If Broadway composer, lyricist and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda had not taken a vacation to Mexico during the run of his Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights, he might never have written his hip-hop history lesson, Hamilton.
In the airport on his way to Mexico, you see, he popped into a bookshop and bought Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton and read it while relaxing on the beach. He was only a few pages in when he recognized the potential for the story of our first secretary of the Treasury to be adapted into a musical.
Miranda began making notes about how he might write it, returned home to New York and researched the production rights to the book. He found that they had been optioned three times by Hollywood, but nothing ever came of them and the rights were once again available. And the rest, as they say, is Broadway history.
On Tuesday, five years after it premiered off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theatre, Hamilton arrives at the Kravis Center’s Dreyfoos Hall for a three-week run through Feb. 16. While just a few single tickets are still available for purchase, the show’s producers are continuing their policy of holding a daily online lottery, selling 40 seats for each performance to the lucky few for a “Hamilton” – a $10 bill.
By most measures, Hamilton has become one of the most acclaimed shows ever on Broadway. It received 16 Tony Award nominations – a record number – and won 11, just one short of the total logged by 2001’s The Producers. Hamilton won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.
Miranda was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in September 2015, a month after Hamilton opened on Broadway, and in a precedent-setting rule bend, the show itself received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2018, normally given to individual performing artists for their lifetime achievement.
The MacArthur grant comes with a no-strings-attached $650,000. That was no doubt welcomed by Miranda, but it is chump change compared to his royalties from writing Hamilton. In its first year on Broadway, long before there were multiple companies of the show, both sit-down productions and tours, The New York Times estimated that Miranda pocketed $6.4 million, a figure that has increased exponentially since then.
Like his earlier musical In the Heights, Hamilton’s score is largely hip-hop. That makes sense for a contemporary tale of a Hispanic community in Washington Heights, but for a story about our Founding Fathers? With his tongue only partially in his cheek, Miranda calls hip-hop “the language of revolution and of Alexander Hamilton.”
Perhaps, but it is true that musical theater is lyric-driven, with the words being more important than the music, driving the story. And hip-hop, more than rock or jazz, gives preference to its lyrics, packing in more words per song than a conventional musical can.
So Miranda approached Chernow about adapting his biography into a hip-hop musical and the author claimed to be intrigued by the idea while conceding that he was probably the world’s “biggest hip-hop ignoramus.” He has since become the biggest defender of the use of hip-hop to tell Hamilton’s story.
As Chernow put it, “The idea of middle-aged men sitting around discussing politics in 1776 conjures up remote, musty figures in our minds. But these gloriously talented, young, ethnically diverse performers have made the Founding Fathers seem approachable – bringing them to life.”
In fact, there was no less diverse a group than the all-white so-called Founding Fathers. Yet Miranda and his frequent collaborator, director Thomas Kail, made a point of casting the show with men and woman of color. Why? For starters, they felt that people of color and Latinos were more adept at performing hip-hop. But more importantly, it was an effort to take those men off their pedestals and to allow a young, diverse audience to see themselves in these figures from history.
So Miranda began writing, after enlisting Chernow’s assistance, asking him to be the show’s historical adviser – its accuracy police officer. And he invited Chernow to attend the first public exposure of the new score at the White House, which held An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word on March 12, 2009. Frankly, the organizers of the event expected Miranda to perform a few numbers from In the Heights, but instead they got an early version of the eponymous opening number from Hamilton.
Miranda’s announcement that evening that he was writing a show about a man he felt embodied the spirit of hip-hop – Alexander Hamilton – elicited laughter from the White House crowd. But his rendering of the musical number turned that audience into believers and, of course, it is Miranda who has gotten the last laugh.
Envisioning the show’s staging as he wrote, Miranda patterned Hamilton after Les Miserables, the first Broadway show he ever saw, the musical that he has long acknowledged got him thinking about writing musicals. Hamilton has a similar epic sweep and a nearly all-sung quality like Les Miz. Perhaps as important, it was written to be staged with the cinematic sweep of a revolving stage – actually two concentric revolving stages – similar to Les Miserables.
When Hamilton was ready for production, its producers felt it was important to premiere the show off-Broadway. They set their sights on The Public Theatre, intentionally mirroring the trajectory – and they hoped the success – of A Chorus Line.
So Miranda went to the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis and played him some of this curious show’s score. Eustis not only embraced what he heard, he quickly booked the show for his 2014-2015 season, a year off in the future. That was something of a leap of faith, since the second act had not been written yet.
Hamilton opened in the Public’s 290-seat Newman Theatre on Feb. 17, 2015, to ecstatic reviews. Tickets to the show became much sought after, yet the commitment to a low-priced lottery option was instituted from the start. (For the Kravis engagement, go to hamiltonmusical.com/lottery or download the Hamilton app, available at the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.)
After the Public’s run, the show went back into rehearsals for further tweaking and tightening. That summer it moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, opening on Aug. 6, 2015, to even more enthusiastic acclaim. There it continues, with no end in sight. The national tour is booked through 2021 and there are currently open-ended productions playing in Chicago, San Francisco and London, with a Sydney, Australia, company slated to open in March of next year.
That profusion of productions will eventually be dwarfed when Hamilton is released to be licensed to stock and amateur companies in the future. That will probably be handled by the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which licensed In the Heights. Its president, Ted Chapin, asserts that Hamilton will almost certainly be the most performed show in the country when those rights are released. He estimates that there will be between 600-700 student productions in the United States in any given year.
So see it now at the Kravis or see it later at a regional theater or a high school, but seeing Hamilton will be all but unavoidable.
HAMILTON, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. From Tuesday, Jan. 28, to Sunday, Feb. 16. $67.50 – $407.50, with limited availability. A $10 online lottery daily. 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.