“So you want the Birdman tour?” Lin-Manuel Miranda asks with a grin. It’s a sleepy Monday afternoon at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Manhattan, where, for the past 10 months, the most unlikely cultural phenomenon in a generation – a hip-hop musical about the Founding Father best known for authoring the bulk of the Federalist Papers and being killed in a duel – has been performed eight times a week to sold-out houses. In its run downtown at the Public Theater and now here on Broadway, Hamilton, written by and starring Miranda, has been universally lauded as a singular work of brilliance. Last September, Miranda was awarded a $625,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and in April, he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Two weeks after the Pulitzer announcements, the show earned a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations, and its box office has been similarly off the charts. A recent article in The New York Times Magazine estimated that the show earns $500,000 a week and could surpass $1 billion in ticket sales in New York alone, where the Broadway run will likely last for at least a decade. The first production of Hamilton outside New York begins an open-ended run in Chicago in September. The Broadway production, completely sold out well into next year, is officially the toughest ticket on the planet.
In person and out of costume, Miranda recalls biographer Ron Chernow’s description of young Alexander Hamilton as a “slight, boyish” figure. Today, Miranda is wearing gray cords and a gray SOMB hoodie over a vintage Nintendo T-shirt. He speaks in hyperactive bursts – again, as did Hamilton per Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, the book that Miranda casually picked up before a Mexico vacation in 2008.
“My dressing room has de facto been my office for the past 10 months,” Miranda says as he welcomes me inside and grabs a couple of coconut waters from his minifridge. A partially deflated Darth Vader balloon hovers in the corner – fittingly enough, since this is where Miranda composed the cantina music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and a small bookshelf holds works by Herman Melville, Robert Caro, Judd Apatow and the photographer Sally Mann. On the vanity beneath the large dressing-room mirror, there’s a bouquet of flowers, a laptop and an ACLU cap.
Not much light, though, and it’s a lovely spring day, so Miranda suggests we head to a secret rooftop balcony – hence, the Birdman tour. After crossing the darkened stage, taking a few flights of stairs and passing through the empty lobby, we end up outside, in a long, narrow alley. “This is the way the president came into the theater,” Miranda says. He points to a nook where cast members smoke, then ducks into another door. Eventually, we’re back outside, sitting on a hidden balcony overlooking the massive Scientology church across West 46th Street.
Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, which he began writing during his sophomore year at Wesleyan, also played here. It drew on hip-hop and Latin music to tell the story of the Manhattan neighborhood where he was born, Washington Heights. Miranda’s parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico; his mother was a psychologist and his father worked in politics, including as a liaison to New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Miranda tested into an elite public high school (where one of his best friends was future MSNBC host Chris Hayes) and became a fanatical aficionado of rap and Broadway musicals. In hindsight, the fusing of two of America’s greatest indigenous art forms – both excellent storytelling mediums – feels like a no-brainer. But with the possible exception of Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” earlier attempts at making the worlds collide largely proved embarrassing.
Bay Area rapper Daveed Diggs had never seen a Broadway show before he was cast as Hamilton nemesis Thomas Jefferson. “I knew Fiddler on the Roof, because my mom really liked that and we always had the album around the house growing up, and that was about it,” Diggs says. “But I was totally intrigued the second I heard the demos of the songs in Hamilton and read through the music. The rapping is good – that’s what really got me.”
The show, almost entirely sung-through, transforms esoteric Cabinet debates between Jefferson and Hamilton into riveting, delirious rap battles. Songs about Hamilton’s complicated love life get more of a Destiny’s Child treatment, and the rest of the score is expansive enough to include torchy show tunes, high-camp Brit pop and nods to hip-hop classics (from “The Message” to “Empire State of Mind” to “Lose Yourself”). The sheer virtuosity of Miranda’s songwriting has prompted an insane who’s who of music legends (hip-hop and otherwise) to catch a performance, including Jay Z and Beyoncé, Eminem, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Nas, David Byrne, Q-Tip, RZA, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jon Bon Jovi, Busta Rhymes and Cher. (Questlove was such a fan that he and Black Thought from The Roots co-produced the now-platinum cast album, and is now working on an upcoming “mixtape” that will feature covers and reinterpretations of Hamilton songs by other artists.)
“When you’re developing your voice as a rapper, you figure out your cadence – your swag – and that’s how you write,” Diggs says. “Lin managed to figure that out for all of these different characters – everyone has their own swag, and it feels germane to them. And that’s really impressive. Hercules Mulligan [a Hamilton pal who spied on the loyalists during the American Revolution] raps exactly like a dude named Hercules Mulligan!”
Even more radical than the catholic musical approach is Hamilton’s reckoning with our country’s creation myth. There’s an almost indescribable power in seeing the Founders, in an otherwise historically rigorous production, portrayed by a young, multiracial cast. “It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it,” says Leslie Odom Jr., who comes close to stealing the show with his turn as Hamilton killer Aaron Burr. “We are saying we have the right to tell it too.” If every presidential administration gets at least one mass-cultural moment it deserves, then Hamilton has become the Obama era’s Wall Street, its 24, its Spice World – even more so, perhaps, because the show has actually managed to fulfill candidate Obama’s promise to bridge the divide between Red and Blue America. Fans of Hamilton include Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Dick Cheney and the president himself.
