Lin-Manuel Miranda: “It was a no-brainer to take hip-hop into theatre”
In a world turned upside down Hamilton is bringing blockbusting, world-shaking theatre and life-affirming spirit into our homes. Lin-Manuel Miranda tells Jane Graham how to rise up when history has its eye on you
In early May new subscription TV channel Disney+ announced that it would bring the long-awaitedHamiltonmovie to its 55 million+ subscribers on July 3. As the original date for the film – a live recording filmed in Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre in 2016 – had been autumn next year, this sent the worldwideHamiltonfanbase into a frenzy of excitement.
But it’s not just devotees of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s landmark musical who will welcome the early release. It would have been one of the cultural events of the year anyway, but what serendipity that this virtuoso, powerful play, in which an almost exclusively non-white cast portrays the life of a white founding father, should arrive in living rooms just as the Black Lives Matter movement is sparking an international #MeToo-style revolution. As Miranda’s Hamilton puts it:
“I’m joining the rebellion ’cause I know it’s my chance / To socially advance, instead of sewin’ some pants…
But we’ll never be truly free / Until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.”
(Note too that the show which inspired an audience to boo Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence when he attended a 2016 performance also provided the title of ex-national security advisor John Bolton’s explosive Trump-damning book The Room Where It Happened.)
Miranda’s masterpiece tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, “the bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman” who rose from poverty in the West Indies to become Secretary to the Treasury in the first cabinet assembled by his friend and fellow combatant in the American revolution, George Washington. Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Miranda’s blend of hip-hop, rap, and classic musical theatre, and his script’s indirect linking of the US fight for independence with its current state of racial inequality, raised profound questions about contemporary America.
The use of a multi-racial cast to depict a society still reliant on slavery but increasingly alert to the ultimate reward of liberation, as well as its stress on Hamilton’s immigrant status, made Hamilton’s impact all the more effective. As one critic put it, it’s the story of “America then, as told by America now”. Michelle Obama called it “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life” (though speaking recently about his now legendary 2009 White House performance of the opening track, Miranda said he shuddered at the “arrogance of my 28-year-old self” testing out a song “I’d only ever sung before to my wife” in front of the Obamas. At least, he reflected, he had the good grace to be “the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life”.)
After debuting on Broadway in 2015, Hamilton won (in chronological order) a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize, 11 Tony Awards, and a near-hysterical worldwide following which saw some fans pay £6,000 for an early ticket for the show’s London run. So it would have been no surprise to the Disney corporation when the news of its decision to bump up the film release saw locked-down, cooped-up Hamilfans almost break the internet with impassioned virtual fist pumps and a near pathological over-use of exclamation marks. Some tweeters began to count down the launch in minutes (OK, that was me, and at the time of writing, it’s still 10,086 to go.)
If I counted down the minutes to interviewing Miranda for The Big Issue at the end of last year, I wasn’t going to tell him that, even given his reputation as one of showbiz’s most affable, unflappable top bananas. Since the success of Hamilton, the 40-year-old New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots has written a Grammy-winning score for the Disney hit Moana, and gone on to star in a number of movies and TV shows, including Mary Poppins Returns and the BBC hit His Dark Materials. Yet when we met in a London restaurant – in a Great Portland Street building which, fittingly, was previously owned by the BBC – he didn’t appear to be recognised by any of the patrons.
Hip-hop really was in a great place in the early Nineties, so diverse, so many different genres. I’m grateful I grew up in that time
It may be this much-envied status – the unharassed millionaire genius – which has made Miranda such an ostensibly relaxed and open character. And he is modest, friendly and generous throughout our meeting, However his feverish passion for his work (just one trait he shares with Alexander Hamilton) means he becomes serious and authoritative when discussing his inventions. You can suddenly see the intense boy who began writing musicals as a young teenager: “If it was a creative project I’d stay up three nights in a row and not even blink.”
