'Hamilton': Lin-Manuel Miranda, Questlove, Black Thought on the Runaway Broadway Hit, Its Political Relevance and Super-Fan Barack Obama
The show's creator and cast album's producers talk race in the Obama era, the Founding Fathers' views on slavery, how Donald Trump's immigration comments are playing to Broadway audiences and what it means that hip-hop is now oldies music.
Six years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda was invited to perform during an evening of song and poetry at the White House. The writer, composer and performer was fresh off of a Tony Award win for In the Heights, his debut hip-hop- and salsa-inflected coming-of-age musical about life in the working-class Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. But instead of doing something from that show, he debuted a rap about Alexander Hamilton, inspired by Ron Chernow’s landmark biography. Miranda introduced the number by saying that the life of the orphaned, immigrant, obsessively verbal Hamilton “embodies hip-hop,” pointing to the fact that he “caught beef” with every other Founding Father. The room chuckled at first, but by about four bars in, it was clear that Miranda had channeled something both completely new and utterly classic. The song was a masterpiece in miniature. A cutaway camera caught President Barack Obama smiling and nodding his head to the beat.
Six years later, that song has become Hamilton on Broadway. The two-act musical, written by and starring Miranda, opens with that same tune, nearly unchanged, now performed by a dazzling cast almost entirely made up of performers of color in period costume. The show is, from start to finish, a revelation, easily the most celebrated and anticipated new musical in a generation. It is destined to immediately enter the canon of American theater, indeed of American art, cannily revealing how much — and how little — has changed in America since its founding, from political campaigning to debates on immigration to the role of the United States abroad.
During its sold-out run at the Public Theater, it attracted a who’s who of dignitaries and celebrities, from Bill Clinton to Julia Roberts, and inspired rapturous reviews that recall nothing so much as the way many Americans reacted to Obama when he first burst on the scene: There has never been anything like this, and nothing will ever be the same again. In its first weekend of previews, the president completed the circle by taking his daughters to see a Saturday matinee, and a few days later I sat down with Miranda, 35, whom I’ve known since we were teenagers doing high school theater together. We were joined by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots, who saw Hamilton before it came to Broadway and were so taken with it, they are producing the cast album.
While Hamilton already has sold $30 million of advance tickets, it was by no means a sure thing. A hip-hop-driven show starring almost entirely brown and black performers is an oddity on Broadway, not to mention a big financial risk for its investors. Even as American musical theater embraced rock’n’roll fairly early on, the largely white world of Broadway has been much slower to integrate rap into its canon. During our conversation, we talked about race in the Obama era, the Founding Fathers’ views on slavery, how Donald Trump’s immigration comments are playing to Broadway audiences and what it means that hip-hop is now oldies music.
When did you first find out the president was going to come see the show?
Miranda: The day before our very first preview. And we were told he's coming to the Saturday matinee — but I don't do the Saturday matinee. That's when my alternate is in, and that's my first chance to see the show, so you know there was a moment of, "Do you want to go on? It's the president." But it actually gave us an opportunity to send the message to the world that the show is the star of the show and it doesn't matter if I'm on or not. The story is front and center. And I've had the good fortune to perform for him already.
Right, the first time anything from this show was performed was at the White House.
Questlove: And from what I hear, the president won't cease to let you know that: "The White House is where it began." (Laughter.)
Miranda: He claims it. That first time, when I did it at the White House for the first few minutes, everyone was like, "What's happening?" But by the end they're kind of like, "Ohhhh, we kind of like this." That has been a microcosm of the Hamilton experience. You say "rapping Founding Fathers," everyone laughs, and then the first few numbers happen and they go, "Ohhhh, this makes sense."
When the president was here the other day, did you spend the performance sneaking looks at his reaction? I would have a hard time not doing that.
Miranda: He was two rows behind me, so I kind of couldn't do it. But my director Tommy Kail said he was super attentive and soaking it in. And then when King George came out to sing his number about how hard it is to be in charge, Obama started slapping his leg. Tommy's joke was like, "Yeah, this guy's right: Running a country's hard."
You know this phrase that people use a lot: "Obama's America."
Miranda: Hashtag not my president.
Exactly. It strikes me as fitting that this started at the dawn of the Obama era. You perform it at the White House, it comes to Broadway, and then he comes to see it. The show somehow really does feel like Obama's America.