Christopher Jackson, Hamilton‘s towering George Washington, has known Miranda the longest of any of the major cast members, having previously starred in In the Heights. “Lin told me about his idea for Hamilton a few days after that fateful vacation,” Jackson recalls. “We were actually onstage doing Heights. He said, ‘I’ve got the next thing. It’s about the Treasury secretary!’ And then he paused, and before I could say, ‘What?!’ the music started and we had to do ‘96,000.’ When Ron Chernow came to see Heights, I had never seen Lin that nervous. He said, ‘Ron Chernow’s here!’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘The show needs to go well today.'”
Odom first saw a workshop version of Hamilton at Vassar and found himself responding, almost viscerally, to “The Story of Tonight,” an early number in which Hamilton and three friends (Mulligan, the Marquis de Lafayette and John Laurens) boisterously drink together in a tavern on the eve of the Revolution. “That’s the one that made me a puddle, because it was four men of color onstage singing a song about friendship and brotherhood and love, and I had never seen that in a musical,” Odom says. “I had seen white guys do it, in Jersey Boys, in Les Miz. Never seen a black guy. So I was a mess, and from that point, I was along for the ride.”
Phillipa Soo, who makes her Broadway debut as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, says that she had to figure out her relationship to her stage husband, to answer questions like, “Who is this man to me, and why do I love him?” In the end, she realized her “research was already here for me. It became less about finding facts about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton and more about just watching Lin. I remember him coming into the rehearsal room in his slippers, because he’d been across the street writing. And I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy is nonstop!’ Kind of like Hamilton.”
Over the course of a two-hour conversation, Miranda spoke about the kinship he feels with Hamilton – and more broadly, the task of liberating some of history’s most revered figures from their own legend. “I really don’t accept the premise that we lionize any of these dudes,” he says. “I think our goal is to present them as human, and not just the five facts you know about them from our history books. Nobody gets off scot-free in our show.”
At the outset, what was your biggest secret dream of what Hamilton could do?
Honestly, my secret dream has already happened: I hoped the hip-hop community would embrace the show. Pretty much all of my other dreams had already come true on the last show. With In the Heights, I went from being a substitute teacher to being a writer, from not having a career in this world to having one. I don’t think anything will ever touch that. But the hip-hop world and the Broadway world really didn’t know each other or meet, and for the most part, the hip-hop community missed the show.
Watch photographer Mark Seliger’s behind-the-scenes look at the ‘Hamilton’ cast’s ‘Rolling Stone’ cover shoot.
With Hamilton, once you hit on the concept, did all of these parallels between the hip-hop world and Hamilton’s life – the duels, the way he’s so death-haunted, his rising from poverty – coalesce right away, or did they come to you gradually?
The moment that cemented it was reading about how Hamilton’s writing an essay gets him off the island [St. Croix]. It wasn’t circumstance. He didn’t stow away. He wrote an essay about how shitty the island was after a hurricane had destroyed it, and the essay became popular, and he got a scholarship to get off the island because of that. I was like, “Oh, he literally wrote his way out of his circumstances. That’s it! That’s everything.”
So to you, immediately, it was like, “Oh, that’s like Jay Z, or Eminem scribbling lyrics in his notebook.”
Jay Z, Eminem, Biggie. Lil Wayne writing about Katrina! And so, having had that insight very early while reading Ron Chernow’s book, I never pictured the literal Founding Fathers again. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, but it was a bit of a surprise when reviews and articles made so much about the nontraditional casting that we’ve done. Because that’s how I always saw them.
So were you surprised by the controversy that came up recently about the casting call for the planned touring productions of show?
What’s funny is, it was the same language that was used to get the Broadway cast. And it’s inclusive language. It’s “I know this is about the Founding Fathers, but there’s work for you here!” The reality is, we’ve always had white ensemble members. That’s always been a part of the show. The idea has always been to look the way America looks now, and that doesn’t exclude anyone. So to have that recast as exclusionary language was disappointing.
When you were writing, were you picturing certain characters in specific ways? Like, were you picturing Jefferson specifically as being African-American?
You were open to anything.
Yeah, and I think we continue to want to have that option. I’m friends with this guy Utkarsh Ambudkar. He’s one of the greatest rappers alive. And he was Burr for a couple of incarnations. So it’s really about the skill set that they bring to the piece. For me, it was always sonic. Like, Hercules Mulligan. You can’t even say his name without picturing Busta Rhymes saying it. [Busta Rhymes voice] “Hercules Mulligan!” It’s such a delicious combination of consonants and vowels.
It’s too perfect.
You know, he wasn’t even in Hamilton’s life as significantly as some others I left out: Ben Franklin, Governor Morris. But they don’t have the name Hercules Mulligan, so, sorry guys! When it came to George Washington, I had the benefit of reading Ron’s Washington bio — he also wrote a Pulitzer-winning book on George Washington — and what was really fascinating about that was, Washington, when he was a kid, could be as reckless as Hamilton. But by the time we meet him, he’s not. There’s a temper there, but it’s under control. So I was thinking a lot about Common, who was wild when he started. He had crazy punch lines. And then he kind of gains this stature and legacy.
