Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘Hamilton is an insane idea, but the story works’
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the America-born, Puerto Rico-infused lyricist-performer-megastar, has a deep streak of Anglophilia. This reveals itself most conspicuously in his fondness for quoting Monty Python and The Office. On one of his first trips to Britain, he landed at Heathrow and had his driver take him directly to Slough, so that he could pay homage to the milieu that inspired Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
So when Hamilton, the musical he created and starred in, began doing well off Broadway in 2015, Miranda’s mind drifted beyond the inevitable Broadway transfer to whether it might play in London one day. There was a problem though, a couple really. The show was a telling of the life and times of Alexander Hamilton, a bureaucrat in the second half of the 18th century and one of the founding fathers of the United States. Would anyone over here care about his (admittedly juicy) travails? Even more, the only British character in the musical, which is performed mostly in rap verse, is George III, whom Miranda has written as a jumped-up, flamboyant fop.
“Helen Mirren was one of the first people to see Hamilton,” recalls the 37-year-old Miranda, his voice urgent, conspiratorial. “She saw it very early and I said, ‘If we’re lucky enough to go to London, are they going to be bothered by King George?’ And she said, ‘Nahhh! We love it when you take the piss!’”
Miranda cracks up. “So I’m not worried,” he goes on. “I’m excited.”
Two years on, Hamilton is most definitely coming. Previews at the Victoria Palace theatre in London began on Wednesday, with the main run starting on 21 December. And the question now is not will British audiences be interested in a hip-hop reimagining of the birth of modern America? But, rather, is there any possible way that this cultural behemoth can live up to the hype?
To start with the silverware: Hamilton has, to date, won 11 Tony awards, a Grammy for best musical theatre album and the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama for Miranda’s writing; he has also been given a MacArthur “genius grant”. Somehow more telling, though, are the breathless testimonies from those who have seen the show. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. “But Hamilton… might just about be worth it.” Michelle Obama described it as “the best piece of art in any form I have ever seen in my life”.
Miranda, meanwhile, is personally most gratified by Hamilton’s reach in other ways. He always wanted a multicultural cast and he is thrilled no one blinks an eye that the old and middle-aged white guys who created America are played by young black and Latino performers. He is also beyond pleased at the affirmation he has received from his musical heroes: last year, the Hamilton Mixtape was released and the contributors included Busta Rhymes, Alicia Keys, Queen Latifah and Usher.
It’s not easy to find negative notices for Hamilton, but there are some. In November 2016, the president-elect Donald Trump described it as “highly overrated”. He hadn’t actually seen the show, but was reacting in 140 characters to a story that had blown up when Vice-President Mike Pence attended a performance the week after the election. Pence was roundly booed as he took his seat and during the curtain call one of the actors read a speech written by Miranda, Hamilton’s director Thomas Kail, and Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer. Unusually for a theatre, a request was made for phones to be turned on, so the message could be circulated more widely.
“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” the statement read. “But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump claimed the speech was “harassing” Pence; the vice-president, for his part, said that the jeers were “what freedom sounds like” and that he had enjoyed the show. Either way, it has become clear that Hamilton is much more than just a night at the theatre. When Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president, she lifted lines from the musical to finish her speech. After Trump’s victory, the historian Niall Ferguson asked whether the election was “a vote against Hamilton”.
Hamilton is already a hit in London; the tickets were sold out almost instantly for the first run until June next year, though there is a daily lottery for £10 seats. But will we love it more than we love our own children? How desperate will people get to snaffle a ticket?
If Miranda is feeling any pressure about the transfer, he isn’t showing it. On the morning we meet, in the offices of theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh in Bloomsbury, he bounces into the room, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and running shoes, all blue. The ponytail and goatee he had on stage in New York have been clipped and it has the effect of making him look two centuries younger. Miranda is a prolific tweeter and he has provided regular updates on the new production since arriving in the UK in late November. After the first run-through, he wrote: “London, gird your heart. This company is not playing around.” A couple of days earlier, he gushed: “This company is so fuhuuucking good.”
None of the cast is a household name: Jamael Westman, one of a pair of Alexander Hamiltons, graduated from Rada last year and this is just his fourth credit. “It’s a similar mix of vets and newcomers as we had in our original company on Broadway,” says Miranda, who has no plans to step into Hamilton’s blouse and breeches in this run. “I can’t wait for London audiences to get in front of this show. I’m curious how certain things will play: there’s a couple of New Jersey jokes and I’m like, ‘That’s going to be huge…’” Miranda rolls his eyes.
“Right now, I’m really just faffing about! The director has a job to do, the music supervisor is making sure it sounds right and the choreographer is making sure it’s as precise as the other companies. And I’m like, ‘Hey, the show’s written!’ I’m giving notes here or there if I see something, but I’m basically like a proud grandparent.”