Miranda: I'll tell you the one moment where I kind of smiled to myself while he was here. There's a song in the show called "One Last Time." It's George Washington's farewell address, and we used the text of Washington's actual address. It starts spoken and then Washington begins singing — it's a straight grab of the "Yes We Can" video where they sing the speech under it. That's where we learned the technique. And so in that particular song we owe a very specific debt — and really, more to Will.i.am. [who wrote the song] than Obama — but to Obama.
I remember being in the cast of In the Heights when Obama was running in 2008 and how amazing that felt, because my parents and my parents' generation were like, "He seems really great, but our country's just not ready." And Tommy always talks about the show like there's no way this show should exist — except it does. That's kind of how we felt about Obama's presidency. There's no world in which that was going to happen — except it happened. It seems crazy, but it's real.
Obama is the first president who actually listens to hip-hop, and I was thinking about Hair, which is this iconic musical because it was rock'n'roll on Broadway. But that happened in 1967. If you were going to do the same for hip-hop, that should've happened in 1997. It's crazy to me that it has taken this long to get here.
Questlove: To be hip-hop is much more than just rapping in the production. It is more in the attitude. A couple of years ago, when the musical Fela [about Fela Kuti, which Questlove co-produced] was first out, I was amazed that something that raw, that uncut got past the guard and actually got made. And I thought, similar to Obama, "This is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Black Thought: Like Haley's Comet.
Questlove: And then along comes Hamilton. Like, dude, finally a reason to come to Broadway. First authentic hip-hop show.
There's this article I just saw about how hip-hop is now oldies music.
Questlove: It is your parents' music. Matter of fact — we are our parents!
Yes. I'm a 30-something dad, and I can quote every big hip-hop album basically between 1995 and 2001.
Black Thought: Since hip-hop began as the music of rebellious youth, even though we're now 40-plus, in our minds we're still the young people.
Miranda: There's a girl in our cast, Jasmine, who plays [Hamilton's mistress] Maria Reynolds in the show. I'll catch her singing SWV's "Weak." Or Fu-Schnickens. I'm like, "You were 2 when that came out! How do you know that?" I think there's something about that era of hip-hop that you can always kind of hook back into it.
The music of our youth just happened to be the best.
Miranda: Yes, I'm saying our era was the best. (Laughter.) They don't make them like they used to.
Questlove: It's also more accessible now because, in a snap, you can have access to every hip-hop song ever recorded. When I started hearing James Brown's stuff in hip-hop, I'd go through my dad's record collection or go to my aunt's house to listen to the originals. Whereas now, I've got the whole James Brown discography.
The second time I saw the play, I brought this girl I went to high school with. Her kids came, and now my friend is so happy that she finally found something legit that she could bond over with her daughter as far as hip-hop is concerned. Because mom's hip-hop was totally going over her daughter's head, and now her daughter's listening to Mobb Deep. They're still talking about it on my Facebook page. (Imitates a woman's voice.) "Finally I'm bonding with my daughter over Mobb Deep!"
One of the things I love about this play is we have this tendency to be ahistorical in the way we understand politics. Right now the way they're talking about the campaign is, "Oh, it's a circus." But Alexander Hamilton wrote about the woman he had sex with outside of his marriage for everyone to read. That's insane.
Black Thought: The original living out loud.
Miranda: If he was around today, he would have had his Twitter account deleted by a publicist because he would've responded to every troll.
I saw the show two nights ago, and there's a line where [French military officer] Marquis De Lafayette and Hamilton are about to basically win the Revolutionary War and they say, "Immigrants: They get the job done," and then they high five. I was bowled over by the massive audience applause for that moment.
Miranda: It gets such a huge reaction here. We added bars [to the song] at the Public because it was getting such a reaction, and now I think we're going to have to add more bars. I also think it's because immigration is at the center of our politics the way it gets every 20 years. You know: Group comes in, everyone goes, "They're taking over, they're taking our jobs." And Trump being Trump, immigrants are at the forefront of the conversation right now.
So you think Donald Trump is responsible for the magnitude of the applause?
Miranda: I think that's part of it. It's a nice reminder that our best military commander was a French immigrant who came here to fight. The guy who organized us into regiments and literally wrote the Army handbook was [Friedrich Wilhelm] Von Steuben, a German guy who came here to help. Immigrants helped us win this war and have helped us every step since.
Black Thought: This is a country of immigrants. This production is a reminder of that.
Hamilton's perspective on slavery is also really important. If in 2015 we're watching the Founding Fathers in black and brown bodies, the elephant in the room from the first moment is slavery. And then, in the opening number...
Miranda: Third line.