And now he’s an elder statesman.
Yeah, exactly. So Common and George Washington were very related in my head, in the initial writing. Hamilton was always the son of Rakim. That rhyme style, which goes from Rakim to Big Pun to Eminem: multi-syllabic, where it’s not enough to rhyme only at the end of the rhyme, but also becomes about finding as many internal cadences within the line as possible.
Initially, you toggled back and forth between playing Hamilton and Burr, right?
Yeah, well, I mean, how could you not? There’s enormous fun to playing Burr, which Leslie finds every night. It’s the same thing as, if you’re going to be in Les Miz, do you want to play Valjean or Javert? Do you want to play the virtuous guy with the crazy high notes who’s onstage more? Or do you want to play the badass who’s always a step behind him? When I was writing “My Shot,” I’d go, “Oh, man, if I could play Hamilton…” And then I would write “Wait for It” and go, “Fuck, if I could play Burr…” I spent a lot of time in both their heads. The reality is, I got to play all the parts. I got to be Angelica and be as smart as her. I got to be Eliza and be as unconditionally loving as her. That’s the fun of writing the piece. I got to be Jefferson and basically run out of fucks to give and saunter around my house and try to think of what he would say.
You were writing this show in 2009, as the modern-day Tea Party movement was taking off. And now this current political season has been so bizarre.
Yeah… [chuckles]. You could probably find more-qualified people to talk about this. I’ve been so in the world of this show that I probably don’t know half the ins and outs of current politics.
Well, specifically, having the Founding Fathers look like America today strikes me as so radical. And it made me think of some of the Tea Party rhetoric, of how these conservatives were saying, “We need to take our country back.” And to me, this show felt like it was saying, “No, you’re not taking the country back, and in fact, we’re part of the whole history of this country, even going back to the puffy shirts and the tricorn hats.”
I guess the direct line I can pull on the most is between Hamilton’s life story and the immigrant narrative in our country. The fact that immigrants have to work twice as hard just to get here, but that also, at some point, it’s going to be thrown in your face as a negative. In Hamilton’s case, it was Jefferson and Madison writing basically the same things you would hear about Obama during election cycles: “How do we really know where he’s from?”
But I think the bigger parallel is like, “‘Twas ever thus.” I think the notion of our Founders being these perfect men who got these stone tablets from the sky that became our Constitution and Bill of Rights is bullshit. They did a remarkable thing in sticking the landing from revolution to government. That’s the hardest thing to do. You can go across the ocean to France, where they totally fucked it up and then got stuck in a cycle of revolution and tyranny. So that’s not nothing. But that being said, there’s compromise in our founding documents. There’s compromise between North and South. There’s compromise between manufacture and agriculture. The same fights we have over the role of our government now and the size of our government now are the fights they were having. Add the brutality of slavery to that mix as an undercurrent in all of those decisions. So I guess the biggest takeaway is, yes, this election cycle is bizarre. But it’s no more bizarre than the election in 1800, wherein Jefferson accused Adams of being a hermaphrodite and Adams responded by [spreading rumors] that Jefferson died, so Adams would be the only viable candidate. He was counting on news to travel slow! That, weirdly, gives me hope.
That over the centuries, we’ve overcome these flaws baked into the system.
We’ve overcome them, and we’ve moved forward, and we’ve moved backward. You know, Adams will get into a snit and destroy free press for a few years. And then it will come back. There’s checks and balances and we keep talking. As long as we keep talking, we’re okay.
Would your dad, who works in politics, often bring his work home, and did that inform your own politics?
Well, it wasn’t so much that he brought it home. It was more that I was getting dragged to meetings. The song “The Room Where It Happens” is partly based on political meetings where I was sitting in the back of the room, coloring. And I think I have an allergy to and cynicism about politics that can only be bred when [you’ve grown up with it]. You know, if I was a butcher’s son, I’d be fucking sick of meat.
Did you run any of the political content of the show by your dad?
No, not really. My dad and I talk a lot, and he’s very involved in my life and career, but it’s mostly about running interference. [laughs] It’s mostly keeping politicians from asking me to be at their things. Unless it’s a cause so worthy that I actually go and do it. Like, Puerto Rico.
You recently appeared on John Oliver’s show and did a song about the Puerto Rican debt crisis. Do you hear stories from family in Puerto Rico about how bad things are right now?
Yeah. I mean, it’s just, everyone’s broke. My uncle is a pastor at a church and they were robbed a couple of years ago at gunpoint as they were counting the collection plate. My cousin is graduating with a degree in engineering and he cannot find work on the island. His sister is pre-med, and she’s going to be moving here. And those are the people who need to be staying on the island! But there’s nothing for them.
It reminds me a lot of the situation in Detroit, where I’m from.
