the information I had – my studies, my music, my experience making new stuff – all of me was required. And that was a great, and rare, source of joy, because you feel accessed, you feel utilised. Searching for utility is a big part of life, and Hamilton gave me that.”
Musician Alex Lacamoire, who orchestrated Hamilton’s music and conducted its 10-piece band, had a similar feeling. A gentle man with an enormous smile, he is partially deaf, and wears hearing aids to hear the music he creates. “I feel like all the events of my life led to [the] moment [of Hamilton],” he confesses. “I was born in the right time, and had the right training that allowed me to link up with [Lin-Manuel]. I don’t take it for granted: to work with people at such a high level, when the
synapses are firing, and the synergy you feel … I can’t imagine something like Hamilton ever happening again.”
Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, of course, was facing his daughter’s cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy all through his work on Hamilton. She ultimately recovered, but during her illness the show itself became not only work but solace. At night after putting her to bed while living at his in-laws’ house in Brooklyn, he would retreat to the concrete-floored basement (with a ceiling so low he could touch it), and dance.
And if the show gave Blankenbuehler respite from fear and grief, he gave its physical gestures the truth of his experience. Even, eventually, It’s Quiet Uptown. “I’m not making it up,” he would say of his choreography for that song. “[I know what it’s like] when someone you love is dying in your arms.”
In the past five years, Hamilton has come to matter to a great many people beyond its immediate creators – from Michelle Obama to the 2.6 million people who have seen it, including (by the end of 2020) an estimated 250,000 underprivileged school students via the Hamilton Education Program.
Perhaps it matters in the wrong ways. The cast’s ethnic diversity has been criticised as an apologist’s view of history: that having a hugely charismatic, authoritative African-American actor like Chris Jackson play George Washington enabled (mostly wealthy, white audiences) to put aside their unease about the horrors of their history.
Yet for others, the dissonance between the actors on stage and the historical figures they’re playing is precisely what gives Hamilton its power. The Founding Fathers lied about eradicating slavery, Jackson has said: “They lied about it. They lied to themselves about it. It’s the great shame of our glorious country. [And] it’s still affecting me, my parents, our lives.” But he believes the fight goes on, and that Hamilton “is our own form of protest”.
American stories do matter to us, because America matters to us; like it or not, its future affects ours.
In 2016, just after the US presidential elections, vice-president-elect Mike Pence attended Hamilton. He was booed by the audience, and at the close of the performance, actor Brandon Victor Dixon, playing Aaron Burr, gave a speech from the stage. He thanked Pence for attending, then said, “We hope you will hear us out. 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. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Amid the resulting uproar, Donald Trump (who still hasn’t seen the show) tweeted, “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologise to Mike Pence for their terrible behaviour.” But Pence responded generously. He and his daughter “had heard the boos”, he said, and he had reminded her, “This is what freedom sounds like.”
Hamilton arrives at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in March 2021. It will be performed by an Australian cast whom the producers have promised will remain true to the show’s commitment to ethnic diversity. But will it matter to Australians as it has to Americans? There is no discussion of Indigenous rights in Hamilton; no mention of other 18th-century British colonies like ours; no stories of convicts or massacres or national amnesia concerning the crimes of a nation’s first European inhabitants. All of which is reminder that this is not, after all, our story.
On the other hand, American stories do matter to us, because America matters to us; like it or not, its future affects ours. Added to which, Hamilton is a human drama – of ambition, betrayal, love, death – and as such, to employ the cliché, it carries universal appeal. And finally, at this point in our history as global citizens, we are, perhaps, on the edge of greatness or disaster, just as Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries were. Our future hangs in the balance, as theirs did.
Sitting in his smart suit, Lin-Manuel Miranda – who has taken a stand on Puerto Rican issues in recent years, and on the value of immigrants to American life – is chary of claiming particular
political power for Hamilton.
“I have no say. I didn’t write ‘quid pro quo’ [in The Room Where it Happens] knowing my president would write it in big fat Sharpie as a line ‘to himself’,” he says, making air-quotes. “I didn’t know that this moment between Lafayette and Hamilton where they’re both like, ‘Hey, we’re not from this country’ [the line is “Immigrants! We get the job done!”] – would become a rallying cry. You can only control what you create. The world will do what it does with it.”
Not everyone is so circumspect. Jeffrey Seller is the lead producer on Hamilton. He has loved it since he first heard half a dozen songs by Miranda in 2011, and he has never stopped believing in its broader power.
“Hamilton is a beautiful manifestation of our greatest strengths, our best values as Americans,” he says. “Those values are profoundly important, and they’re hanging in the balance right now. Since Lin wrote Hamilton, the world feels like it’s ripping apart at the seams – and not just to Americans. Global warming is an enormous threat; democracy is under threat; our very existence is under threat.
“We’re at the edge of disaster. And yet, like the song [The Schuyler Sisters] says, I still have to say, ‘How lucky I am to be alive right now.’ ” He pauses. “I’m a 55-year-old gay man, with a partner of 20-something years. In what other era could I have had this union and adopted two children and have a family? I really do feel it. ‘Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.’ ”
Alexander Hamilton knew all about the cutting edge of history. It was in “days of uproar”, as one 18th-century bystander called them, that he flourished, straining every nerve towards what he hoped would be a new, and better, world. Perhaps we should take a leaf from his book.
One day during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he spoke to the exhausted, fed-up delegates. “It is a miracle that we [are] now here exercising our tranquil and free deliberations [about the future of our nation],” he reminded them. “It would be madness to trust to future miracles.” Even musical ones.
Amanda Hooton travelled to New York courtesy of the Michael Cassel Group.