Hamilton: The Revolution
Late on a hazy night in 2008, Lin-Manuel Miranda told me he wanted to write a
hip-hop concept album about the life of Alexander Hamilton. For a second I thought we were sharing a drunken joke. We were probably drunk, but he wasn’t joking. We had bonded a year earlier over a shared love of hip-hop and theater, though that evening was the first time we were meeting. When Lin’s first show, In the Heights, had its Off-Broadway premiere in 2007, I was the drama critic at New York magazine, where I had repeatedly argued for the enormous but neglected
possibilities of hip-hop in the theater. (“Hip-hop can save the theater”; began one of those essays, “I am not kidding.”) Rap, it seemed to me, wasn’t like rock or jazz or any other kind of pop music: The lyrical density and storytelling ingenuity I heard on my headphones seemed closer to the verbal energy of the great plays of the past than almost anything I saw onstage. This enthusiasm wasn’t widely shared. “Don’t hang back among the brutes,” one of my senior colleagues advised me after reading one such essay, offering an erudite but demoralizing quotation from A Streetcar Named Desire.
After many disappointments and false alarms, Heights had made me sit up in my aisle seat: Here’s the guy. Lin’s show about immigrants in Upper Manhattan fused salsa, hip-hop, and traditional Broadway ballads to make something old and new, familiar and surprising. Best of all, he made the leap that virtually nobody else had made, using hip-hop to tell a story that had nothing to do with hip-hop—using it as form, not content. Lin thought my review grasped what he had been trying to do. The show’s publicist fixed us up. Hence the late-night drinks and the long talk about which of our favorite MCs should play Thomas Jefferson.
In the summer of 2011, after I’d left the magazine business and joined the artistic staff of the Public Theater, my boss, Oskar Eustis, asked me to propose some artists and projects. The first artist who came to mind was Lin, and the first project was his Hamilton idea. Lin and Oskar agreed to meet; Lin sent us demos; we went to Lin’s concerts. Two years later, Oskar and Jeffrey Seller—the lead producer of what had by now ceased to be an album and had turned into a stage musical—agreed to develop the show at the Public. The opening night party there— another late, hazy conversation—is when Lin proposed that I write this book.
It tells the stories of two revolutions. There’s the American Revolution of the 18th century, which flares to life in Lin’s libretto, the complete text of which is published here, with his annotations. There’s also the revolution of the show itself: a musical that changes the way that Broadway sounds, that alters who gets to tell the story of our founding, that lets us glimpse the new, more diverse America rushing our way. The fact that Lin wrote the show largely in sequence means that this book can trace the two revolutions in tandem. The story of the show’s creation begins at the White House on May 12, 2009, when he performed the first song for the first time. It ends with opening night on Broadway, August 6, 2015, just after he completed the final scenes of the show.
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