Honestly, my political agenda extends to asking for what Detroit had, which was the right to declare bankruptcy. Questions of statehood versus independence are super important, but I don’t feel like I have the right to weigh in. I live here.
The rap battle in the show between Jefferson and Hamilton about some states having to bail out other states is so resonant.
It’s crazily resonant! What’s interesting is how Hamilton saw debt as a way to unite the states. His thinking was, if we are entrenched in each other’s finances, we’re stuck with each other. Which is cynical! But also an effective way to unite the states. Contrast that with Jefferson, who had a much more agrarian “we’ll live off our resources” vision of America in his mind. That side lost. That’s not the America we live in. But I also think Jefferson really thought of himself as a Virginian more than an American. Hamilton’s outsider status helped him think of this as one country before some of the other Founders. They would say, “Are you voting for Hamilton’s plan, or are you your country’s man?” And by “country,” they meant Virginia. It’s very hard to get out of a parochial mindset and think bigger. Hamilton was there already because he came from somewhere else.
As far as you using your bully pulpit, could you see yourself doing any campaign appearances if it’s Clinton versus Trump?
I would rather play the back half of a horse in Equus [laughs]. I always get involved in voter drives. But I have no desire for my Twitter feed to be filled with a bunch of people screaming ad hominem attacks against anyone who voiced something different from how they feel. I don’t feel the need to get in the middle of that. Just get out and vote.
Is Trump, in some ways, the embodiment of some of the things that Hamilton feared, as far as mob rule?
I don’t know. Again, like I said, I am so less informed than your average Rolling Stone reader, just because I’ve had my head up in this world. But I can tell you that Trump’s politics about building a wall, that’s old. And it’s such a malignant form of a very common American electoral disease, which is, “Point at the newest people here and say they’re the reason you’re broke.” That’s as old as time itself. That’s “Irish Need Not Apply.” That’s [Pat]Buchanan in the Nineties. And it’s finding purchase with Trump right now.
Does anything about Hamilton’s elitism trouble you?
Absolutely! [laughs] Everything about these guys troubles me! And especially with Hamilton, when you think of where he started. This is not a guy who is fighting for Nevis or St. Croix. He got the hell out and he never looked back. There’s a moment that we had to cut when we moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway. It’s when Washington and Hamilton are putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. And they go from, “We are outgunned, outmanned,” in Act I, to yelling, “You are outgunned, outmanned,” at people who are violently resisting the whiskey tax. They go from being the revolutionaries to being in charge. I was sad to lose that, but I could see our momentum had moved past it. But that’s a key part of Hamilton’s story, historically. How do I say it? I think he believed that self-interest was a perpetual engine of growth. It still kills me that his fallout with Madison happens on our act break.
He writes the Federalist papers with Madison. They’re boys. But their fallout was over a financial plan. A lot of Revolutionary War vets had sold off their bonds to get money, because they were broke. And Hamilton said, “Well fuck it, they sold ‘em! It’s not the banks’ fault…”
So, making a parallel with today, very much on the opposite side of Bernie Sanders.
Bernie Sanders would totally have been Madison. Whereas for Hamilton, being a secure source of credit and being trusted was more important than whoever sold their war bonds early. And that’s brutal! And it can be viewed as super-elitist. But, again, Hamilton, he’s such a weird mix of cynicism and hopefulness. Because you can’t build this country and do the things he did without faith that people will prevail. So I really don’t accept the premise that we lionize any of these dudes. I think our goal is to present them as human and not just the five facts you know about them from your history books. So it’s about how Washington fucked up a lot before he became the father of our country. It’s about how Hamilton kept his eye on his work and really fucked up at home. It’s about how Jefferson wrote really eloquently about freedom and owned over 600 people. None of them gets off scot-free in our show.
Have you found that people on all sides of the political spectrum can project what they want onto Hamilton?
Absolutely. I’ve seen every person running for office compared to Burr: Hillary, Trump, Cruz, you name it. And there’s Burr: “Talk less, smile more.” That represents a lot of contemporary politicians. It’s a Rorschach test.
As far as Burr’s caution goes, I immediately thought of Hillary: “Wait for It”…
I’ve heard it applied to Trump as well. To anyone who wonders how an opinion will test.
Do a lot of the politicians who’ve seen the show come backstage?
I’ve met my share. Bernie came back, Hillary came back. Mitt Romney was here a couple of weeks ago but didn’t come back. I really wanted to see that hair in person. I’m in awe of his hair. I’ve had my agreements and disagreements with him politically, but, God, it’s just so… every time! Maybe the best hair in politics. The Bush daughters came back, Laura Bush came back. They were lovely. So it depends on the night.
Any interesting exchanges?
A couple. The first thing Governor [Andrew] Cuomo said was, “I can tell you learned politics at the kitchen table.” He was referring to “The Room Where It Happens” – that understanding of how the decisions are not made at the general meetings where all townspeople are heard. They’re made in someone’s kitchen over coffee before you go to the meeting.
And I guess he would know that as well as anyone.
He grew up in it. Hillary, she loved the John Jay shout-out. I guess she’s a John Jay fan [laughs].
That’s an obscure one.
