Revolution on Broadway: Inside Hip-Hop History Musical 'Hamilton'

Hit show's playwright-star Lin-Manuel Miranda talks theater, hip-hop, politics and more

"It took me six years to write this show," says 'Hamilton' star Lin-Manuel Miranda. "You can only do that if you're in love with your subject." Credit: Matthew Murphy

"I feel about 100 pounds lighter!" says Lin-Manuel Miranda. Less than a week before Hamilton's opening night on Broadway, the hip-hop-infused musical's playwright, composer, lyricist and star is hanging out in his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, celebrating the fact he's finally done revising the mammoth script – well, almost. "I only have one line to add," he says, "and that's the last thing I'm going to do."

The production, which traces Alexander Hamilton's life story in soaring melodies and quick-witted rap verses, has already connected in a big way: After a successful off-Broadway run, the show has earned advance ticket sales of more than $30 million and won cosigns from Stephen Sondheim and President Obama, who attended a recent preview performance. But for its creator, Hamilton still feels like a passion project. "It took me six years to write this fucking show," says Miranda, 35. "You can only do that if you're in love with your subject." And those final adjustments before the curtain rises on August 6th are crucial in a show that runs nearly three hours onstage. "Shows are meals," he says. "This is a 14-course tasting menu. Our process between Broadway and off-Broadway was, 'How can we make it sharper?'"

The idea for the show dates back to 2008, when the playwright-star – fresh off opening his first Broadway musical, the Tony-winning In the Heights – read historian Ron Chernow's biography Alexander Hamilton on vacation. He ended up transforming Hamilton's tale into something strikingly modern, in ways that go beyond music. Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, plays the title role; talented actors and actresses of color join him onstage in the roles of George Washington, Aaron Burr, James Madison and other long-dead white people. Daveed Diggs, of the arty L.A. rap group Clipping, turns in a particularly memorable performance as a cool, strutting Thomas Jefferson. "This is what our country looks like, and the audience accepts it," says Miranda. "In so many ways, the people we call the Founding Fathers are these mythic figures – but they were people. I think the casting of the show humanizes them, in a way, because they're not these distant marble creatures." 

Miranda's dressing room is a nerd's paradise: A Super Mario figurine, a Hamilton bobble-head, a Red Dead Redemption disc and other cultural curios share shelf space underneath his Hollywood-lighted mirror, and the black water bottle Miranda is sipping from has a Darth Vader helmet for a cover. Outside in the hallway are several plastic bags full of period-appropriate tricorn hats. "Rolling Stone!" Miranda says with a big smile as he settles in for his interview. "I feel like Stillwater."

We talked for an hour about the creative process that led to Hamilton; Miranda's life-long loves of hip-hop and musical theater; how he's breaking down the doors that hold back people of color on Broadway; and more.

What's it like to be starring in the show at the same time as you're considering revisions? Are you up there thinking writer thoughts while you're singing?
No, I can't. I'll get hit with a chair! You've seen the show. You've seen how kinetic it is. Not only is everything on the deck moving – the deck itself is moving. So if I space out and think, "Maybe I could . . . " I'm dead. Someone is going to kick me in the face. It's also enormously important for the actors to know they have another full-blooded actor that they're working with onstage. They can't be looking in my eyes and thinking, "Is he trying to cut my part?"

The New York Times said that the casting of this show "flips minstrelsy on its head." Do you like that way of putting it?
Well, I'll tell you, when I first had the idea for the show, I was already thinking in terms of voices and not in terms of people who look like the Founding Fathers. Originally, this was a concept album in my head. I went full Andrew Lloyd Webber in my mind, and thought, "OK, we'll make the Jesus Christ Superstar concept album, and then someone else will figure out how to stage it." I wanted to be selfish as a songwriter and write songs that contained all the policy and the history, but felt as dense as my favorite Big Pun raps, or my favorite Aesop Rock, or Jay Z – the stuff where you're still catching triple-entendres 10 listens in. I wanted to be more selfish than, "I'm in a theater and I need to understand everything the first time." I think I wrote a richer piece because I let myself off the hook in that respect. And I was already casting, like, Common as George Washington in my head. It was already transcending race.

Who was your dream voice for Hamilton? Did you have a rapper in mind for that character?
I didn't equate him with a specific rapper, but I did equate him with the strengths of my favorite rappers, which are the polysyllabic yet conversational ones. I'm thinking of Eminem and Big Pun, in particular, where they're rhyming 10 syllables on a line. I'm thinking of Jay Z in that moment in "Friend or Foe," where he goes, "…don't do that, you're making me nervous." It feels like a conversation that happens to rhyme. I'm always aiming for that level. I was thinking of Rakim, those rappers who think in full paragraphs.

With Burr, something I didn't even realize until really far into writing the score is that he's almost always on a dancehall beat. It's never on the fucking downbeat! Subconsciously, it's like, "You can't pin Burr down." He's never going to give you the one and the three, or the two and the four. He's a human triplet.

