Alexander Hamilton: A life made for the stage
An off-Broadway musical is moving ON Broadway later this year -- fitting, in a way, for the story of an American who was all about moving onward and upward. Mo Rocca has saved us a front-row seat for the new show, "Hamilton":
"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean, by Providence impoverished, to squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
When Lin-Manuel Miranda sings about the drive of the "young, scrappy and hungry" immigrant, he's not singing about just any immigrant. He's singing about the man on the 10-dollar bill -- Alexander Hamilton, the revolutionary, visionary, and youngest of the founding fathers.
"This is a guy who, on the strength of his writing, pulled himself from poverty into the revolution that helped create our nation, and caught beef with every other founding father," said Miranda. "I mean, there's great drama; there's a great love story; there is incredible political intrigue."
In other words, a life made for the stage.
"Hamilton," written by and starring Miranda, is a smash off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater, and is heading to Broadway this summer. It's Hamilton's life and death at the hand of Vice President Aaron Burr put to music that's as energetic as the man and the times he lived through.
"We take it as a given that hip hop music is the music of the revolution," said Miranda.
"Hey, yo, I'm just like my country
I'm young, scrappy and hungry
And I'm not throwing away my shot."
"Hamilton"'s unlikely journey to the stage began six years ago when Miranda on vacation picked up a 700-page Hamilton biography.
"By the end of the second chapter, I was on Google saying, 'Someone's already made this into a musical. How can anyone not have made this into a musical?'"
For Miranda, an urban sound made perfect sense for Hamilton's story.
"You took it as a given that hip hop would be the musical vernacular of the founding fathers," said Rocca. "Is that because of the energy?"
"It's because of the energy," said Miranda. "It's because the hip hop narrative is of writing your way out of your circumstances.
"I joked to someone else, I think all my favorite hip hop songs are really good musical theater 'I want' songs. I wanna get somewhere else. I wanna get my corner of the sky."
That certainly describes Alexander Hamilton. Born out of wedlock in the Caribbean and abandoned by his father, Hamilton made his way to New York City at 17. Roiling with insecurity about his background, the ferociously ambitious Hamilton overcompensated with a superhuman work ethic.
He was just 22 when he served as General Washington's aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, and 34 when he became the country's first Secretary of the Treasury.
"He was the one who saw the future in a visionary flash," said Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography that inspired Miranda. "So at a time when Jefferson and Madison see the United States as a country with traditional agriculture and small towns, here comes this young man from the Caribbean, he foresees a country that's going to have banks and stock exchanges, corporations, factories, large cities -- in other words, the country that we know today.
"I think that this is a classic immigrant story in terms of someone recognizing the opportunities in this brand new, turbulent, wide-open society," said Chernow.
"He's kind of the ultimate immigrant," said Rocca.
"He's the ultimate immigrant, and he's the original immigrant!" laughed Cernow. "I daresay he made the greatest contribution of any immigrant in the history of the United States."
Miranda, a Tony-winner for his 2008 musical, "In the Heights," is the son of Puerto Rican immigrants.
Rocca asked, "Because your parents are immigrants, was that part of what connected you to the story of Hamilton?"
"Yeah, my father came here at the same age as Hamilton," said Miranda. "He'd already graduated college by 18, and he came with a full ride for NYU's post-doc psychology program. Didn't speak English, and learned it here while he was studying."
"He learned English while he was getting a post-doc? That's ambition!"
"That's ambition. I can't begin to aspire to that level of ambition. And writing this story has helped me understand him."
If the cast of "Hamilton" doesn't sound like we imagine the founders sounding, well, it doesn't look like them, either. It is, said Miranda, "the story of America then told by America now. It looks like America now."
Phillipa Soo (left, of "Smash") plays Hamilton's wife, Eliza Schuyler. Eliza's sister, Anjelica, is played by Renee Elise Goldsberry (right, of "One Life to Live").
"My father, I told him that I was doing this, and he was like, 'Who are you playing?'" said Goldsberry. "And I said Angelica Schuyler. And then a couple days later, he was like, 'How are you playing Angelica Schuyler? Doing a little research and I'm a little confused!'"
In the show, the Schuyler sisters sound an awful lot like the R&B group Destiny's Child.
By contrast, England's King George III has a distinctly British pop sound.
"And when push
Comes to shove
I will send a fully-armed battalion
To remind you of my love."
"I just sort of plundered every idea possible to write a breakup song for King George III to the colonies!" said Miranda.
And in the role of Hamilton's lifelong rival Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr. brings down the house with a good ole' show stopper ["In the Room Where It Happens"].
This was a time when the political could get extremely personal. Here's Hamilton (who favored more federal power) debating Thomas Jefferson (who favored states' rights):
"If we assume the debts, the union gets
A new line of credit - a financial diuretic
How do you not get it?
If we're aggressive and competitive
The union gets a boost. You'd rather give it a sedative?"
"The rap battles are, 'I think the country should be like this. You think the country should be like that. And if you win, our country goes to ruin.' It's incredible verbal dexterity that we get to employ," said Miranda.
"So it makes perfect sense that Hamilton and Jefferson are arguing about the role of the federal government in the form of a rap smackdown," said Rocca.
"Sixty seconds for Jefferson, sixty seconds for Hamilton. Cabinet response determines the winner!"
Miranda wrote some of the musical at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan, where George Washington's first cabinet met. Aaron Burr once lived here, too.
"Yeah, I'd bring in my computer, I'd bring in my keyboard, and I'd doodle around," said Miranda.
By the time he and Hamilton met on the dueling ground in 1804, their rivalry had hardened into enmity. (Hamilton had backed Jefferson over Burr for president in 1800.)
Once word spread of his death, Hamilton was mourned by the young country he helped birth -- his life's journey as improbable as the musical written about him.
"The way I hold a $10 bill is different now because, like, that's my dude!" said Miranda. "I've spent six years trying to get in that guy's head!"
For more info:
- "Hamilton" at the Public Theater, New York (through May 3)
- "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (beginning July 13)
- http://linmanuel.com/Follow @Lin_Manuel on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
- "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow (Penguin); Also available in eBook, Abridged Audio Digital Download and Unabridged Audio Digital Download formats
- Morris-Jumel Mansion, New York
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