A hit on Broadway, Founding Father finds new life

Broadway hit "Hamilton" drives interest in fo... 04:48

This piece originally aired February 24, 2016.

You can find the stoic face of our nation's first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill, but for the most part, he's been completely overshadowed by the other Founding Fathers. Thanks to the popularity of "Hamilton" on Broadway, however, he is finally enjoying his time in the spotlight, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.

Behind the rap-inspired lyrics and hip-hop beats, New York's most talked-about show is sold out through at least January of next year and serves up a history lesson like no musical ever before.

About a hundred blocks north of the Broadway theater on west 141st Street is where the real Alexander Hamilton lived the last few years of his life, an area now known as Hamilton Heights.

"This would've been very far north of the city at that time. This would have been virtual wilderness," author Ron Chernow said.

Chernow wrote the 800-page biography on which the musical is based.

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton's story is an extraordinary example of the self-made American immigrant. Born out of wedlock on a tiny Caribbean island, he was orphaned as a child. Within just a few decades, he became one of the most influential figures in U.S. history: Gen. George Washington's top aide, signer of and a major force behind the Constitution, a creator of the U.S. financial system, and founder of the Coast Guard and the New York Post.

Among the words used to describe Hamilton are "genius," "war hero," "visionary" and "temperamental."

"But I think what attracts people to the story of Alexander Hamilton is that there are so many things about him that you can admire... but he was a flawed enough individual that you can at the same time identify with him," Chernow said.

An unorthodox musical with a diverse cast abo... 14:53

Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to tell Hamilton's story through black and Hispanic characters and the rhyming lyrics of rap. In a "60 Minutes" interview, Miranda explained why rap was "uniquely suited" to tell the founding father's story.

"Because it has more words per measure than any other musical genre. It has rhythm and it has density. And if Hamilton had anything in his writings, it was this density," he told CBS News' Charlie Rose.

His furious disputes with the other Founding Fathers were legendary. A decades-long rivalry with Thomas Jefferson over slavery, which Hamilton opposed, and over the future of the young republic.

"Hamilton had a vision of the country -- there'd be not only traditional agriculture, but there would be large cities, factories, stocks exchanges, banks, corporations, a central bank. In other words, the world that we know today," Chernow said.

Hamilton died in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr at the age of 49. At his grave in lower Manhattan, there's a surge of visitors here to remember the man who history almost forgot.

"He died more than 200 years ago, and now, he's getting his turn in the limelight," Reid observed.

"His name is literally up in lights on Broadway. Doesn't get any better than that," Chernow responded.

The Alexander Hamilton craze shows no signs of slowing down. Chernow's biography has now been on the bestseller list for 18 weeks -- that's six weeks longer than when it first came out in 2004.