Who do you see when you look out into the audience? At the performance I saw, there were a lot of older white people.
That's the average Broadway theatergoer. Broadway is expensive! If you were to create the median Broadway theatergoer, it's a white lady between 45 and 55 years old who has an average income of $250,000 a year. That's who can afford tickets – which is why I'm proud that we also have cheap tickets. We offer a lottery for the front row of the show, for 10 bucks a pop. There's something Shakespearean about that. There's the groundlings, and then there's the Queen's seats.

Our producers are also working on this big initiative to get as many students into the show as possible. I'm really excited by that, because the student matinees are when you learn the truth. Young people haven't learned theater etiquette yet. And I don't mean that in the bad way – they're not texting – but when someone gets shot, they go, "Ohhhhh!" The rap battles, they light up. This very dense, historically accurate musical makes these people come alive in their heads. That's what's really cool to me. So, yes, the average theatergoer will enjoy this show, but I also think we have a unique opportunity for people who feel like musicals aren't for them to say, "This is for you." 

Which came first for you when you were growing up in New York, hip-hop or musical theater?
They were always hand-in-hand for me. I grew up listening to my parents' cast albums and falling in love with the stories in those – but I also grew up listening to the Geto Boys, and KRS-One when he was BDP, and the Fat Boys. That was as a little kid, late Eighties. Everyone's favorite era of hip-hop is whatever age they were from age 13 to 18, right? So I happen to encapsulate Wu-Tang Clan and Biggie, and out shit like Digable Planets and PM Dawn and Arrested Development and A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sheep and the Native Tongues family.

When people say it's a hip-hop musical to me, it doesn't bother me, because I know how much hip-hop contains. I feel lucky to have grown up in that. And also, while I was memorizing Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, I was also playing the Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance in ninth grade. Those two things were happening at the same time for me. So it's all in a stew in my head. I'm always attracted to storytelling, whether it's Biggie's "Warning" or Jay Z's "Friend or Foe" or [Gilbert and Sullivan's] "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." It's all the same thing.

"I'm attracted to storytelling, whether it's Biggie or Gilbert and Sullivan."

Were your parents big musical fans?
Yeah, they were into Broadway, but we didn't go to Broadway a lot – because, again, Broadway is expensive. I think the first show I saw was Les Miz, and that definitely informs Hamilton. The cast albums they loved the most were Man of La Mancha, Camelot, and a lot of Sound of Music and Rodgers and Hammerstein. My dad loved The Unsinkable Molly Brown. That was his favorite movie. "I'm not interested in going down, I'm going up!" It's all about being plucky and getting rich. She's kind of proto-Hamilton, in a lot of ways. And I remember really loving the unrequited love songs in Man of La Mancha, where it's this old man who loves this young woman who is never going to love him, but it doesn't matter. His love is enough. That's in the same music folder in my brain as "By Starlight" by Smashing Pumpkins. It's the angsty music I listened to while looking at the girl who was never going to like me.

When you thought about Broadway, at that age, did it seem like a world that was welcoming to you?
No, not at all. In the Heights, I think, comes out of that. It came out of a fear of, "I don't dance well enough to play Bernardo [in West Side Story] or Paul in A Chorus Line, and that's it." If you're a Puerto Rican man, that's what you got, because Zoot Suit doesn't get done enough. It's a great show, but it doesn't get produced a lot. My senior year in high school, Paul Simon's Capeman came out. The failure of that show really broke my heart. Not only because I'm a huge fan of Paul Simon and Marc Anthony and Rubén Blades, but on a selfish level: "There's another show with roles for Latino actors that's not going to get done."

In the Heights really was my attempt to make a way for myself. And I'm so happy that it's made a professional life for so many Latino actors. I had an actor come up to me once at a studio, and he said, "I've played Kevin twice and Piragua Guy three times in different regional productions all over the country." He has a living because Heights is getting done. So I'm enormously gratified by that. And in a lot of ways Hamilton doubles down on the themes of Heights in terms of immigrants, in terms of our country figuring out what it is – and hopefully creating these roles so that actors of color have a track that they can aim for.

Did you ever try to make a go of it as a rapper when you were younger?
I mean, I rapped with my friends. The first time I really remember freestyling seriously was on a road trip in college, where I had the 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. driving shift. My friends and I went to Vegas and back on our spring break my senior year. And I got the Kansas shift. Everyone else in my car is high and asleep, but I've got to stay awake and keep driving. I had a tape of instrumental beats, and I fucking freestyled to myself for four hours, drinking Red Bull to stay awake. I think I turned a corner on that night. That long, dark night of the soul. "Oh, I can rhyme anything now. I've been talking to myself for four hours." [Laughs]

Pretty convenient that you had that beat tape with you, huh?
It was very convenient. That's 2002, so the stuff I was rapping over was, like, Ashanti, Fat Joe, Backstreet Boys and Nelly.