Well, John Jay is not as well known as some of the other Founders, but he was one of the more writerly ones. He was a wonk! She was just like [Clinton voice], “I’m glad John Jay made it in!” Because he gets forgotten a lot. Bernie came after a day of campaigning, and I was like, “Thanks for seeing this after a long day,” and he was like [Sanders voice], “Thank you for doing it. How do you do eight shows a week?” Biden was a trip. He used the men’s room in the lobby with everyone at intermission! He was just folks. Also, we knew about the passing of his son several months before, so during Act II [when Hamilton’s son dies], we all felt an incredibly heavy heart. Knowing someone who’s experienced loss of that magnitude, the loss of a child, and that they’re in the audience, you carry with it a sense of responsibility. So we were all performing for him that night.
And Cheney came at some point?
Cheney came at the Public. He didn’t come back after, but his wife sent nice words from both of them. You know, the thing I think about when Cheney comes, Clinton comes, all these guys, I always think of the song “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Because these guys are graded on such a harsh curve, man. Like, Jefferson right now is being re-litigated because he’s a character in this show. That was a long time ago! I got to ask the president about that, when we visited the White House last time. I said, “What do you think about the fact that you’re going to be in textbooks 200 years from now? How do you pick up a pen in the morning? How do you get out of bed?” Because I couldn’t handle that shit.
What did he say?
He said, “It’s freeing, actually.” Which I found really interesting. I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I could be unpopular today, and that’s OK. I can tell myself, ‘All right, people who loved me are really mad at me today, but I think I did something that will make life incrementally better a generation or two generations from now.’ And I’m OK with being unpopular because I know I’m being graded on a crazy, longer curve.”
So going back to you, since the wild success of the show, what have been some of the stranger offers you’ve received? Any superhero movies?
Writing music for Star Wars was amazing. J.J. Abrams was here and I offhandedly joked, “Hey, if you need cantina music…” And he said, “I do need cantina music!” So that sort of gave me incredible courage. Ask the thing you want to ask your hero while your hero is in front of you! Don’t be a dick, don’t be obnoxious. But also know that you may never get that opportunity again. I also say no to a whole lot of things. It’s no accident that I read Alexander Hamilton while I was on vacation from In the Heights, and that most of the writing was also on vacations. That makes me double down on making room for myself. So I’m saying no to a lot of cool shit that 2012 me or 2010 me would have said yes to.
Was Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” a seminal moment for a person like you, a lover of both hip hop and musical theater?
Oh, that’s amazing. The Annie sample?
Um, maybe? I don’t know. I think that’s probably a great example of a direct sample. The genres are friends more than people think. In ways that are sort of unexpected.
Did you find that the storytelling aspect of hip-hop was complementary to musicals?
I fall in love with storytelling regardless of genre. Whether it’s the new Aesop Rock album – “Blood Sandwich” is one of the best storytelling songs I’ve ever heard in hip-hop, full stop – or “A Weekend in the Country,” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. I love a well-told story in song. It’s so hard! To get it all, in real time? One of the hardest things you can do. So I’m in awe, whether it’s Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”—
Country music is another great storytelling genre.
Absolutely. I’m a big Lucinda Williams fan. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”: “A little bit of dirt mixed with tears…” That kind of detail in lyric writing is the shit I live for. And what’s been exciting is everyone dropping their cultural baggage at the door of this show. I came by it all honestly. I came by the research honestly, I came by the love for hip-hop honestly. It all comes from a place of love. You’ve seen hip-hop used in musicals before, but usually it’s winking, it’s ironic, it’s “Oh, my God, white people are rapping!” Wink, nudge, air quotes. As opposed to just treating it as a storytelling form the same way musical theater absorbed rock & roll. It’s so crazy that Hair came out in the fucking Sixties, and still, anytime there’s a rock musical, it’s like [stuffy voice], “Does rock belong on Broadway?”
And I think Rent finally, definitively ended that as a subject line for headlines of articles.
Now rock is just part of the vocabulary of musical theater.
It’s just part of vocabulary. And that clears the way for the Hedwigs of the world, for Next to Normal, which is an amazing example of a score that uses rock music. When Heights came out, there was a lot of “Hip hop on Broadway?” The same way you got “Rock on Broadway?” And now it’s like, “Yeah!” It’s music, like any other form of music.
I read that, initially, when you had Ben Franklin as a character, you were going to write him a country-rock song.
It was a very Decemberists-y type song.
Why did that seem right for him?
Well, if we’re starting from the place that Hamilton is hip hop, Ben Franklin’s a totally different generation. So I wouldn’t want to see Ben Franklin rapping, because that doesn’t make sense to me. I only got halfway through his song. I don’t think I even recorded it. But the pitch was, Franklin’s in France, wooing French ladies and making out with them. And he’s partnered with John Adams, who’s a total Puritan. John Adams is showing up to meetings on time and Franklin is like, “The real meeting’s back here…” [laughs]I don’t know, it just sort of felt like I wanted to rock out with him. Also, I love the Decemberists. So I was picturing that kind of an expansive, articulate voice.
