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Hamilton. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The biggest and, in some ways, most unlikely theatrical phenomenon in a generation, the musical about Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Founding Fathers of the United States, has smashed past low bars like “Broadway hit.”
After a buzzy Off Broadway premiere at New York’s Public Theater in early 2015, the hip-hop– and pop-flavored take on American history, written by certifiable genius Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) to be performed by actors of color in modern vernacular, transferred to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre that summer.
RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Hamilton Chicago
By the time the Broadway reviews hit, tickets had become all but impossible to get, unless your name was Oprah, Beyoncé or Obama (all of whom attended). Miranda was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, while the show made stars of Leslie Odom Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry and Daveed Diggs, now all Tony winners. This summer, Hillary Clinton quoted the show in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President: “Though ‘we may not live to see the glory,’ as the song from the musical Hamilton goes, ‘let us gladly join the fight,’” Clinton told the crowd in Philadelphia, lifting from the Act I song “The Story of Tonight.”
Now, as 2016’s unpredictable presidential race revs into high gear, Miranda and the show’s creative team prepare to open a second production of Hamilton in Chicago, with an entirely new cast. In this high-stakes election season, the show’s 200-year-old themes about the birth of a nation feel improbably resonant.
“The thing that is so funny about the show is that it is about the themes and the contradictions inherent in the founding of our country, and those don’t ever go away,” Miranda says on the phone a few days before Clinton’s DNC speech.
Miranda, who won two Tony Awards for Hamilton in June—Best Score and Best Book—was also nominated for Best Actor in a Musical for his turn in the title role. (His castmate Odom won for the colead role of Aaron Burr, who serves as Hamilton’s nemesis and the show’s narrator.) He left the Broadway cast in early July; when we speak, he’s on a well-deserved vacation with his family, including his nearly two-year-old son, Sebastian, who wants to answer some of my questions himself.
Photograph: Tawni Bannister
People would say the same thing about Hamilton’s election-year resonance in 2012 as they would in 2020, Miranda thinks. “Because the things we fight about as a country, they’re just our things. It’s like when you fight with members of your family; you’re not having a new fight with your brother or sister. You’re having variations on the same fight you’ve been having since you were 8 and 10 years old, right?”
Those fights, as Miranda enumerates them, do sound like never-ending ones: federalism versus states’ rights; the legacy of slavery versus how it reverberates. “The notion of finances, of who pays your taxes, of how involved are we in the affairs of other countries—for them the French Revolution, for us: Name a country.
“And the notion of immigrant having both incredibly positive and negative connotations in American society,” he continues. Hamilton, the show, was famously inspired by Miranda’s reading of Ron Chernow’s hefty biography of the man who became the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury but began life as an impoverished kid propelled from the Caribbean to New York City on the strength of his striving and smarts; Miranda saw a hip-hop narrative.
As the Burr character asks in the show’s opening lines, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a / Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence / Impoverished, in squalor/ Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” But the show also depicts another side to the idea that Hamilton “Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”
“We love the up-from-the-bootstraps narrative, but there’s always a point in which it will be used against us, to arouse suspicion,” says Miranda. “Those are all things that happened to Hamilton before they happened to anyone who’s alive today.”
Photograph: Tawni Bannister
The musical lived in close proximity to modern politics since before it was really a show. Invited to perform at the White House as part of an evening of spoken word and music back in the first year of President Obama’s first term, Miranda rapped those opening lines of what became the show’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton.” As can be seen in the YouTube video that’s now been viewed nearly 3 million times, Miranda described the nascent project then not as a musical but as a mixtape.
“The White House song was remarkable and incredibly stimulating and impressive, but it was just this one song,” says director Thomas Kail, Miranda’s collaborator on both In the Heights and Hamilton. “So the fact that anything would come after it wasn’t proven. It was just a stand-alone thing that I thought he did beautifully.”
It was two years later, when Miranda presented a second song in front of an audience at the small NYC theater Ars Nova in June of 2011, that Kail saw stage potential.
“When he wrote the second song, what became ‘My Shot,’ and I was actually in the room watching the song interact with an audience live, that’s when I knew. It was relatively immediate,” says Kail. “We had a conversation that night at this little gathering afterward where everybody was, you know, patting him on the back and plying him with snacks, and that’s when I said to him, ‘Great, let’s get going. We’re relatively young now, but we’re going to be pretty old if you keep up this pace.’”
Five years later, Miranda, Kail and their other collaborators, including music director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, are tasked with capturing lightning in a second bottle for the Chicago company, which sold out most of its initial six-month block of tickets long before any casting was announced. But there’s more than just that massive advance and the Broadway production’s 11 Tony wins (one shy of The Producers’ record of 12) setting the sky-high expectations for Chicago’s Hamilton.
The show has a huge and hugely loyal base of fans who’ve never seen it. They’re fueled in part by the hit cast album, produced by the Roots; its October 2015 launch was the highest debut by a cast recording on the Billboard 200 chart in more than 50 years, and it also became the first-ever cast album to reach No. 1 on the rap chart.
And then there’s Hamilton’s expert social media presence, led by Miranda’s prolific tweeting to his nearly 780,000 followers. For In the Heights’ 2007 Off Broadway debut and 2008 Broadway bow, Miranda had gained permission from his producers to make YouTube videos promoting the show to nontraditional audiences. With Hamilton, on the other hand, potential fans got to follow Miranda through the entire creation of the show. “I kind of got addicted to Twitter while I was working on Hamilton. And that has provided a weird way in for a lot of people. I find that’s an interesting substitute for coffee when my stomach hurts, to have the dopamine of interacting with people in real time while I was working to unlock the thing that was very hard to unlock.”
Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the original Broadway cast of Hamilton
Photograph: Joan Marcus
That generous openness found another online outlet after Hamilton opened on Broadway, when Miranda began putting together eclectic street performances for the fans waiting in line for the show’s daily $10 ticket lottery. Dubbed the #Ham4Ham Show, the preemptive consolation prize for dedicated lottery entrants became a treat in its own right on YouTube; with frequent guest appearances by stars from other shows, #Ham4Ham became a homegrown marketing campaign for Broadway as a whole. (Expect a version of it in Chicago as well.)
Thus, Hamilton has developed a community of deeply invested fans who’ve yet to set foot in the theater. “What’s wonderful about most Hamilton fans is they fall in love with the show the same way I used to fall in love with shows; it’s the cast album,” says Miranda, recalling rifling through his parents’ collection of Broadway records as a kid. “I can’t tell you how many hilarious Tumblr posts I’ve seen of, like, ‘Hamilton as I picture it in my head since I haven’t seen the show.’ People imagine the show, and I love that because I think Hamilton is gonna be around hopefully long enough for most people to get a chance to see it. But also, I’ve never seen a production of Camelot, but I can tell you the version in my head, and it’s incredible.”
Those who do get in to Hamilton in Chicago will see a cast that includes Tony winner Karen Olivo and two-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry, alongside a raft of lesser-known actors, such as Miguel Cervantes in the title role.
“It’s a really thrilling mix of people you know and people you don’t who we think are stars. Which was kind of how we felt about our Broadway cast—there were names you’d recognize and names you’d never heard of that you know now because of the success of the show,” says Miranda. “I’m confident that’s going to happen again in Chicago.”