Many of the reasons given now for Hamilton’s unimaginable success were, in advance, used as predictors for why it might sink without trace. When the show first opened in New York, Miranda and his team scrupulously avoided the description “hip-hop musical”. This was, in essence, because those two forms had never been credibly fused before. A musical based on the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, Holler If Ya Hear Me, had been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opening the previous year. Likewise, historical adaptations didn’t have a great precedent either: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical about the seventh US president, was critically approved in 2010 but only lasted four months.
Hamilton, though, has become an umbrella for just about every niche interest. “People who don’t ordinarily like musicals can get in, because they are fans of hip-hop,” says Miranda. “Or because they are fans of history and we treat the history with respect, as much as a two-and-a-half-hour musical can. And there’s just as many Easter eggs for musical theatre fans as there are for hip-hop fans. For every Biggie or Mobb Deep quote, we’ve also got Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jason Robert Brown.
“So it is my love letter to all of these things,” he continues. “You know, popular music and theatre music used to be friends, they used to be the same thing. And Hamilton is my attempt to do that by hook or by crook, wedging these things together.”
Miranda believes that audiences respond to Hamilton for exactly the same reason he did. He was in Borders bookshop – that’s how long ago it was – looking for some holiday reading when he stumbled across Ron Chernow’s doorstop biography of Hamilton.
“What I knew about Hamilton prior to picking up that book was that he was the dead white guy on the 10,” says Miranda, referring to the $10 bill. “I knew his son had died in a duel and he died in a duel. I think that’s what took it off the shelf and into my hand, because I’d written a paper on that in high school. But I didn’t know he was born in Nevis, I didn’t know he grew up in the Caribbean. I didn’t know his Dickensian childhood; it sort of out-Dickens Dickens. Then I got to the part where he writes about a hurricane that destroys his island and they take up a collection to get him his education on the mainland. I just thought, ‘He’s a hip-hop artist.’ He’s a guy who writes about his struggle so well that he transcends it. And once I had that insight, it kept proving me right.”
As much as Miranda made the link to hip-hop, he also, reading the book on holiday in Mexico, floating in a lounger in the pool, began to see parallels with his own life. His father was born in Puerto Rico, but came to America in his late teens to study at New York University. He was smart and had a ferocious work ethic and he would become a special adviser on Hispanic affairs to Ed Koch, the Democrat mayor of New York for much of the 80s. Miranda’s mother came to America from Puerto Rico as a child and was a clinical psychologist.
“I just recognised that guy,” says Miranda of Hamilton. “When you see Hamilton as an immigrant story, it becomes universal to me because I grew up in a largely immigrant neighbourhood in New York and we just knew the deal was: we have to work three times as hard. I don’t remember a time when my parents had less than three jobs each. That is just the immigrant story and in Hamilton’s case, he ends up shaping the nation. He gains the trust of George Washington and he ends up shaping our financial system, inventing the coast guard, creating the New York Post and a million other things. You could write five more musicals about that guy. It’s the classic bootstraps story.”
From the beginning, Hamilton has had a political agenda if you scratch the surface. The first time Miranda performed any material from the musical in public was in May 2009, when he was asked by the Obamas to participate in an evening celebrating “the American experience” at the White House. When the approach was made, the expectation was that Miranda would sing something from his debut musical, In the Heights. This was a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up on a multicultural block in New York that had won four Tony awards, best musical among them.
Instead, Miranda tried out “16 hot bars about Alexander Hamilton”. There’s YouTube evidence of the performance and it’s clear that Miranda, who’d never met the president before, is nervous; well, as nervous as Miranda ever gets, which is not especially. Still, in his introduction to the song, there’s more “ums” than usual and even a little stammering. When he explains the concept, people, including the Obamas, giggle, not sure if they should take him seriously.
“Yeah, it was really scary and it’s a little bit like showing the ultrasound at five weeks,” says Miranda. “I had a lot of people look at me like I was crazy for a very long time. I mean, you can kind of see the reaction in miniature at the White House. I state what I’m going to do and everyone just laughs at me. And I go, ‘You laugh but it’s true!’ Just trying to keep my cool, because I’m also performing in front of the leader of the free world for the first time in my life. And then you see people get sucked into the story. Then their heads start bobbing. And that’s been the story of Hamilton: it’s been an insane idea but the story works. The story is compelling, it’s a human one. And yeah, that’s that.”
