There are many reasons why Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary War hero, principal author of The Federalist Papers, and America’s first treasury secretary, never could have become president. In some quarters, it was blemish enough that he was illegitimate and an immigrant. Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he came to New York City in 1774, when he was 17. Then there was his spectacular adulterous affair—an extortionist setup for which he paid considerable hush money, and about which he later produced a 95-page pamphlet detailing the illicit relationship in all its wanton detail in order to prove that the disbursements were not evidence that he’d embezzled the Treasury, as his opponents contended. Those same adversaries—chiefly Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, aristocrats who owed their wealth to slavery—vilified the self-made, abolitionist Hamilton as an out-of-touch elitist. Being an intellectual policy wonk and a long-winded, inextinguishable hothead didn’t help matters either: At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton extemporaneously held forth for six nonstop hours. Worst of all, as Ron Chernow writes in his 2004 record-straightening and captivating biography, Alexander Hamilton, he “violated what became the first commandment of American politics: thou shalt always be optimistic.… He was incapable of the resolutely uplifting themes that were to become mandatory in American politics.”
When the composer, lyricist, and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda went on vacation in Mexico some seven years ago, he took Chernow’s tome as a beach read. A couple of chapters in, reading about Hamilton as a “poor boy from the West Indies [who] commanded attention with the force and fervor of his words,” Miranda saw—and more important, heard—the bragging, swaggering, word-spinning, quick-tempered men of the American Revolution synchronize with the hip-hop rhythms and run-ins that formed the popular sound track of his teen and early adult years. (Miranda was born in 1980.) Soon he was working on a mixtape that mashed up the founding fathers with beat-boxing bruthas.
Invited by the White House in 2009 to perform a number from his Tony Award–winning 2008 musical In the Heights, Miranda offered instead a rap tune about Hamilton, who, he said, “embodies hip-hop.” Spoken in the voice of Aaron Burr, the vice president who fatally wounded Hamilton in a duel in 1804, it begins:
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 fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.
After a few more verses, it continues:
The ship is in the harbor now, see if you
Can spot him
Another immigrant, comin’ up from the
His enemies destroyed his rep, America
And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.
This exposition-packed rap became the electrifying choral opening number of Hamilton, the nearly three-hour sung-through bio-show that follows its hero through his quick rise from humble origins to the height of inventing American government—and then his decline as he blusters and blunders at work and in his domestic life and the political winds shift. “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry,” Hamilton sings, making explicit the way his own story parallels America’s.
With its top-notch cast of 21 performers in near-constant motion, Hamilton played for 15 sold-out weeks at Off Broadway’s Public Theater last winter and opened to rapturous reviews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on August 6. The Broadway run garnered hefty advance sales of $30 million, so good luck finding a seat before October, unless you’re willing to shell out around $350 per ticket, the lowest prices in the resale market.