Photo by Annie Leibovitz
This is an excerpt from Mark Binelli’s interview of Lin-Manuel Miranda for the Rolling Stone Magazine.
With Hamilton, once you hit on the concept, did all of these parallels between the hip-hop world and Hamilton’s life — the duels, the way he’s so death-haunted, his rising from poverty — coalesce right away, or did they come to you gradually?
The moment that cemented it was reading about how Hamilton’s writing an essay gets him off the island [St. Croix]. It wasn’t circumstance. He didn’t stow away. He wrote an essay about how ****ty the island was after a hurricane had destroyed it, and the essay became popular, and he got a scholarship to get off the island because of that. I was like, “Oh, he literally wrote his way out of his circumstances. That’s it! That’s everything.”
So to you, immediately, it was like, “Oh, that’s like Jay Z, or Eminem scribbling lyrics in his notebook.”
Jay Z, Eminem, Biggie. Lil Wayne writing about Katrina! And so, having had that insight very early while reading Ron Chernow’s book, I never pictured the literal Founding Fathers again. It shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, but it was a bit of a surprise when reviews and articles made so much about the nontraditional casting that we’ve done. Because that’s how I always saw them.
Initially, you toggled back and forth between playing Hamilton and Burr, right?
Yeah, well, I mean, how could you not? There’s enormous fun to playing Burr, which Leslie finds every [time]. It’s the same thing as, if you’re going to be in Les Miz, do you want to play Valjean or Javert? Do you want to play the virtuous guy with the crazy high notes who’s onstage more? Or do you want to play the badass who’s always a step behind him? When I was writing “My Shot,” I’d go, “Oh, man, if I could play Hamilton…” And then I would write “Wait for It” and go, “[if] I could play Burr…” I spent a lot of time in both their heads. The reality is, I got to play all the parts. I got to be Angelica and be as smart as her. I got to be Eliza and be as unconditionally loving as her. That’s the fun of writing the piece. I got to be Jefferson and basically run out of ***** to give and saunter around my house and try to think of what he would say.
The rap battle in the show between Jefferson and Hamilton about some states having to bail out other states is so resonant.
It’s crazily resonant! What’s interesting is how Hamilton saw debt as a way to unite the states. His thinking was, if we are entrenched in each other’s finances, we’re stuck with each other. Which is cynical! But also an effective way to unite the states. Contrast that with Jefferson, who had a much more agrarian “we’ll live off our resources” vision of America in his mind. That side lost. That’s not the America we live in. But I also think Jefferson really thought of himself as a Virginian more than an American. Hamilton’s outsider status helped him think of this as one country before some of the other Founders. They would say, “Are you voting for Hamilton’s plan, or are you your country’s man?” And by “country,” they meant Virginia. It’s very hard to get out of a parochial mindset and think bigger. Hamilton was there already because he came from somewhere else.
Does anything about Hamilton’s elitism trouble you?
Absolutely! [laughs] Everything about these guys troubles me! And especially with Hamilton, when you think of where he started. This is not a guy who is fighting for Nevis or St. Croix. He got the hell out and he never looked back. There’s a moment that we had to cut when we moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway. It’s when Washington and Hamilton are putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. And they go from, “We are outgunned, outmanned,” in Act I, to yelling, “You are outgunned, outmanned,” at people who are violently resisting the whiskey tax. They go from being the revolutionaries to being in charge. I was sad to lose that, but I could see our momentum had moved past it. But that’s a key part of Hamilton’s story, historically. How do I say it? I think he believed that self-interest was a perpetual engine of growth. It still kills me that his fallout with Madison happens on our act break.
He writes the Federalist papers with Madison. They’re boys. But their fallout was over a financial plan. A lot of Revolutionary War vets had sold off their bonds to get money, because they were broke. And Hamilton said, “Well **** it, they sold ‘em! It’s not the banks’ fault…”
Since the wild success of the show, what have been some of the stranger offers you’ve received? Any superhero movies?
Writing music for Star Wars was amazing. J.J. Abrams was here and I offhandedly joked, “Hey, if you need cantina music…” And he said, “I do need cantina music!" So that sort of gave me incredible courage. Ask the thing you want to ask your hero while your hero is in front of you! Don’t be a dick, don’t be obnoxious. But also know that you may never get that opportunity again. I also say no to a whole lot of things. It’s no accident that I read Alexander Hamilton while I was on vacation from In the Heights, and that most of the writing was also on vacations. That makes me double down on making room for myself. So I’m saying no to a lot of cool [stuff] that 2012 me or 2010 me would have said yes to.
Did you find that the storytelling aspect of hip-hop was complementary to musicals?