Did you like history classes when you were a student?
Like most people, I gravitated toward whatever was interesting to me. If you had to ask me right now what I remember from high school history . . . I did write a paper on the [Hamilton-Burr] duel in high school. All I remember was that his son died in a duel and then he died in a duel three years later, and I thought that was really interesting. I think I just thought he was suicidal. It's a lot more complicated than that. I remember taking a great Gospels and Christianity class in college [at Wesleyan University] that really made Christian history interesting to me. I grew up pretty Catholic, and the Bible was just a thing that existed. This was a class that was like, "Well, people wrote it after he died, and even the original accounts disagree, and there are stories about Jesus that didn't make it into the Bible." I was like, "Oh, shit!" That was the first time the notion of history as being up for grabs, and the teller being just as important as the subject, really occurred to me. Thank you, Professor Ron Cameron. But I was much more into the theater department and reading good plays and listening to good musicals. 

The College Board recently changed the AP U.S. History curriculum in ways that seem to play down and massage the descriptions of racism and slavery. What do you think of that?
Well, listen. You can massage it all you want – it was fucking there! With slavery, we make sure it's the third line of this show. I think the two original sins of our country are slavery – which took a Civil War 100 years later to expunge, and the effects of which are still keenly felt today – and then I don't think it's lost on contemporary audiences that guns are responsible for all of the deaths in our show, except for Washington's, which happens offstage. That's the other original sin. I think we've got our heads around it pretty clearly that it's a problem, but we can't seem to follow that up with legislation that prevents 90 bullets from being fired in 30 seconds. I do not think our forefathers anticipated that.

What role can a Broadway musical play in issues like those?
I don't know. [Laughs] What I know is that art changes hearts and minds in a way that nothing else really does. Joe Biden was here the same night that Jim Burrows was here, who directed every episode of Will & Grace. Biden credited Will & Grace with changing the temperature on how we talk about gays and lesbians in our country. And he's right, you know? Art changes people's minds, because it allows us to empathize with people we never empathize with. That goes back to Shakespeare. That goes back to Medea. There's a story – it might be apocryphal, I might have entirely made it up – that the head of a giant motor company was at the opening night of Death of a Salesman, and that night he called everyone and froze the laying-off of workers over 55, because now Willy Loman's in his heart, and he can't do that. He can't be the guy who gives you the gold watch. All of that is to say that I have no fucking idea what the effects of this show will be. I could not have anticipated that In the Heights would lead to work for so many Latino people. I just wanted to get my play up. That's the exciting thing: You throw the rock in the pond, and then what the world does with it, the world does with it. 

President Obama came to see the show recently. Do you think his story has dramatic potential?
Sure. The unlikeliness of our President's story is pretty remarkable. But I feel this show reverberate in a different way any time we have someone from the political sphere. I felt it when Dick Cheney was here [at the off-Broadway production]. George Washington is up there singing, "I made mistakes, and history is going to judge me forever for those mistakes." That will echo with Bill Clinton, that will echo with Cheney, that will echo with Obama in a different way than it will for the rest of us. It's interesting to me for them to see characters that are reckoning with the questions that they probably don't reckon with in their day-to-day – they're just trying to get shit done – but maybe at night, after everyone else has gone to bed. The bigger question of, "What am I leaving behind? What are they going to say about me when I'm gone?" This asks those questions pretty bluntly. 

Do you listen to much new music?
I have been listening to, like, a track of Kendrick Lamar's album for a week. That's the other 14-course meal that was put out this summer. It feels like food. Some albums feel like candy, and they're delicious, and I'll put them on when I'm driving. That one is food, and I sit and I listen. It's a wonderful experience.

I've been listening to the new Decemberists. Ninety-nine percent of what's on the radio is some version of a love song, or an unrequited love song, or a "we fucked" song, or a "we should fuck" song. That's what becomes a pop hit, because everyone goes through that. But the Decemberists just totally expand the palate of what a pop song can be about, and I'm interested in that. I listen to The National. The National is great for post-show, "I'm just going to fucking sit here with my feelings for a minute because I've just been through some shit."

In terms of hip-hop, I listen to Kendrick, I'm listening to Drake. That Drake album is so weird and hypnotic. It's a thing to get a phrase stuck in someone's head, and Drake is really good at that. I walked around here for a week going, "I admit it, I admit it!" Or "I'm about to say a true thing! . . . We should change the lights at the top of Act Two." [Laughs] So I love earworms like that, too. All that shit.

Have you been following Drake's beef with Meek Mill?
I did. I don't follow this shit, but because I'm on Twitter, I just click on what's trending and I figure it out like the old man I am. We'll see. I hope they keep it on wax. I feel like an old man: "Just keep it to the insults. Don't let it go into real-world violence." But yeah, I mean, that "Back to Back" was pretty fucking good! He attacked [Meek] at his strength. Like, "Oh, he's opening for Nicki Minaj" – and now it's going to be a little awkward every time he opens for Nicki Minaj. Who knows what will happen?