...In the third line — "every day, as slaves are being slaughtered" — Daveed [Diggs, as Jefferson], who delivers that line, really hits "slaughtered." That's the first indicator for the audience: We understand what this was.
Miranda: I was very conscious of it. And having the show from Hamilton's perspective is a blessing, because he was ahead of the other Founding Fathers. He grew up on Nevis and Saint Croix [in the Caribbean], which was one of the key points on the triangle [slave] trade, and so he saw the brutality. He wrote about the smell of the ships before they arrived on the island carrying slaves. So he was repulsed by the practice and got the importation of slaves banned in New York and co-founded the New York Manumission Society. So he's morally on the right side of history — in contrast to Washington, and in contrast to Jefferson.
When we meet Jefferson in the play, people are scrubbing his floors. You have to hit it and you have to hit it early and often, because this was a part of their world. We originally had a third rap battle that was about slavery.
Miranda: Yeah, that we cut, and it was sort of our homage to "Hail Mary" [by Tupac Shakur]. There was a moment when there were two Quakers from, I think it was Pennsylvania, who tried to ban the importation of slaves and brought it to the house floor. And [James] Madison let them talk about it for two days and then set a gag rule — "We're not talking about slavery until 1808" — basically saying, like, "We don't know how to solve it." They knew it was a problem. Even from the racist perspective, it was, "There's going to be more of them than us!" But no one knew what to do about it, and they all kicked it down the field. And while, yeah, Hamilton was anti-slavery and never owned slaves, between choosing his financial plan and going all in on opposition to slavery, he chose his financial plan. So it was tough to justify keeping that rap battle in the show, because none of them did enough.
Right. You don't want to have a fake moral hero.
Miranda: Right. I'm not going to say Hamilton was the anti-slavery crusader when he didn't make his life about it. His friend John Lawrence was an ardent abolitionist trying to free slaves and raise battalions of armed free slaves, and was getting shut down at every turn. And then he died. So he's the great "what if" of American history, because he would've been one of our Founding Fathers and that would've been part of the conversation. But he died in battle.
(To Black Thought.) When you first went to see Hamilton, did you know that the racial makeup of the cast would be what it was?
Black Thought: I had no idea.
How did that land for you?
Black Thought: It's something that I kind of processed after the fact. It was a complete after-thought. I was like, "Wow, yeah, that was the whole cast."
Questlove: It's so seamless and you're so entertained. For me, it wasn't until the third time the king came out when I was like, "Wait a second..."
Miranda: (Laughs.) He's the only white guy!
Questlove: The casting is a bold decision that works, that totally works. I went on a night when Lorne Michaels was in the audience and [playwright] Tracy Letts was there and I just kept looking at their faces, and they were so energetic and entertained by it. And I was like, "OK, so maybe this isn't as controversial as I thought it would be." From a hip-hop head perspective, it was thumbs up. And then I was wondering: What will a history buff say? Who's going to snark in The New Yorker and say, "You know, this is not at all an authentic portrayal"?
Fact check: Jefferson wasn't black.
Miranda: A lot of his kids were, though. (Laughter.) In terms of the casting, for a long time we were thinking about it as an album. So we were dream-casting artists and were never looking at color — we were thinking literally of voices. One of the characters that still kills me that I couldn't get in the show — the governor of New York when Hamilton was there, and an enemy of his — was named George Clinton.
Black Thought: Ha! Oh, shit.
Miranda: So I had this whole P-Funk takedown of Hamilton in my head that I never got to write. But that's just an example that it was always the voices that were guiding me in thinking of these roles. When I wrote the song "Helpless," I was writing like it was a Destiny's Child tune. That informed it. So by the time we got to the point where people were playing this onstage, [the casting] wasn't a question anymore.
When Obama came backstage during the intermission, did you lobby him to keep Hamilton on the $10 bill by himself? Were you like, "Mr. President..." (Laughter.)
Miranda: To me, the show makes the case pretty well for Hamilton staying on the money. I don't need to belabor the point. Like: This guy instead of [Andrew] Jackson? And you know what's interesting? I learned in all of the hullaballoo over the $10 bill that Hamilton actually kicked Jackson off the 10. Jackson used to be on the $10 bill and Hamilton replaced him. So I wouldn't be surprised if Hamilton gets a promotion. And then I'll change the lyrics to "the $20 Founding Father." As long as it doesn't f— up my lyric, I'm fine.
Chris Hayes hosts All In With Chris Hayes on MSNBC. He grew up in the Bronx and attended Hunter College High School with Miranda.