One night in the spring of 2009 American lyricist, composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda climbed onto a temporary stage in the East Room of the White House. He was supposed to be entertaining newly inaugurated President Barack Obama, wife Michelle and their guests with a song from his Tony Award-winning musical, In The Heights. But Miranda was bolder than that. Instead of singing a familiar crowd-pleaser he had something more experimental in mind.
American lyricist, composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda performs a number from Hamilton at the Grammys in 2016
‘I’m actually working on a hip-hop album, a concept album, about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop,’ he told them, before naming his subject: ‘Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.’
There was a ripple of amused applause. In footage released by the White House (and available on YouTube) the President can be seen smiling beneath an index finger placed quizzically over his mouth. Michelle Obama is giggling openly. Clearly, Miranda had to be joking. Alexander Hamilton was a founding father of the United States and his face is still on the back of the country’s $10 bill. He was an aide-de-camp to George Washington and the architect of the nation’s fiscal system. He was a white man in a powdered wig and dandy breeches born in 1755 and killed in a duel in 1804. How could he embody hip-hop, the music of young, black urban America that didn’t emerge till the Seventies?
The assembled company waited for Miranda’s punchline but no, he was serious. In a dark suit and a crisp white shirt, cuff links twinkling at his wrists, he began to rap about Hamilton’s 18th-century hustle from poverty and low birth into the history books…
Lin-Manuel Miranda, centre, as Alexander Hamilton, with the original US cast
Bryan D’Arcy James as King George III. The splendidly pompadoured king serenades his former colony with the number You’ll Be Back
‘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?
‘The ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder/By being a lot smarter/By being a self-starter/By 14 they placed him in charge of a trading charter…’
VETERANS AND ROOKIES
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s title role will be taken by Jamael Westman. The towering 6ft 4in Londoner, 25, is fresh out of Rada last year and won the role after a rumoured five auditions.
Olivier Award-nominated actor Michael Jibson, 36, will don King George’s wig for the West End run.
The Hull-born actor is a familiar face to theatre-goers across the UK. He has also enjoyed small parts in major movies such as last year’s Beauty And The Beast and the film version of Les Misérables.
The part of Aaron Burr will be taken by Londoner Giles Terera, a 40-year-old West End veteran most recently appearing in the The Book Of Mormon.
Rachelle Ann Go, a mainstay of musical theatre, will play Alexander Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler.
Eliza’s love rival, Hamilton’s mistress Maria Reynolds, is to be played by Christine Allado, 26, a Filipino singer who left Manila to train at London’s Royal Academy of Music.
Miranda’s face was alive with the possibility of the evening, his voice powerful, his only accompaniment a piano for the four-minute performance. At the end of the song, the first man on his feet to lead the standing ovation was the new President himself.
Six years later, what started that night as Miranda’s ‘Hamilton Mixtape’ opened on Broadway as an utterly audacious hip-hop musical about the immigrant experience and the birth of America.
That was in 2015. By 2016 ticket sales had passed the $100 million mark and Hamilton had become a cultural phenomenon percolating into everyday life from music to fashion to politics to classrooms. It was the smartest, most unobtainable ticket in town, had won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as a Grammy and 11 Tony Awards. Seats were being touted for as much as $10,000.
The show is to begin a London run in December, and there has been a stampede for seats at the newly refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre. Some tickets are rumoured to have already changed hands for up to £2,500 apiece, such is the excitement surrounding the biggest West End opening of the year.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who is bringing Hamilton to the UK, is confident it will all translate for a British audience. ‘I didn’t feel it was any more American than Les Misérables is Parisian,’ he says. ‘It feels entirely contemporary. You realise that nothing much has changed – a bunch of American politicians fighting to create a country are not so very different from a bunch of American politicians fighting to run it now, or indeed our own British politicians.’
Yet the genesis of Hamilton predates the current global controversy about immigration, stoked in the US by the presidency of Donald Trump and by Britain’s Brexit vote. In fact it began back in 2008, when Miranda picked up historian Ron Chernow’s definitive 800-page biography of the founding father at an airport bookshop to read on holiday in Mexico. There’s a now famous picture of the composer lying in his hammock with his head buried between the book’s covers.
‘That biography is incredible,’ Miranda says. ‘It out-Dickenses Charles Dickens, the improbability of where this guy started from and where he got to. He was someone who, on the strength of his words and ideas, pulled himself from unbelievably humble circumstances to the top of the nation.
‘The second Hamilton writes a poem to get himself off the island, I was like, “Well, that’s very hip-hop.” To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances, verse that’s about how terrible your circumstances are. I mean, that’s everyone from Jay-Z and Marcy [Marcy Houses in Brooklyn, where Jay-Z grew up] to Lil Wayne writing about Hurricane Katrina. He transcends the struggle, and if you look at your favourite rapper, that’s most likely what they did.’
Miranda himself comes from a comfortable background in north Manhattan – though he is only one generation away from the hardship faced by many Hispanic immigrants. His father arrived speaking no English as a teenager from Puerto Rico, eventually rising to become a political consultant to New York Mayor Ed Koch. His mother, also originally from Puerto Rico, is a psychologist. He still lives in his native city, married to his long-time love Vanessa, a corporate lawyer, with whom he has a toddler son, Sebastian.
THE PIONEERING PRODIGY WHO PERISHED IN A DUEL
Alexander Hamilton was one of the seven founding fathers who led the American Revolution against the British. He envisioned a strong federal government backed by a powerful army and funded by a capitalist economy.
