PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With In the Heights and Hamilton Mixtape Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda
By Robert Simonson
January 7, 2012
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist of In the Heights, has borrowed from the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton for a new hip-hop-flavored musical song cycle.
For those hybrid musical fans/American history buffs who have been suffering from withdrawal ever since Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson closed, relief is on the way. On Jan. 11, as part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series, In the Heights creator and composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda is offering the premiere presentation (he calls it a "rough draft") of his new song cycle, The Hamilton Mixtape. The subject is Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the co-author of "The Federalist Papers," the first Secretary of the Treasury, the architect of America's financial system and the victim of the most famous duel in U.S. history. Miranda talked to Playbill.com about Hamilton journey's from the $10 bill to the stage.
A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton. How did this come about?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: All I knew about Hamilton before reading Ron Chernow's book "Alexander Hamilton" is he was on the $10 bill, he died in a duel and that his eldest son died in a duel two years before. I had written a paper on it in high school. I was taking my first vacation from In the Heights, in 2008. I went to Borders and picked up a big fat book to read. I had that rare experience that, as I was reading it, songs were popping out to me. It's an incredible book, but it's also an incredible life. It seemed more right for a hip-hop treatment than anything I've ever read. These Founding Fathers, their wars of words, sort of created our nation.
What is it about Hamilton's life that lends it so naturally to hip-hop?
LMM: There's the rags-to-riches [angle] that is very much the "American Dream." He was an immigrant who came to this country. At the very beginning, words were the most important thing to him. He wrote a poem about a hurricane that destroyed the island [in the Caribbean] where he lived. The poem was published and people raised money for this kid to go to the mainland and get a scholarship. He literally wrote his way out of his circumstances. He went to King's College — now Columbia University — and immediately got into the revolutionary spirit.
He seems to be the one Founding Father that hasn't been rediscovered in recent years.
LMM: It's really true. I think a lot of that was because the other Founding Fathers outlived him and the other Founding Fathers hated him.
He created a lot of enemies in his time.
LMM: Jefferson, Adams, Madison wrote the Federalist Papers with him, and then switched sides as Hamilton became very pro-Central Government. They all outlived him and were able to write lots of things that sullied his reputation. Basically, there's a whole other story to Hamilton that happens after he dies.
The financial system that we are still dealing with today is a system that he largely set up.
LMM: Yeah. Absolutely. For better or worse, Hamilton created the United States by creating a central bank and assuming the debt of all of the different states, tying us up together financially. But that also created system that still exists on Wall Street. By saying, "We'll act out of self-interest, and we can harness that power of self-interest to bring us together," he was very smart. But also very wicked, according to Jefferson.
You performed part of this new piece for President Obama at The White House in 2009?
LMM: The song I performed was the only song I had written up to that point. It summarizes the first 17 years of Hamilton's life. The White House called. They were doing an evening of spoken word, poetry and music. They asked if I had anything about America.
And boy did you ever.
LMM: Boy did I ever!! It was my first time singing it in public. That took on a life of its own when that video went online. It's used in classrooms, I hear, all the time. Obama stood up at the end of the song, which is the greatest thing that's ever happened in my life. George Stephanopoulos was there. He told me he heard Obama say on the way out, "[Secretary of the Treasury Timothy] Geithner's gotta hear this!"
Who are your collaborators on this?
LMM: It's been me and a bunch of history books for the past three years. I'm writing songs. I'm thinking of this as a concept album. If someone figures out how to stage this, great. For the concert, I have some great collaborators. Tommy Kail [In the Heights, Lombardi] is directing. He really spurred me to do the concert. He said, "You should be working on this more. There's no reason why you shouldn't be writing a song a day." [For the American Songbook appearance], I am joined by Gavin Creel, Mandy Gonzalez, Chris Jackson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Moeisha McGill, Jon Rua, Chris "Shockwave" Sullivan, Rebecca Naomi Jones and James Iglehart. It's a rough draft of what I've got so far. Chronologically, I'm up to Maria Reynolds and the affair. I'm also going to be doing some hip-hop covers that were real important to me growing up.