But you ultimately had to cut him because it was just too much?
I just felt like, we can jump across the ocean once, for King George. I think if you jump across the ocean twice, it feels like you’re losing focus. The show is Hamilton. And I couldn’t really justify it, because Franklin and Hamilton, other than at the Constitutional Convention, didn’t really intersect that much.
Any other memorable cuts?
There was a rap battle about slavery, where it was Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison knocking it from all sides of the issue. Jefferson being like, “Hey, I wrote about this, and no one wanted to touch it!” And Hamilton being very self-righteous, like, “You’re having an affair with one of your slaves!” And Madison hits him with a “You want to talk about affairs?” And in the end, no one does anything. Which is what happened in reality! So we realized we were bringing our show to a halt on something that none of them really did enough on.
Visually, with the purple coat, and with his swagger, I couldn’t help thinking of Prince when Jefferson first emerged.
Absolutely. You know, he wore a brown suit at the Public. And I don’t know what the conversation was between [director] Thomas Kail, Daveed Diggs and Paul Tazewell, our costume designer, but as soon as we went from brown to purple, we were off to the races. Again, it’s about eliminating distance. If your mission is to make a story that happened 200-odd years ago resonate with contemporary audiences, what are the ways in which you can eliminate distance? And, man, does that purple suit with a frilly blouse do that. Just like when we pull out those microphones for that Cabinet battle. It’s the only anachronistic prop in the show.
Oh wow, I don’t think that even registered to me while I was watching.
We pull out 21st century microphones! And I was against it, foolishly. I felt like it was going to break this thing we’d built, because we’d been accurate, physically. It was Tommy Kail’s idea. And then the second we did it, you saw the audience go, “Oh! That’s what this is.” Literally, the audience, you can feel them relax and go, “Oh my God, we get to see a rap battle, too?”
Did any part of you pause, once you came up with the conceit of having a multi-racial cast playing the Founding Fathers? Did any part of you think, “There might some aspect of this that disrespects the real history, in which most of these men were slave-owners, and people of color back then were not in power?”
I think I was always doing internal gut checks in terms of how we were presenting the story. That’s why I reached out to Ron Chernow really early. Before I had even written two songs, I was talking to him about sort of helping me get the history right. This story is more delicious and tragic and interesting than anything I could have made up. If you had pitched a Hollywood screenwriter, “And then his widow starts an orphanage,” they’d go, “That’s too on the nose.” But it really happened!
If you had pitched the fact that he gets embroiled with this affair and years later, Burr is Maria Reynolds’ divorce lawyer, you’d go, “Get the fuck out of here!” But it’s true!
His son’s death.
His son dying in a duel! So yes, Hamilton’s story always led. Whenever I was in doubt as to creative license, I would always go back to his writings. That was the gut check. And if you start from the premise that the truth is more interesting, that created the contours of our show. And also being really rigorous about sticking to Hamilton. Because there are so many avenues you could go down in this era.
I’m sure. You could have done a whole show just about his childhood.
You absolutely could have. I remember reading that someone had green-lit a movie just about his childhood, while I was still writing. And I remember thinking, “Shit, I hope I finish before they get their movie up!” You could do a whole thing just on him and Madison and Jay defending the Constitution. Or the murder trial where he was co-council with Aaron Burr. You know, they’re the first American legal dream team. And that’s a show. I got another really good piece of advice about this. I am very good friends with John Weidman, who is the book writer for Assassins and Pacific Overtures. When it comes to wrestling history to the stage, he’s the best at it, in terms of musical theater. That’s the guy.
Assassins is a great, twisted example of mixing history into a musical.
Sure! That was a big inspiration. And he basically said, “Whatever attracted you to Hamilton is the spine of the story. Don’t worry about getting it all. Because you can’t. No one can. So forgive yourself in advance for not getting it all and start to dramatize the moments that make you think this thing sings. And that begins to form its own kind of spine.” And that’s how it sort of proceeded from there.
Did you find yourself falling into a research hole?
Oh, absolutely. Burr is one of the more divisive characters in politics of that era. I read a book that really humanized him for me, The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr, by H.W. Brands. And then I read another Burr biography that I couldn’t even get through two chapters of because it was so defensive in its tone. So that was a really fun puzzle to unlock. Because I needed to at least know my version of him. Ron has said I’m more sympathetic toward Burr than he was in his book, because he’s Hamilton’s twin in so many ways. He’s Hamilton with privilege! He’s Hamilton if Hamilton came from money instead of not.
You gave him some of the best songs.
He earned some of the best songs, because he’s got such a weird and interesting interior life. When you come from money but have no family, what does that do to you, to your sense of caution? As opposed to Hamilton, who came from nothing and had no family, so, “Fuck it! I might be dead tomorrow, let’s go!” And Burr’s response to the same set of stimuli – mother died, father died – is “I better not fuck it up. I better not say anything.” So it gets at something much more fundamental than politics or political disagreements or personal disagreements. It gets to how we’re wired. How do we react to our mortality? Do we shut up and wait for moments to happen, or do we just kind of say whatever we think because who knows what’s going to happen? And I think we’re all a mix of Hamilton and Burr. I know I am.
