Theater fans who haven’t seen the impossible-to-see Broadway hit “Hamilton” have one question for folks who have gotten in: Is it really that good?
For lots of reasons, the answer is yes, and supporting evidence now comes from an unexpected quarter: a backstage “making-of” book. “Hamilton: The Revolution” is the kind of colorful, big-format souvenir peddled with show posters and cast recordings, and it’s a cinch to delight buffs who can’t get enough of writer-composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s history-as-hip-hop phenomenon. But like the dizzyingly dense show it chronicles — “Hamilton,” we are told, has nearly 24,000 words, more than many Shakespeare plays — it’s unusually inquisitive and smart.
The book is co-authored by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, and their duties are neatly divided. McCarter, a cultural critic who worked at Manhattan’s Public Theater as “Hamilton” was developed there, writes short informative features on the show’s long gestation. Miranda slipped his friend McCarter an early sample of his songs when the composer thought of the project only as a mixtape, not a full-blown musical. (If you have never seen the brief 2009 video of Miranda trying out what became his opening number in front of the Obamas at the White House, do it now). McCarter’s access serves him well as he interviews participants and chronicles rehearsals and opening nights. And the essays of designers, producers and performers at work are perceptive.
The book’s chief value, though, lies within the juicy footnotes that Miranda adds to the complete lyrics. (Stephen Sondheim’s splendid two-volume set of annotated lyrics “Finishing The Hat” and “Look, I Made a Hat” seems like a conspicuous model.) The show’s inspiration was Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, yet the “Hamilton” concept still sounds a little crazy: a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers?
The footnotes on the songs illuminate Miranda’s mad technique. He borrows widely and gleefully but also respectfully, always shouting out to sources that range from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and even the “Harry Potter” franchise. Stacking internal rhymes is something cribbed from rapper Big Pun, Miranda reports in a note next to a verbal cascade from “My Shot” that flows from “disadvantage” and “manage” to “brandish” and “famished.” Language is a noisy, jubilant playground, even as Miranda takes his historical subject deeply seriously. (Chernow was a consultant.)
“A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists / Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is,” a defiant Hamilton raps. The lyrics and notes to this patriotic celebration-protest piece are worth lingering over — a rarity in Broadway musicals — and they are often printed in white against large color photos from the production. You get a vivid idea of how it all works onstage.
Miranda’s ardent relationship with history comes through in his candid assessment of facts that he emphasized, left out or fudged. He is catching flak from a few dissenting historians who argue that, even though the show is renowned for its black and Latino performers playing white Founding Fathers, it serves as a reactionary tool of the patriarchy. Why? Because it isn’t explicitly about the people of color who were enslaved back in the day. Perhaps those critics would have been quelled if Miranda had included a rap he cut, reprinted here, with President George Washington and his Cabinet hotly debating a petition to abolish slavery.
In any case, it’s impossible to imagine any audience for the self-aware “Hamilton” that isn’t cued to view anew America’s fraught racial history, which the occasional scholar bizarrely fears is being erased, rather than foregrounded. Such constricted complaints only reaffirm the power of Miranda’s imaginative leap.
Nelson Pressley writes about theatre for The Washington Post.
By Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Grand Central. 288 pp. $40