A Hip-Hop Soundtrack For A Musical About Alexander Hamilton? Sure, Why Not?

Aug 6, 2015
Originally published on August 7, 2015 4:35 pm

By now, you may have heard about the new Broadway musical Hamilton. When it opened off-Broadway in February, it earned almost unanimous raves and awards for blending history and hip-hop. Its sold-out run had A-list celebrities and politicians clamoring for tickets. Thursday night, the story of Alexander Hamilton, and the Founding Fathers and Mothers, opened on Broadway.

Most people in the business expected Hamilton to move immediately from the Public Theater to Broadway, win a bunch of Tony Awards and be a big hit. Except writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the creative staff felt the show still needed work. So they stayed put. "And thank God we did," says Miranda, "because we left the Public with four months of audience information, as opposed to three weeks. So, that's just more data, that's just more viscerally, 'cause I get to experience it onstage, so I viscerally know what works, and when I'm losing [the audience] and when I have them back. And there is no substitute for that experience."

Miranda still takes off one performance week to watch the show from the audience, with his alternate onstage. Think of this version as Hamilton 2.0. Despite all of the distractions of being at the center of the hottest musical in town, Miranda was still working on Hamilton with less than a week before the Broadway opening.

"The world can swirl around outside us, but today I have a new line to put in for 'Your Obedient Servant' that I have to add. Yesterday, I added five new lines. It's about keeping our head down and looking at the thing itself and not listening to the noise, but listening to the thing that got us here, which was us in a room figuring out what the best idea is and letting the best idea win. So, you know, the stuff going on outside the theater: wildest dreams, wildest expectations surpassed. And, inside, you know, I'm keeping my head down and trying to make the show good."

Lin-Manuel Miranda has been working on Hamilton for six years. It started with him sitting on a beach, reading Ron Chernow's 832-page biography of the country's first treasury secretary and realizing the story sang to him. He recalled, "I feel like a mosquito that hit an artery! That's how I felt when I read Ron Chernow's book; I just thought Hamilton's life story contains multitudes, particularly in the way Ron unlocked it — in the way that Hamilton is sort of the proto-American immigrant story, the trauma of his early years and how that kind of created a crack in the foundation."

For his part, biographer Chernow says he was initially skeptical that his book could be turned into a musical, much less one that uses rap as its main source of expression. But he agreed to meet with Miranda. "He came over to my house, he sat on my living room couch, he started snapping his fingers, and he sang the opening song," Chernow says. "And I absolutely marveled at what he had done, because I realized he had condensed the first 40 pages of my book accurately, into a four-and-a-half-minute song!"

Miranda performed that opening number at a poetry evening at the White House in 2009. Miranda's words had to be first and foremost, says choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler: "We used to say a lot, 'We have to get out of the way. We have to get out of the way of the lyric.' So, we didn't need fancy trickery with anything, really, because that would pull focus from when you really needed to be leaning forward and paying attention and listening."

Hamilton is attracting a lot of young theatergoers, in part because of the music and, in part because of the multiracial cast.

"We are a very accurate representation of who we are, as a nation," says Phillipa Soo, who plays Hamilton's wife, Eliza. "And I feel like, in telling this story the way we're telling it with the people that have been chosen to be in the room together, we're very much an All-American cast."

That's the way Lin-Manuel Miranda saw it, growing up the son of a New York City political operative. His remembers the Christmastime spirit during his youth, saying, "When I was a kid, I would see two Santas every year; I would go see the white Santa at Macy's and then I'd go see the Dominican Santa at the ACDP Christmas party. And there was a brown Santa! And they were both Santa to me; do you know what I mean? When the character is mythic, I think we have license to believe in it, no matter what it looks like."

Leslie Odom Jr. plays Vice President Aaron Burr, who famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. For him, the production has given him a sense of patriotism: "What it's done for me, as far as who is telling this story, is it has made me feel more American than I've ever felt before. This is our story; this is our history, too. We were born here. We pledge allegiance to the flag, as well. And so, for us to literally step inside these men and women's shoes and tell the story from the inside in that way, it gives us an ownership to the story."

One of the repeated lines in Hamilton is "who lives/who dies/who tells your story." And Lin-Manuel Miranda wants to make sure that this story is told by as many different people as possible, once the run on Broadway is done, years from now:

"When this is done as the school play, it opens up the show to the entire school, and that's something I'm really excited about. I fell in love with theater from doing the school play and finding who I was in it. And so I think I'm always writing a school play in my head."

