The Haggadah offers one linear story from Yakov through the exodus from Egypt, with a surprising emphasis on Lavan, raising questions about what parts of our origin stories we highlight and what parts get less attention. How do we re-interpret the stories for our own times? Lin-Maunuel Miranda is raising similar questions in his new musical about Alexander Hamilton.
A new musical brings the Founding Fathers back to life—with a lot of hip-hop.
By Rebecca Mead
Miranda saw Hamilton’s relentlessness, brilliance, linguistic dexterity, and self-destructive stubbornness through his own idiosyncratic lens. It was, he thought, a hip-hop story, an immigrant’s story. Hamilton reminded him of his father, Luis A. Miranda, Jr., who, as an ambitious youth in provincial Puerto Rico, had graduated from college before turning eighteen, then moved to New York to pursue graduate studies at N.Y.U. Luis Miranda served as a special adviser on Hispanic affairs to Mayor Ed Koch; he then co-founded a political consulting company, the MirRam Group, advising Fernando Ferrer, among others. On summer breaks during high school, Lin-Manuel worked in his father’s office; later, he wrote jingles for the political ads of several MirRam clients, including Eliot Spitzer, in his 2006 gubernatorial bid. Chernow’s description of the contentious election season of 1800—the origin of modern political campaigning—resonated with Miranda’s understanding of the inner workings of politics. And the kinds of debate that Hamilton and his peers had about the purpose of government still took place, on MSNBC and Fox.
Hamilton also reminded Miranda of Tupac Shakur, the West Coast rapper who was shot to death in 1996. Shakur wrote intricate, socially nuanced lyrics: Miranda particularly admired “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” a verse narrative about a twelve-year-old girl who turns to prostitution after giving birth to her molester’s child. Shakur was also extremely undiplomatic, publicly calling out rappers he hated. Miranda recognized a similar rhetorical talent in Hamilton, and a similar, fatal failure to know when enough was enough. There was extraordinary dramatic potential in Hamilton’s story: the characteristics that allowed him to rise also insured his fall. When the organizers of the White House event called, Miranda proposed a rap about Hamilton, and they said yes....
“Hamilton” is not a gimmicky transposition of early American history to a contemporary urban setting. Miranda’s Founding Fathers wear velvet frock coats and knee britches, not hoodies and jeans. The set, by David Korins, is a wooden scaffold against exposed brick; the warm lighting suggests candlelight, and the stage is equipped with ropes and iron fixtures that evoke the shipbuilding—and nation-building—of eighteenth-century New York City.
Miranda presents an Alexander Hamilton of incandescent focus, abounding talent, and barely suppressed fury. Hamilton was known to pace and mutter to himself while composing his treatises, and onstage the rap soliloquy feels startlingly apt as his preferred mode of self-expression: “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory / When is it gonna get me? / In my sleep? / Seven feet ahead of me? / If I see it coming do I run or do I let it be?” Miranda transposes Cabinet meetings into rap battles where participants face off while surrounded by whooping supporters. The debate over whether a national bank should be established to assume the states’ debts—Hamilton’s farsighted invention—becomes an animated exchange, in which he emerges victorious by disparaging Thomas Jefferson: “Always hesitant with the President / Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison.”
It does not seem accidental that “Hamilton” was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as the work of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), and sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry). When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny’s Child. Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America’s current moment—under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country’s island margins—are never far from view....
Rearsals for “Hamilton” took place in a rented studio space just off Times Square. One afternoon in early December, the cast worked on “My Shot,” the propulsive number set on the eve of the Revolution. Almost the entire company was performing, learning the strenuous hip-hop-inflected dances of the show’s choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler. Miranda’s music, now fully orchestrated, by Alex Lacamoire—like Blankenbuehler, a veteran of “In the Heights”—built to a delirious crescendo. A young actor, Anthony Ramos, charged with exultant fury across the stage, playing John Laurens, a slave owner’s son who was a close friend of Hamilton’s. During the Revolution, Laurens proposed to recruit slaves as soldiers, promising them freedom upon victory, and sought to form a black regiment; he was killed in action during one of the war’s final battles, in 1782. “Don’t this shit make my people wanna rise up!” Ramos chanted, leading an escalating chorus of revolt.