In what way?
I write a lot, like Hamilton. I’m also pretty guarded about my personal life. And I’m also pretty aware of the consequences of my words. But I’ve just as many times been Burr. I’ve seen people my age and younger shoot to success, and I measure myself against people by age. Paul McCartney had already ended the Beatles and was midway through Wings when he was my age! Like, the entire Beatles, and he was not 30 yet. There’s always someone to measure yourself against when you’re like, “Fuck, what am I doing with my life?” So I really feel like I’m a healthy sense of both.
In an interview you did with The New York Times back when In the Heights came out, you mentioned that you had a whole ideas file on your computer called “Post-Heights.”
I did, and I don’t think I’ve touched it since [laughs]. Because then you fall in love with other stuff along the way. I thought Team of Rivals was going to be a musical, and then Spielberg got the rights to make it a movie, and I was like, “Oh, that’s way better than I would have done! Go do that!” I just thought Salmon Chase was such a compelling character, an abolitionist guy whose presidential fever overtakes the cause he was there for. Lincoln writes the Emancipation Proclamation and Salmon Chase says, “I don’t think you should do it.” Because he wants to be the guy to do it! Maybe there’s still something there, because Spielberg ended up not using any of that. I also had the rights to a book by Chaim Potok, which lapsed because I got too busy writing this. It’s one of my favorite books from when I was little called My Name is Asher Lev. Really beautiful. It’s about being an artist and that line between creating because you can’t help it and your responsibility. He creates this work of art that hurts his family and basically exiles him from his people, but it’s what was in him. It’s what he needed to make. So what the fuck are you going to do? But there’s a great stage adaptation of that book, as a play. So I comfort myself that it’s found its way to the theater without me. And that’s fine. I don’t need to tell every story. I just have to chase what I’m passionate about.
Do you have ideas of what you might work on next?
I do. But I never know what they’ll turn into. I thought this was going to be a concept album, and it turned into a musical. There’s an idea I’m chasing down now that I think is a movie musical, but again, I could be lying to myself just to be making a stage musical, like I did with this. So I don’t know what it is yet, I just think it’s a good idea. It’s not historical at all! Which makes me very happy.
Will Hamilton be a movie?
Someday. Probably not for, like, 20 years.
So not anytime soon.
I don’t think so. The thing is, we worked really hard to make this work as a piece of theater. And I get it – I get it 50 times a day: “Please film it! Please film it so we can watch it!” And I understand it’s hard to get to New York and it’s hard to get a Broadway ticket. At the same time, filming is an act of translation. It is not being in the room with us. It’s different. You will get the forest, you will not get the trees.
In recent years, have there been movie adaptations of musicals that you’ve liked?
Well, there are some really good ones, but I will tell you, they’re all 20 years after the fact. Like, I thought Les Miz was a really strong adaptation. I thought Chicago was one of the best adaptations. Cabaret, which really took that show, a great show, and made it into a film that could never have existed in the theater. Like, you couldn’t do that film onstage. So someone’s going to have to have the brilliant idea of how to make this into a film on its own terms.
Opening it up in some way.
Right. And right now, our responsibility, as I see it, is to get as many people in this room as possible. Prioritize kids for whom it will make a difference in their grades and lives. So that’s why we have this educational initiative that has 20,000 kids seeing it this year alone, and we’re replicating that program with our two national tours that are coming out within the year. We’re starting to cast the Chicago production right now. And again, it’s about getting people in the room to see the actual thing. And then there will be translations and adaptations, and that’s fine. I’m still waiting on the Wicked movie, man!
Do you have any interest in making a stand-alone album, hip-hop or otherwise?
Like, me as, like, a rapper? Um… if I have a really good idea. That’s the thing. I’m very story-driven. I don’t think anyone wants to listen to an “evening of… ” album with me. The part of hip-hop that’s tricky for me is the line between autobiography and reality, which hip-hop artists and pop artists use to incredible effect. They blur that line and make you think, “What’s real and what’s not?” And then we’re all listening to Lemonade and freaking out. But I have no interest in applying any of that to my personal life. I like telling stories.
So you want to be a character, you don’t want to be autobiographical.
Yeah, and I think 16 tracks of listening to me walking my dog and playing with my son would be fucking boring to any hip-hop fan. That being said, if I have a good idea for an album, I’d certainly love to pursue it. There are artists I’d like to write for, whose voices I love. I’d love to write a song for Marc Anthony one day. I’d love to collaborate with Juan Luis Guerra. I think he’s one of the best songwriters alive. But that doesn’t extend to me wanting to do an album of standards, or covers. My ego is healthy, but it doesn’t extend in that particular direction.
Have you met a lot of your hip-hop heroes post-Hamilton?