Even as he's teaching audiences about people and events from over 200 ago.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the musical "Hamilton" opened off Broadway in February, it got raves for blending history and hip-hop in telling the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. It had a sold-out run, with A-list celebrities and politicians in the audience. Tonight, it opens on Broadway later than critics thought. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Most people in the business expected "Hamilton" to move immediately from the public theater to Broadway, win a bunch of Tony awards and be a big hit. Except writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the creative staff felt the show still needed work. So they stayed put.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: And thank God we did because we left the public with four months of audience information as opposed to three weeks. And that's just more data. That's just more viscerally 'cause I get to experience it on stage, so I viscerally know what works and when I'm losing them and when I have them back. And there's no substitute for that experience.

LUNDEN: Miranda still takes off one performance a week to watch the show from the audience with his alternate on stage. Think of this version as "Hamilton" 2.0.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAMILTON")

JAVIER MUNOZ: (Singing) Just like my country, I'm young, strappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) I am not throwing away my shot.

LUNDEN: Despite all of the distractions of being at the center of the hottest musical in town, Miranda was still working on "Hamilton" with less than a week before the Broadway opening.

MIRANDA: The world can swirl around outside us, but today, I have a new line to put in. Yesterday, I added five new lines. It's about keeping our head down and looking at the thing itself and not listening to the noise but listening to the thing that got us here, which was us in a room, figuring out what the best idea is and letting the best idea win. So you know, the stuff going on outside the theater - wildest dreams, wildest expectations surpassed. And inside, you know, I'm keeping my head down and trying to make the show good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAMILTON")

MUNOZ: (Singing) I am Alexander Hamilton.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) I am Alexander Hamilton. Just you wait.

MUNOZ: (Singing) I am not throwing away my shot.

LUNDEN: Lin-Manuel Miranda has been working on Hamilton for six years. It started with him sitting on a beach, reading Ron Chernow's 832-page biography of the country's first treasury secretary and realizing the story sang to him.

MIRANDA: I feel like a mosquito that hit an artery (laughter). That's how I felt when I read Ron Chernow's book. I just thought Hamilton's life story contains multitudes, particularly in the way Ron unlocked it, in the way that Hamilton is sort of the proto-American immigrant story, the trauma of his early years and how that kind of created a crack in the foundation.

LUNDEN: For his part, biographer Chernow says he was initially skeptical that his book could be turned into a musical, much less one that uses rap as its main source of expression. But he agreed to meet with Miranda.

RON CHERNOW: He came over to my house. He sat on my living room couch. He started snapping his fingers, and he sang the opening song. And I absolutely marveled at what he'd done because I realized that he had condensed the first 40 pages of my book accurately into a four-and-a-half minute song.

LUNDEN: Miranda performed that opening number at a poetry evening at the White House in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRANDA: (Singing) How does a [expletive] orphan son of a [expletive] and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished to squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar. The $10 founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.

LUNDEN: Miranda's words had to be first and foremost, says choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.

ANDY BLANKENBUEHLER: We used to say a lot, we have to get out of the way. We have to get out of the way of the lyric. So we didn't need fancy trickery with anything, really, because that would pull focus from when you needed to be really leaning forward and paying attention and listening.

LUNDEN: "Hamilton" is attracting a lot of young theatergoers in part because of the music and in part because of the multiracial cast. Phillipa Soo plays Hamilton's wife, Eliza.

PHILLIPA SOO: Way are a very accurate representation of who we are as a nation, and I feel like in telling this story the way we're telling with the people that have been chosen to be in the room together, we're very much an all-American cast.

LUNDEN: That's the way Lin-Manuel Miranda saw it, growing up the son of a New York City political operative.

MIRANDA: When I was a kid, I would see two Santas every year. I would go see the white Santa at Macy's, and then I'd go see the Dominican Santa at the ACDP Christmas party. And there was a brown Santa. And they were both Santa to me. Do you know what I mean? When the character is mythic, I think we have license to believe in it no matter what it looks like.

LESLIE ODOM JR.: What it's done for me as far as who is telling this story is it has made me feel more American than I've ever felt before.

LUNDEN: Leslie Odom Jr. plays Vice President Aaron Burr, who famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

ODOM JR.: This is our story. This is our history too. We were born here (laughter). We pledge allegiance to the flag as well. And so for us to literally step inside these men and women's shoes and tell the story from the inside in that way, it gives us an ownership to the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAMILTON")

ODOM JR.: (Singing) I want to be in the room where it happens, the room where it happens. I want to be in the room.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) The room where it happens, the room where it happens.

ODOM JR.: (Singing) Oh, I want to be, I want to be, I've got to be in the room.

LUNDEN: One of the repeated lines in "Hamilton" is, who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? And Lin-M

anuel Miranda wants to make sure that this story is told by as many different people as possible once the run on Broadway is done years from now.

MIRANDA: When this is done as the school play, it opens up the show to the entire school. And that's something I'm really excited about. I fell in love with theater from doing the school play and finding who I was in it, and so I think I'm always writing a school play in my head (laughter).

LUNDEN: Even as he's teaching audiences about people and events from over 200 years ago. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.