I fall in love with storytelling regardless of genre. Whether it’s the new Aesop Rock album – “Blood Sandwich” is one of the best storytelling songs I’ve ever heard in hip-hop, full stop – or “A Weekend in the Country,” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. I love a well-told story in song. It’s so hard! To get it all, in real time? One of the hardest things you can do. So I’m in awe, whether it’s Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”—
Country music is another great storytelling genre.
Absolutely. I’m a big Lucinda Williams fan. “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”: “A little bit of dirt mixed with tears…” That kind of detail in lyric writing is the **** I live for. And what’s been exciting is everyone dropping their cultural baggage at the door of this show. I came by it all honestly. I came by the research honestly, I came by the love for hip-hop honestly. It all comes from a place of love. You’ve seen hip-hop used in musicals before, but usually it’s winking, it’s ironic, it’s “Oh, my God, white people are rapping!” Wink, nudge, air quotes. As opposed to just treating it as a storytelling form the same way musical theater absorbed rock & roll. It’s so crazy that Hair came out in the ****ing Sixties, and still, anytime there’s a rock musical, it’s like [stuffy voice], “Does rock belong on Broadway?”
And I think Rent finally, definitively ended that as a subject line for headlines of articles.
Now rock is just part of the vocabulary of musical theater.
It’s just part of vocabulary. And that clears the way for the Hedwigs of the world, for Next to Normal, which is an amazing example of a score that uses rock music. When Heights came out, there was a lot of “Hip hop on Broadway?” The same way you got “Rock on Broadway?” And now it’s like, “Yeah!” It’s music, like any other form of music.
Did any part of you pause, once you came up with the conceit of having a multi-racial cast playing the Founding Fathers? Did any part of you think, “There might some aspect of this that disrespects the real history, in which most of these men were slave-owners, and people of color back then were not in power?”
I think I was always doing internal gut checks in terms of how we were presenting the story. That’s why I reached out to Ron Chernow really early. Before I had even written two songs, I was talking to him about sort of helping me get the history right. This story is more delicious and tragic and interesting than anything I could have made up. If you had pitched a Hollywood screenwriter, “And then his widow starts an orphanage,” they’d go, “That’s too on the nose.” But it really happened!
Did you find yourself falling into a research hole?
Oh, absolutely. Burr is one of the more divisive characters in politics of that era. I read a book that really humanized him for me, The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr, by H.W. Brands. And then I read another Burr biography that I couldn’t even get through two chapters of because it was so defensive in its tone. So that was a really fun puzzle to unlock. Because I needed to at least know my version of him. Ron has said I’m more sympathetic toward Burr than he was in his book, because he’s Hamilton’s twin in so many ways. He’s Hamilton with privilege! He’s Hamilton if Hamilton came from money instead of not.
You gave him some of the best songs.
He earned some of the best songs, because he’s got such a weird and interesting interior life. When you come from money but have no family, what does that do to you, to your sense of caution? As opposed to Hamilton, who came from nothing and had no family, so, “**** it! I might be dead tomorrow, let’s go!” And Burr’s response to the same set of stimuli — mother died, father died — is “I better not **** it up. I better not say anything.” So it gets at something much more fundamental than politics or political disagreements or personal disagreements. It gets to how we’re wired. How do we react to our mortality? Do we shut up and wait for moments to happen, or do we just kind of say whatever we think because who knows what’s going to happen? And I think we’re all a mix of Hamilton and Burr. I know I am.
In what way?
I write a lot, like Hamilton. I’m also pretty guarded about my personal life. And I’m also pretty aware of the consequences of my words. But I’ve just as many times been Burr. I’ve seen people my age and younger shoot to success, and I measure myself against people by age. Paul McCartney had already ended the Beatles and was midway through Wings when he was my age! Like, the entire Beatles, and he was not 30 yet. There’s always someone to measure yourself against when you’re like, “**** what am I doing with my life?” So I really feel like I’m a healthy sense of both.
How much do you relate to that aspect of Hamilton’s character that seems to be racing against time and always trying to write?
I think I relate to that. Part of that comes with the inherent contradiction of what I do for a living.
What do you mean?
I’m very aware that an asteroid could kill us all tomorrow. But I create works of art that take years and years to finish [laughs]. So it’s an enormous act of faith to start a project. I think compounding that is my awareness that we lost Jonathan Larson before he ever got to see a preview of his show, Rent. He never saw what would change so many lives, mine included. So that sense of mortality is with me, always. It’s intensified by having a child. And how much of his life am I going to get to see? And hopefully his kids’ lives. It’s funny, I finished college with a ton of stuff written. I was painfully aware of the financial sacrifices my parents were making so that I could go to college, so I was not going to just leave with a B.A. in something. I was going to leave with stuff. I wrote a show every year of college. Not for credit, but because I needed to be leaving with more than just a B.A. So in that way, I’m very Hamilton-esque, in that I’m aware of both time and of the incredible opportunity that I’m lucky to have, and not wanting to squander either.