F or a piece of art that was “the musical of the Obama era”, according to the New Yorker, the Trump years were always going to present some challenges. The aftermath of the statement to Mike Pence was especially uncomfortable. “When the president sends a tweet he’s also sending trolls and bots your way,” says Miranda. “It is a way of targeting, so we had to deal with death threats for several weeks and we had to wait for that kerfuffle to blow over. So we lived through it. There was a bit of a pendulum swing, right; we were beloved by the Obama administration; we’re really not beloved by the current administration.”
Did Miranda consider putting “Highly overrated: Donald Trump” on the Hamilton poster? “Haha!” he replies. “There are certainly those who would wear that with a badge of pride, but I would not trade it for the stress of those weeks. These are just not normal times. We have a president who targets people and goes after them and that’s really without precedent and scary, but that’s where we are.”
Miranda, though, does not shy away from a fight, either. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, killing at least 500 people and destroying the electrical grid, he was furious at Trump for his inaction. While the president quickly offered reassurance and funds to Texas and Florida after the natural disasters that affected those states, he was much quieter about Puerto Rico, which is an unincorporated US territory. Nearly three months on, a third of the island remains without power. Miranda’s response was to tweet Trump: “You’re going straight to hell.”
“What does that tell the people of Puerto Rico about the person who is supposedly in charge?” he asks. “Those are 3.5m American citizens. So that’s when the rhetoric is heartbreaking: you know relief could come with one signing of the pen and it’s just not. Because he doesn’t care.”
Miranda, who has raised $2.5m for the relief effort from a charity song, also recently announced that he would be taking a production of Hamilton to Puerto Rico in early 2019. He did a similar tour in 2010 with In the Heights and it remains one of his proudest achievements. “I find it hard to talk about it without tearing up,” he says and it’s true, he looks like he might cry. “Growing up, I’d get sent to Puerto Rico for a month a year where I was the kid with a fucked-up Spanish accent who couldn’t really speak it well enough to hang with kids my age. I was like the weird exchange kid. I loved Puerto Rico, but I never felt at home with it. Then to have In the Heights be embraced in English, the way I wrote it, it closed some hole in me that I didn’t know was open.”
These are manic, sometimes confounding times for Miranda. Hamilton took the best part of six years to write but now life seems to be happening in fast-forward. So far, he has only been accepting offers “that are just so bonkers that you’d kick yourself for ever if you didn’t jump at the chance to do them”. These have included a pivotal cameo in the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm and a six-month spell in London to shoot a lead role in Mary Poppins Returns, which will be released Christmas next year. The film is directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago) and stars Emily Blunt as the umbrella-wielding hero, as well as Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer.
“Poppins was both incredibly hard work and sort of this joyous vacation,” says Miranda. “Because I had just been in Hamilton-mania in the States, it was starting to get to the point where I couldn’t ride the train without having a conversation about Hamilton. So the only sane response is to chop off all your hair and leave the country. I was really very anonymous here and that was a wonderful thing to reclaim, to ride the tube around and take my kid to Lady Di park. To sort of do normal things was wonderful, because it was getting weird. Like, famous-person weird.”
This is just the tip of it. The Weinstein Company had optioned the film rights to In the Heights, so Miranda is endeavouring to extricate himself from that. (“So monstrous,” he says. “I met Harvey several times. I knew he was never going to win a nice-guy competition, but I didn’t know about all of this other stuff.”) Miranda’s first child, Sebastian, was born two weeks before rehearsals for Hamilton started in 2014 and he revealed last week that his wife Vanessa Nadal, a corporate lawyer, is expecting their second. He would also like to start work on a new musical, but he probably just needs to lie in a pool to figure out what the subject is.
“You’re right,” he exclaims, “I should take more vacations, thank you! Yeah, that is the hardest lesson to take hold of: the good idea comes when you are walking your dog or in the shower or resting. And waking up from sleep. I don’t believe it’s an accident that on my first vacation from In the Heights, the best idea of my life shows up. So I have a couple of ideas, but I’m waiting to see which one grabs hold and doesn’t let go.”
Until then, Miranda will keep on doing what he’s done every day since Hamilton opened in New York in early 2015: field requests for tickets for the show. In London, it is sure not to be any different. Miranda made some good friends here when he was filming Mary Poppins Returns –Whishaw and the chef Yotam Ottolenghi among them – and he is excited for them to see the show. Otherwise, there’s only so much he can do. “People tweeting me, ‘I can’t believe I paid $2,000,’” he says. “I didn’t charge you $2,000! I don’t know why you paid that.”
What about the royal family? “Oh, I’ll give Prince Harry some engagement tickets, that would be an absolute treat,” Miranda smiles. “Obviously that would be an honour for us.” Let’s just hope he isn’t too offended by the portrayal of his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
via Guardian Culture http://bit.ly/2rxYRoO
December 10, 2017 at 04:48AM