Miranda, who had grown his hair to his shoulders for the role, had a haunted air, his eyes ringed with fatigue—in early November, he and Nadal had their first child, Sebastian. Nevertheless, Miranda shifted energetically between roles: one moment he was swaggering downstage with the ensemble, insolently extending his fingers and thumb above his head, as if he were shooting a gun; the next he was tapping on his computer or his phone. “I have a lot of apps open in my brain right now,” he said. “The script, learning choreography, and Twitter. And the news.”
That afternoon, in New York, a grand jury announced that it would not indict the police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was choked to death last summer, after being apprehended for selling loose cigarettes. A week earlier, there had been riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after a grand jury there also failed to indict a white policeman, Darren Wilson, in the shooting death of an African-American man, Michael Brown. “We’re screaming ‘Rise up,’ and a lot of people are feeling that way,” Miranda said.
After Miranda’s White House performance, in 2009, the party had moved to a reception area in the lobby, where Miranda had discovered a d.j. playing hip-hop. He had felt astonished: America finally had a President who didn’t feel like a throwback, who lived in the same world that he did. If the events of the previous weeks had offered painful evidence that this promise of inclusion remained unfulfilled, Miranda still had the power of words to offer. While marchers started assembling on the streets of Manhattan for evening demonstrations, Miranda tweeted Hamilton’s lines from “My Shot”: “If we win our independence / Is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? / Or will the blood we shed begin an endless / Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?”
In a quieter rehearsal room that afternoon, Miranda and Jackson worked with Kail on another scene: an early encounter between Washington and Hamilton after the devastating Battle of Brooklyn, in August, 1776. In the song “Right Hand Man,” Washington summons Hamilton and informs him that he needs his services more as a secretary than as a soldier: “Head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr? / Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.” Hamilton protests—he wants to be given the command of a battalion.
Kail asked Miranda what he thought was in Hamilton’s mind. “I think he’s in defensive mode, until he sees Washington open up,” Miranda replied. “I am thinking of Al Pacino, in ‘The Godfather,’ when he hears the train approaching—it’s, like, he’s going all in, or he’s not. Is he going to pop the police chief and Sollozzo, or is he, like, going to have dinner?” Hamilton, Miranda said, had been determined to get the “martyr win,” and was always the last to leave the battlefield. Now Hamilton was rapidly calculating the greater impact he might have by being at Washington’s side—a calculation that needed to be conveyed within a single bar of music. “Even here, he is saying, ‘I’m going to use this to rise,’ ” Miranda said. “ ‘I thought I was going to rise on the battlefield. But I am going to have to do it this way.’ ”
Running through the song a few times, Miranda played with the delivery of Hamilton’s response to Washington’s proposal: “I am not throwing away my shot.” A few songs earlier, that refrain had implied Hamilton’s willingness to lose his life in battle; now it signified his recognition of an opportunity to establish a legacy that would outlast him. In the script, Washington interrupts Hamilton with a single word—“son”—capturing his paternal feeling for his young lieutenant. (Chernow writes that Hamilton was falsely rumored to be Washington’s illegitimate child.) But in Jackson’s delivery “son” also had a hip-hop resonance, implying brotherhood and parity.
Miranda, Jackson, and Kail turned the lines over, looking for the best way to convey Washington’s comprehension of Hamilton’s new intention—allowing the audience to register Hamilton’s sense of himself evolving from soldier to future statesman. Miranda studied the script that he’d written. “I wonder if it’s as simple as Washington not saying ‘son’ but saying ‘good,’ ” he said. “And that ‘good’ means ‘You’re hired.’ And then Hamilton is unleashed in this new capacity.”
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