Guys who write hip-hop music don't often cross paths with historians. So when Lin-Manuel Miranda, acclaimed composer, lyricist and star of the Tony-winning "In the Heights," picked up Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton at an airport bookstore, there must've been some musical seismic shift.
"It's almost a dreamlike sensation when I turn onto West 46th Street and see Hamilton's name on the marquee," says Chernow, whose 2004 book inspired Miranda to write "Hamilton: An American Musical," opening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre Aug. 6. Yes, a hip-hop musical about Hamilton and the founding fathers.
"This is the most delightful, implausible thing that's happened in my career," says Chernow, a Pulitzer Prize winner.More coverageLinda WinerPhotosTony Awards 2014More coverageTheater reviews
It's audacious, all right -- a Hamilton who raps, "Hey, yo, I'm just like my country / I'm young scrappy and hungry." Then there's Aaron Burr, referring to Hamilton, his archrival, "How to account for his rise to the top? Man, the man was nonstop."
But there's a lot more to this musical than hip-hop. That's just the sexy, hipster-friendly veneer boosting ticket sales. The real reason it deserves attention -- and awards (it's already generating buzz as the show to beat at next year's Tony ceremony) -- is because it does two things musicals (or plays or films) about actual historic events rarely do: It for the most part sticks to the facts, and gives women equal time in the spotlight.
HOT, HOT, HOT
Miranda, now 35, recalls grabbing Chernow's book on a whim. He read it, and was hooked.
"Often when history is turned into a Hollywood movie or Broadway show, there's this assumption the facts are boring -- you have to jazz them up," says Chernow. "But Lin, like me, felt the characters and situations here are so extraordinarily dramatic on their own."
After years of development, and a raved-about, award-winning Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater last winter, Miranda's musical is hitting Broadway, directed by Thomas Kail and starring a multiracial cast, including Miranda (as Hamilton), "Smash's" Leslie Odom Jr. (Burr), Christopher Jackson (George Washington), Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson), Jonathan Groff (a hilariously uptight King George III) and Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones (sisters Eliza, Angelica and Peggy Schuyler, respectively).
Hamilton's tale feels remarkably current, covering immigration and the American dream (he rises from illegitimate orphan in the Caribbean to the highest corridors of power here), war (he served as General Washington's right-hand man), money (as Secretary of the Treasury, he helped lay the groundwork for America's future as an economic powerhouse), passion (he was ensnared in a major sex scandal) and violence (the fatal duel with Burr).
But Miranda also sees an unexpected link between Hamilton and hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur, who was shot to death in 1996 -- self-made men writing their way to fame, yet ultimately undone by gargantuan egos and a combative nature.
"This is history," says Jones (who's making her Broadway debut). "Kids can come to this, people of all colors, ages -- even people who've never heard hip-hop before."
MEET THE SCHUYLER SISTERS
Sitting in the balcony of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Jones, Goldsberry and Soo admit that before joining the cast they knew little of the man whose face graces the ten-dollar bill.
"You guys, this is a soap opera," says Goldsberry, who oughta know -- she spent four years on ABC's "One Life to Live."
The three actresses portray siblings and key figures in Hamilton's life. Soo, as Hamilton's humble wife, Eliza, fights to preserve his reputation. Goldsberry, as his brainy, beautiful sister-in-law Angelica, stimulates his intellect (rumors of an affair were rampant but unproven). And Jones plays young Peggy Schuyler, and later Maria Reynolds, a seductress who shatters his world.
These female characters are empowered, multidimensional. It's not how history is often written. Or musicals. Take "1776," a gem about the signers of the Declaration of Independence (all dudes), and two women (seen briefly, and only one -- Abigail Adams -- is more than eye candy). But "Hamilton" coaxes you to think as much about women's historical contributions as those of men.
"A friend told me how the show reminded him how important his mother was to him," says Soo.
Goldsberry credits Miranda and particularly Chernow for recognizing the importance of women in history. "When you have the responsibility of sifting through all the information, what resonates for you has a lot to do with who you are," she says, suggesting Chernow's love for his own wife surely influenced his take on the women Hamilton loved.
When posed that idea, Chernow is quiet.
He recalls how his wife took an immediate liking to Eliza, as she read his drafts of the book. "Eliza wasn't socially or politically ambitious, and that's the way my wife was -- beautiful, true. So . . . yes . . . as I was writing the book, I did feel a special kinship with that character."
AN UNUSUAL PAIR
The historian and hip-hop composer also shared a special kinship. Chernow appreciates how Miranda quotes from historical sources, like Washington's Farewell Address in one song, or Hamilton's letters in another. In a scene on the eve of the duel, Eliza -- unaware of her husband's plans -- urges him to come to bed. Hamilton calls her "best of wives and best of women," quoting the last note Hamilton wrote to his wife hours before his death.
In researching his biography, Chernow was so taken with that line he used it when dedicating the book to his wife, Valerie. She died two years later.
"It's actually the line on my wife's gravestone, I love it that much," Chernow says. "I don't think I ever told Lin that, but it was really nice to see that he picked up on the power of that line. I can't think of a greater tribute paid to any woman than that."
When politicians sing
Real-life politicos depicted in Broadway musicals It happens. Here, the top five (not including "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which tanked on Broadway, and Off-Broadway's "Clinton: The Musical"):
FIORELLO! (1959) New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia takes on Tammany Hall (it won a Pulitzer Prize).
1776 (1969) Revolutionary for its structure (those long stretches without songs) and suspense (you're on the edge of your seat wondering if this Declaration of Independence will ever get signed).
ANNIE (1977) FDR pops up as a buddy of Annie's benefactor, Daddy Warbucks.
EVITA (1979) Andrew Lloyd Webber's tale of a first lady and her president (OK, not ours, but Argentina's). The show made Northport native Patti LuPone a star.
ASSASSINS (2004) Pols aren't present but discussed in Stephen Sondheim's haunting musical (first produced Off-Broadway in 1990) about John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and other infamous trigger-pullers.