Arts & Culture · Theater

An Immigrant Story: Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ Opens this Week

Like many people who grew up in New York City, I’ve had frequent brushes with celebrity. Some of the most illustrious personages I’ve had the privilege of knowing are fellow alumni of Hunter College High School, a test school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Managed by New York’s Board of Higher Education, it was originally all girls, but became coed the year I entered. A couple of years ahead of me was a future supreme court justice, Elena Kagan. And a couple of years behind me was multi-Emmy-winning actress Cynthia Nixon. One of the most talked about Hunter alumni these days is a writer, musician and actor named Lin-Manuel Miranda. I didn’t know Lin-Manuel; I never even passed him in the halls.

You see, he was born the year I graduated.

I bring this up because (a) I’m rather proud of my several degrees of separation from Mr. Miranda and (b) his achievement at such a young age is rather a wondrous thing. At just 35, Miranda has become the toast of this year’s Broadway season, and tickets to his new musical, Hamilton, which opens this week at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, are the hottest ones in town.

Despite his comparative youth, Miranda is no stranger to the Great White Way. In the Heights, which he wrote much of as a student at Wesleyan and for which he received the Tony for best musical, ran for three years. It was while he was taking a vacation from that first show that he picked up a copy of Alexander Hamilton, the 800-plus-page biography by Ron Chernow. (Suffice it to say, I’m impressed by his idea of leisure reading.)

His immediate reaction was exactly what mine would have been: “This is a hip hop story.”

All right, not exactly.

But Miranda did see the subject’s theatrical potential. With some quick research, he confirmed that no one else had written a musical about the gentleman most of us know only as the figure on our 10-dollar bill. So, he began what he called his “Hamilton Mixtape” project. He realized that Alexander Hamilton’s unlikely rise to influence was very much an immigrant’s story. And as such, could be retold in the vernacular of today’s Latin American and Caribbean immigrants: rap and hip hop.

In 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to take part in a celebration of the Spoken Word. There, for the president and his family, he performed the opening number from what would eventually become Hamilton. Rapping as Aaron Burr, he recounted Alexander’s childhood in the West Indies (illegitimate, poor and eventually orphaned), his fortuitous trip to New York to attend college, his role in the American Revolution, and eventual founding of the Banks of New York and of the United States. Hamilton was one of the most vocal, prolific and apparently tireless of our founding fathers, authoring 51 of the 85 installments of The Federalist Papers. And, in an inspired nod to a great theatrical tradition, narrator Burr (like Othello’s Iago or Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar) has to admit, “I’m the damn fool who shot him.”

After his success at the White House, Miranda continued to work on Hamilton in between other projects, like the music and lyrics for Broadway’s Bring it On, frequent television guest appearances, and fatherhood. The show was finally ready to workshop in 2013, and it opened off-Broadway earlier this year.

I can assure you, it was worth the wait.

Critical and audience reaction to Hamilton was a universal rave. Tickets became hot commodities as a parade of public figures made their way to the Public Theater. The New Yorker, not a publication that has ever suffered fools gladly, effused, “The show is an achievement of historical and cultural reimagining.” It praised Miranda’s eclectic, virtuosic score, “Rooted in hip hop, but also encompassing R&B, jazz, pop, Tin Pan Alley, and the choral strains of contemporary Broadway.”

Off-Broadway’s Hamilton received several major honors, including the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, the Obie for Best New American Theatre Work, and the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical (beating out all new musicals both on- and off-Broadway). With its move to Broadway, Hamilton is expected to sweep the musical categories at the Tony Awards next spring.

Next Page: ‘Hamilton’ lives up to all its hype.

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  • Chris L. August 4, 2015 at 9:03 am

    In that first performance at the White House, Miranda said he was working on a rap mixtape album abt Hamilton, and I started looking/waiting for that. What it’s morphed into is amazing, and so is Alex’ remarkable tribute here.

  • Andrea August 4, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Wonderful review of a brilliant show! It will be playing for years I’m sure! It’s a must see!!