He grew up in New York listening to the cast albums of My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a favourite of his music-loving father (Luis Miranda, a Democratic Party adviser who also sparked his son’s interest in politics; his mother, Dr Luz Towns-Miranda is a clinical psychologist). Living in Inwood – “just one neighbourhood away from the South Bronx, where it all started” – he was also introduced to hip-hop by his older sister Luz. “I heard the Beastie Boys when I was eight or nine. Then A Tribe Called Quest, Dre, Biggie. Hip-hop really was in a great place in the early Nineties, so diverse, so many different genres. I’m grateful I grew up in that time, when hip-hop could be anything and tell so many different stories. So it was a no-brainer for me to take hip-hop into theatre because of course it could bring storytelling as well as music.”
It’s quite an experience to ask a brilliant auteur to describe his creative inner life. Miranda’s eyes light up; suddenly he’s talking faster than Busta Rhymes raps, while his whole body transforms from a lounging labrador to a hyper-alert meerkat. I ask about audience manipulation and he begins to explain in fascinating detail the secret of “the button” and how he exploits it in a high-impact Hamilton sequence. Pay attention, budding young Mirandas:
“The button is what we call it when a song ends and there’s a bump – the lights literally bump – and it lets you know the song is over and you can clap now. We weaponise buttons in musical theatre.
“Let me give you an example in Hamilton. You have the first cabinet battle and we let the audience applause as Jefferson leaves the stage. Then we go straight into Take a Break, this big joyous song about how much Hamilton’s family love him. And we don’t let them clap. We go straight into Say No to This. So we go from hearing how much Hamilton’s wife and son and sister-in-law love him to learning about his infidelity. So now we’re feeling very complicated. And there’s no button at the end of that, so we don’t let you clap then either. We go right into The Room Where it Happens. We have two songs’ worth of energy so The Room has this blockbuster ending that we have built up for you. And the ovation for that is massive. Because for two whole songs you weren’t allowed to clap.”
He glows with pleasure describing the incandescent power a well-conceived musical can rouse, and is keen to talk more about the genesis of his script and its unique hellfire delivery (a quality which will.i.am, not too shabby a rapper himself, confessed in a Big Issue interview made him “very jealous”; “I was like, wait a second… they still rapping. They haven’t stopped rapping! They ain’t having no talk, there ain’t no freakin’… they haven’t taken a breath! Everything is so perfect, from top to bottom, from beginning to end. Every line was complementary to the next line, the whole story was in rhyme. I was like, what the Fu..!”).
For Miranda, the rabid enunciation that impressed will.i.am so much began with a conscious denial about what he was actually writing.
“That polysyllabic rhyming I use all the way through Hamilton… the way I got that was by lying to myself. This is not a show, I told myself, this is an album. So I can make this as dense as my favourite hip-hop album and not worry if the audience gets it all. If I’d been writing for the stage in my head, I’d have been constantly thinking, does everyone understand everything that’s going on? Are you alright? But with Hamilton, we just start the story and get on with it. And that’s become the secret of why people go back again and again. They want to catch things they maybe didn’t get the first time.
“There’s also a lot of repetition because that’s what all my favourite musicals do. When Valjean sings ‘Now you are here’ (in Les Misérables) that breaks a heart because we saw him bedside with Fantine when she sang it in Act 1 and now it’s his turn. The right reprise at the right time can break your heart. I would say, if Hamilton has grandparents they’re Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables and Gypsy. Hamilton’s a tornado. Everyone’s either with him or against him, or changing their minds. It’s his character, rather than the community, which commands the story.”
Armed with this new insight, it was with different eyes and ears that I watched Hamilton at the Victoria Theatre in London for the second time this year. And when it arrives on television on July 3 how I, and millions of others, will relish the chance to see in close-up, and watch over and over again, the story of the bastard orphan immigrant who, more than 200 years after his death, became a global icon. Now, more than ever, does Miranda’s prophecy for the legacy of Alexander Hamilton ring true.