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.”