"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?”
With that single, run-on question, opens Hamilton, the improbable Broadway smash about Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, which begins its run in London next month.
Since it opened in 2015, it has elicited nothing but rapture from critics and audiences. The New York Times critic, Ben Brantley, said: “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show, but Hamilton… might just about be worth it.”
First New Yorkers scrambled for seats, identifying with the story of Hamilton the self-made striver. They loved the show’s celebration of the city: “In New York, you can be a new man.” And Hamilton’s own bristling defiance: “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot.”
But perhaps the real miracle was the contrast between the characters, venerated figures of American history, and the musical energy of their story told in rap and R&B. As if Dizzee Rascal and Adele had written a musical about Lord North and the Marquess of Lansdowne arguing over the Cabinet table.
Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew up on the northern tip of Manhattan in a Latino community. His father had come to the city from Puerto Rico as a student. A precociously talented lyricist and song-writer, he was inspired by seeing what he called the “holy Trinity” as a child: Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Cats. He wrote his first musical, In the Heights, about the community where he grew up. He won a Tony and a Grammy for it in 2008. He was 28.
The idea for Hamilton came to him on holiday in Mexico. Waiting for his flight, he bought Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of Hamilton.
For Miranda, as for most Americans, Hamilton was just the austere-looking man on the $10 note. He lurked in the shadows of America’s early years, a figure half-hidden by better-known men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. As he lounged around learning about Hamilton — his birth out of wedlock in St Croix in the Virgin Islands, his arrival in New York, his work as Washington’s secretary and adviser during America’s war for independence, his extra-marital affairs and his death in a duel with Vice President Burr — lyrics kept coming.
The cold figure on the $10 bill was anything but bloodless. Miranda saw in Hamilton the equal of all the talented, sharp-elbowed hustlers celebrated through American history and culture, right up to the present. ‘‘The idea of hip-hop being the music of the Revolution appealed to me immensely,” he said. “It felt right.”
Miranda received early and prominent support for his hunch. In 2009 he was invited by the Obamas, a few months after they arrived at the White House, to perform in an evening celebrating “the American experience”. The White House expected him to do a number from In the Heights. Instead he offered a new song he had written, that would turn out to be the opening song of Hamilton. The audience laughed when he told them that in his opinion, Hamilton “embodies hip-hop.” But by the end they were sold.
Not many Broadway composers could claim to have been inspired in equal measure by Shakespeare, the Bible and rappers Big Pun and Biggie Smalls.
When the musical opened in 2015, the Obamas became its biggest champions. Michelle Obama invited the cast to the White House and called Hamilton “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life”. Her husband said it had taught him that “rap is the language of revolution and hip-hop is the backbeat”. He recorded a video in the Rose Garden where he held up words such as “constitution” as Miranda rapped along.
Chernow said, “From the beginning I’ve really felt like this show has had ‘Obama’s America’ written all over it.” The cast is mostly black and Latino, even those playing white characters. George Washington in the original production was black and Thomas Jefferson has an evil Southern drawl.
Critics compared Hamilton with Shakespeare’s historical plays, saying Miranda had found a new way to tell America its own story. Politicians from left and right came to New York to see the show, loving how Miranda had taken the dry text of Cabinet meetings about government debt and turned them into rap contests, with supporters cheering and jeering both sides.
Then, once Donald Trump was elected in late 2016, Hamilton became a beacon for Obama nostalgists. The historian Niall Ferguson asked if Trump’s election was a “vote against Hamilton”. Shortly after the election, Vice President Mike Pence went to see the show with his family. At the end a member of the cast delivered a message to Pence, written by Miranda. It said: “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new Administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that his show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Pence seemed unflustered. But the next morning Trump tweeted: “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologise to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”
Trump’s opinion hasn’t hurt box office. In New York alone, ticket sales are more than £1.5 million a week, and the show is only just beginning its international rollout. Its investors expect it will one day rival the biggest musical hits of all time, The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera, each of which have earned close to £5 billion worldwide.
Miranda’s career has also flourished. He wrote music for the Disney hit Moana, will star in next year’s Mary Poppins Returns, and is developing a cable series.
One of the big themes of Hamilton is who controls history. Hamilton was loathed by the first few Presidents after Washington, and his role minimized. More than two centuries on, Miranda has put his “bastard orphan, son of a whore” on a far more elevated pedestal than any of them.