Yes. Busta was the first and the greatest, because he sat in the front row. That was about as nervous as I’ve been. For me, it’s been exciting to meet a lot of lyrical giants. Andre 3000, when he came, I was very conscious of him. Eminem was another one of those. I was sick when Jay Z and Beyoncé came, so I missed that particular pleasure of performing for them. When Nas came, I was a wreck. I actually gave him my copy of the Chernow book that I took on vacation! It was very impulsive. It’s always interesting when your heroes react in a way that’s in keeping with what you think of them. Nas’ reaction to the show was “I want to read more about this era,” because Nas is our hip-hop scholar and intellectual. So I just gave him the book! [Laughs]
It was a very impulsive thing to do. But better than, you know, Martin Shkreli fucking buying it.
Did you have any other interesting exchanges with these guys?
Eminem was really cool. He asked, “What happens if you mess up?” [Laughs] And I said, “I messed up three times because I knew you were here!” Will Smith was a big one. LL Cool J was a real interesting one. I’d met LL before he came, because I had a friend who was on that NCIS show. I remember asking him at the time, “Are you going to make any new music?” And he said to me – this is a great quote and it’s always sort of stayed with me – “I don’t want to make something that isn’t a classic.” But the way he said it was, “I want to work in marble.” That really stuck with me. So when he came to the show, I said, “I tried to work in marble, sir.”
What have been some of the other more surreal moments that have come with the success of this show?
Every single day. Watching the crowds outside grow. Watching it amplify online. The cast album was a really lovely thing. I fell in love with shows through cast albums – most people do – so once the album came out, that was a very surreal week, the way it democratized everything. I remember it was a week of just answering questions on Twitter, watching people decode it, after I’d been alone with it, with me and my collaborators and cast members, for a very long time.
Can you talk about the mixtape?
I don’t know what it’s going to be! What we’re trying to do is basically get people at their most inspired, because, again, the ethos of the show was, I’m inspired by this story that has to be a hip-hop story, and I’m inspired to invoke the rap gods and R&B gods that I loved. So now it’s about turning to those rap gods and heroes and saying, “What in the show inspires you? Go make something.” And we’re not being very doctrinaire about it. Right now, and this could change because we’re still making tracks, but it’s about a 50-50 mix of covers and inspired-bys. So for every song where it’s an artist covering the song verbatim, as it appears in the show, there’s a song where you take the hook of “Right Hand Man,” but it’s two rappers invoking the theme of “Right Hand Man” and doing what they want with it. There’s a version of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” that’s not about Eliza, it’s about who lives, who dies and who tells your story.
Do you have a release date yet?
No. I know it’s going to be in the fall.
Have you been in the studio for this?
I’ve been a couple of times. I have to play you one verse. [He plays a track by a rap legend whose identity I promise to keep secret.] This is fucking insane, right? I looked like the Michael Jordan crying meme when I first heard this!
So do you know how much longer you want to be performing this?
Everyone is sort of in it now. The question couldn’t come at a worse time, because literally every actor is in their contract negotiations right now. We were all contracted through July. It was a year contract. So I don’t know who’s staying and who’s going. Who tells our story [laughs].
But you, personally, haven’t made up your mind yet?
I don’t know that I want to break the news here. But I can tell you that with In the Heights, I did a year. I did a year and got out. And that show was as successful and joyous as anything I’ve ever done. But I still needed time to write, and so I did a year.
Do you feel like you need some space to work on the next thing, whatever that might be for you?
Part of it is just to tuck my son in at night, who is my best friend in the morning but who I don’t get to see at night, except one night a week. And this thing is going to run on its own power. I’m really proud and grateful for that. In a way, I know that I’m going to get more writing done while I’m in the show, because having your life structured this way, where you have to be somewhere every night at 8:00, forces you to organize your time. So as soon as I’m done talking to you, I have Disney stuff due tomorrow that I’ll be working on. It’s for an animated movie that’s coming out Thanksgiving weekend, called Moana. I got that job, let’s see – my son is a year and a half old, and I got that job the week we found out we were pregnant with him, so I’ve been working on it for about two years concurrently with Hamilton. That’s sort of the other dream-come-true kind of thing. You know? I’m here because The Little Mermaid fucked my shit up when I was nine, and I have never been the same since. Now I’m working with the original directors of The Little Mermaid on this animated musical, writing songs and chasing stories.
How much do you relate to that aspect of Hamilton’s character that seems to be racing against time and always trying to write?
I think I relate to that. Part of that comes with the inherent contradiction of what I do for a living.
What do you mean?
I’m very aware that an asteroid could kill us all tomorrow. But I create works of art that take years and years to finish [laughs]. So it’s an enormous act of faith to start a project. I think compounding that is my awareness that we lost Jonathan Larson before he ever got to see a preview of his show, Rent. He never saw what would change so many lives, mine included. So that sense of mortality is with me, always. It’s intensified by having a child. And how much of his life am I going to get to see? And hopefully his kids’ lives. It’s funny, I finished college with a ton of stuff written. I was painfully aware of the financial sacrifices my parents were making so that I could go to college, so I was not going to just leave with a B.A. in something. I was going to leave with stuff. I wrote a show every year of college. Not for credit, but because I needed to be leaving with more than just a B.A. So in that way, I’m very Hamilton-esque, in that I’m aware of both time and of the incredible opportunity that I’m lucky to have, and not wanting to squander either.