He was a brilliant writer and thinker, the author of 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, the essays that promoted the country’s new constitution, and played a pivotal role in the presidencies of first George Washington and then his successor John Adams.
Hamilton died in a gun duel with his political rival vice president Aaron Burr in July 1804
Although he rose to become US Treasury Secretary, he had arrived in America as an impoverished immigrant from the island of St Croix in the Caribbean.
There he had been born into squalor to a half-British, half-French mother Rachel Faucette and her long-term lover, Scottish aristocrat James Hamilton, who walked out when his son was ten.
Two years later Rachel died, leaving her son with so little that a local judge had to buy him funeral shoes. He was taken in by a wealthy merchant and won a job for a New York trading company.
A devastating hurricane in August 1772 changed the course of his life. A letter Hamilton wrote describing it as a divine rebuke to man made him a sensation and encouraged local businessmen to fund a one-way passage to Boston so he could secure a formal education.
Hamilton went to university but swiftly found himself on the battlefield, where he distinguished himself as Washington’s aide-de-camp. In peacetime the two men built the country they’d fought to free but Hamilton’s quick temper and stubbornness made him unpopular.
Hamilton became a father of eight, had a wife, Eliza, and a very public mistress. He died in a gun duel with his political rival vice president Aaron Burr in July 1804.
He has been a musical polyglot since boyhood, as fluent in salsa, R&B and the Broadway tradition as he is in the hip-hop genre that has now made both his name and his fortune.
So, for example, his early scene-setting song, My Shot, which establishes Hamilton’s brilliance and ambition, draws on Going Back To Cali by The Notorious BIG, the Rogers and Hammerstein classic You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught from South Pacific and, finally, a little bit of Busta Rhymes.
But Miranda is equally capable of fashioning a Beatles-inspired, ultra-British pop song to be played on a harpsichord and performed by King George III, the monarch who lost America to revolution and independence. The splendidly pompadoured king serenades his former colony with You’ll Be Back: ‘When push comes to shove I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.’
Jonathan Groff, who played King George on Broadway, has described it as ‘a break-up song between America and England. The king’s like, ‘You’re leaving me? Oh, really? Well, good luck with that.’
Rappers such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and Eminem have all paid homage to Miranda’s hip-hop genius by turning up in the audience – as have hundreds of other stars. ‘The internet is in tonight,’ has become a standard joke backstage as A-listers including Madonna, Tom Cruise, Beyoncé and Tom Hanks have taken their seats alongside intellectuals such as Bernard-Henri Lévy and politicians from Republican Dick Cheney to the Democratic establishment of the Obamas and the Clintons.
$3.3m The amount Hamilton grossed in one eight-show week in November last year, breaking a Broadway record
16 Tony Award nominations in 2016, the most ever for one show, of which it won 11
$12.5m The cost of moving the show to Broadway, funded by a group of 100 investors
50,000 The number of people who entered an online lottery for a $10 pair of tickets on day one of the scheme
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Donald Trump has not been to see it. But he did get involved in a Twitter war with the cast after Brandon Dixon, who played vice president Aaron Burr on Broadway, addressed the then vice president-elect Mike Pence from the stage when he was in the audience. Referring to the cast’s ethnic diversity and the musical’s celebration of immigration, Dixon called on the Trump-Pence administration to ‘uphold American values’. This ambushing of a senior Trump administration politician caused a storm of controversy in the US, where Hamilton’s creation and successful run had been so closely aligned with President Obama’s time in the White House. The former president is, of course, himself the son of an immigrant.
Whether the London cast will pull a similar move on any British politicians remains to be seen. So far the drama has been limited to fan fury over a start date that has been pushed back for the most prosaic of reasons: building work at the Victoria Palace, home to Billy Elliot for the past 11 years, has over-run. Due to begin in November, previews will now take place in December.
The anticipation is building, and Miranda himself is among those who love the idea of Hamilton opening in Britain, the country whose 18th-century dominance of America gave way to the creation of a new nation, crafted by the hands of Alexander Hamilton.
‘The support we have received from our British fans has been incredible, he says. ‘I’ve been reminded of their love, which is just as our King George would want it to be.’
Riffing and rapping through America’s history
Hamilton’s lyrics owe more to today’s rap stars than the preaching of America’s founding fathers. Here are just a few excerpts from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs that show how he took key moments in history and turned them into the hip-hop musical that has wowed Broadway – and is now heading for London’s West End
James Monroe Inglehart and Thayne Jasperson on Broadway
The opening number tells the story of how the Scottish immigrant used his way with words to rise from the bottom.
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?
Well, the word got around, they said, this kid is insane, man
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came
And the world is gonna know your name
What’s your name, man? Alexander Hamilton
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton bonds with fellow revolutionaries John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan and dazzles them with his dreams for a new America
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!…
I’m a diamond in the rough
A shiny piece of coal
Trying to reach my goal. My power of
Only 19 but my mind is older’
You’ll Be Back
A message arrives from King George III reminding the colonists that he is able and willing to fight for their submission
Oceans rise, empires fall
‘We have seen each other through it all
‘And when push comes to shove
‘I will send a fully armed battalion to
remind you of my love!’
How to get tickets
Hamilton tickets for the first booking period – performances from December up to and including June 30 next year – are already sold out. However, there will be daily lottery tickets – available only in person prior to each performance – costing £20 with a limit of two per person. There will also be weekly lottery tickets – sold online for performances on the following week – costing £37.50, also with a limit of two per person. There is expected to be a second booking period, due to be announced shortly. Look out for it on the show’s official website or its Twitter account and Facebook page. For more details go to hamiltonthemusical.co.uk