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!”