Hip-hop and history blend for Broadway hit ‘Hamilton’

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, what happens when you take a look at America before and after the Revolutionary War, throw in hip-hop and dance?

Just the biggest box office draw in New York City.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's the coolest American history you're likely to get, and the hottest ticket on Broadway. "Hamilton," a kind of hip-hop musical, tells of Alexander Hamilton, immigrant, ambitious young rebel, aide to George Washington, a founding father who arguably never got the recognition he deserved.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, Playwright/Actor: I'm actually working on a hip-hop album. It's a concept album about the life of someone who I thinks embodies hip-hop, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

(LAUGHTER)

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: You laugh.

JEFFREY BROWN: "Hamilton's" creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, performed an early version of one of the play's songs at the White House in 2009.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: When we talked recently, he told me how Hamilton's life came to be about so much more.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: The joy of discovery of, oh, if I tell Hamilton's story, I actually tell the story of the forming of our country, that was a joyous experience.

And I think, honestly, that's the secret sauce in the score. I was learning this stuff as I was researching it to write the show. I knew the basic outlines that everyone knows. He was on the $10 and he died in a duel. That's pretty much anyone knows about him.

JEFFREY BROWN: But were you thinking from the beginning that this larger story was what would emerge?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I knew that reading — reading Ron Chernow's biography of his life was like a Dickens novel, such humble beginnings to such incredible heights, and such incredible incident throughout, that, you know, I always tell people I feel like I'm a mosquito that hit an artery. Like, there's so much here. How am I going to get it all?

JEFFREY BROWN: Story-wise, there's so much there, yes.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Absolutely.

What I'm always on the hunt for when I'm writing a song are details, and really attacking every moment in the most original way and theatrically compelling way possible. So, our mantra is, the political always has to be personal.

So if you're going to write a song about the compromise that led to Hamilton trading his vote for the debt plan for the capital of the U.S. being down here in the newly formed D.C., well, that's easy to say in a sentence, but let's tell it from the perspective of Aaron Burr, who wasn't in the room, and desperately wants to be in that room.

And, suddenly, we can get away with anything, because we have got dramatic tension.

(SINGING)

JEFFREY BROWN: Miranda, now 35 and the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, is an actor, composer and playwright. He first made his name with "In the Heights," an exuberant musical of life in New York's Latin American community, the kind of life he knew.

"Hamilton" is set several hundred years earlier, but Miranda found a similar connection.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I would argue that Hamilton feels twice as autobiographical as "In the Heights" does.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yes, absolutely, especially — I actually think we kind of double down on the themes of "In the Heights," and sort of blow them up to a grand scope. We're not going to tell the story of an immigrant neighborhood. We're going to tell the story of the first American immigrant and the formation of our country.

And so, in that sense, it felt intensely personal. It's not the story of people who have been here for generations, but what it feels like to land here and make your way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the language, the rhythms of hip-hop?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: It's the best form for Hamilton.

And when you extrapolate from him, it's a wonderful language for our revolution. We need a revolutionary language to describe a revolution. And this was…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean hundreds of years later?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: We're separated by an ocean from Britain, so this wasn't a fist-fight. This was a war of ideas, in a sense.

And so we needed not only great fighters, but great thinkers to navigate us from rebellion to the forging of a new nation. And so hip-hop is uniquely suited to that, because we get more language per measure than any other musical form.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the casting of the founding fathers as Latino, as black? Is that an important part of this to you?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I think so.

I think one of our overarching goals with this show is — with any show — is, you want to eliminate any distance between your audience and your story. And so let's not pretend this is a textbook. Let's make the founders of our country look like what our country looks like now. This is what our…

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it's not a costume epic with a distance.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Correct. Correct. And this is what our country looks like now. It looks like, you know, we are — we are every shade and every color.

And it also comes organically out of the music. This is hip-hop and R&B music. These are the best people to sing this type of music.

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, Miranda is himself a new kind of rock star vetted all over.

We joined him in Washington as he received an Ingenuity Award from the Smithsonian Institution, and gave a talk to an adoring audience. I asked him about the use of the word ingenuity to describe his work, and that brought on a characteristic riff on how he develops his own word play.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I remember there is a lyric in our show where Lafayette says "ingenuitive and fluent in French."

And I remember having a fight — not having a fight, but having a debate with my collaborators, because one of them was like, well, that's not a word, ingenuitive. And I was like, I think it is.

And then we were split 2-2 whether ingenuitive was a word. And we looked it up. And it is an archaic conjugation of ingenuity. And I was right. And I don't know why I knew that word, so — and other people didn't, but…

JEFFREY BROWN: And, therefore, you use it.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: And, therefore, we use it. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you can make up words if you want, can't you?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Well, Shakespeare did it. And it worked out pretty great for him.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: So, writing musicals, entertaining musicals, telling stories, and now filling in large gaps in American history. Is there a hierarchy of that for you? What's most important for you?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: The most important thing for me, honestly, is meeting those expectations every night.

You know, we're not film actors in that show. It's not like you get it once on camera in the can and we're done. We're shots. And we have to make the experience happen for the audience that I'm going to see tonight after I get on the plane, for the same audience that — you know, for a difference audience that I saw last night.

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw where you said you think to yourself, what's the thing that's not in the world that should be in the world?

That's a big idea, right?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, do you feel that? Like, what's missing in our world?

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Absolutely.

I mean — and it goes back to I hope that what I can contribute is something that hasn't been seen before. You know, "In the Heights" very much, came out of me wanting a career in musical theater, but there's only about three great roles for Latino men in musical theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: You're Bernardo, you're Paul in "A Chorus Line" or, if you can really sing, you're Man of La Mancha. I can't sing well enough to be the Man of La Mancha.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you did two out of three.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: So, I wrote — I wrote something that had so many parts for Latinos because I knew there was a void there. I knew it because I was going into that world, and I was scared.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it's also a big idea to think that you can fill a vacuum.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I think that's what we do about artists. It's, what the thing that only I can contribute?

It's not about the confidence to like, hello, world, here's this idea that never existed. It's, this is my brain, and unless I express it, it's only going to stay in my brain. It's more about personal expression than imposing your will on the world. It's more about, you know, if I don't get this idea out of my head and on to paper, it dies with me.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Lin-Manuel Miranda, thanks so much.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Thank you.

Editor's Note: Lin-Manuel Miranda's family was mistakenly referred to as immigrating from Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rican migrants are U.S. citizens.