Hollywood Flashback: In 2008, a Beach Read Led to the Creation of 'Hamilton'

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Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by a 2004 biography, which soon led to a viral White House video performance and ultimately what could be the "best musical of our generation."

Hamilton — the musical phenomenon set to premiere July 3 on Disney+ — began, humbly enough, in a hammock. That's where Lin-Manuel Miranda was lounging on a 2008 jaunt to Mexico, engrossed in Ron Chernow's 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton.

Sensing that the story of the first treasury secretary would lend itself to a musical, Miranda, then 28, started work on "The Hamilton Mixtape" — a loose collection of hip-hop verses and melodies. The project only came to life, however, in the White House. In May 2009, then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama invited Miranda over for "An Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word," requesting that he perform a number from his Tony-nominated musical In the Heights. Miranda accepted the invitation, but decided instead to debut a "Mixtape" song — what would later be known as "Alexander Hamilton," the show's explosive opener. The performance went viral on YouTube, notching more than 7 million views to date.

In 2011, Jeremy McCarter, a Public Theater staffer, set up a meeting between Miranda and his boss, Oskar Eustis. "When Lin came to one of the meetings in Oskar's office, he gave me a CD: demo recordings of the eight or nine songs he'd written so far for the Mixtape," McCarter recalls. "At home that night, I popped in the CD, and what I heard blew my mind: amazing dramatic storytelling in perfect pop songs. I remember when 'Helpless' ended — which was Lin singing Eliza in falsetto as well as rapping Alexander — just feeling so clearly: If he finishes this, and decides to put it onstage, it's the best musical of our generation."

The show, a retooled American origin story told by performers of color, debuted at the Public on Jan. 20, 2015. It moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre six months later, where it has since earned $650 million (until COVID-19 forced it to go dark in mid-March); won 11 Tonys, a Pulitzer and a Grammy; and launched touring versions worldwide. Disney paid $75 million for the live capture, shot in 2016 for $10 million, and slated it for a 2021 theatrical release.

The nationwide shutdown of movie theaters indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic led Disney to switch gears and bring Hamilton to the public for the Fourth of July weekend instead — a rare ray of light in the summer of 2020. 

This story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.