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How the $10 Founding Father got hip

Ron Chernow, author of the biography "Alexander Hamilton," is introduced to the audience on the opening night of the Los Angeles run of "Hamilton: An American Musical" at the Pantages Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Los Angeles. Associated Press file photo

The history of “Hamilton: An American Musical,” appropriately enough, is something of a melting pot.

The obvious origin was in the 1750s on the Caribbean island of Nevis. That's where Alexander Hamilton was born, though he wouldn't stay there very long.

Hamilton's rise from poverty and obscurity to the very center of power in the early days of the American Republic has inspired plenty of others. Author Ron Cherenow was so taken with it that he spent years writing a massive biography.

That book, released in 2004, would end up in the hands of another creative. Lin-Manuel Miranda read part of the book while on vacation and saw potential.

At the time, Miranda was working on another musical about another immigrant experience, “In The Heights,” which follows residents of the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

An American life

Hamilton’s life story is both an inspiration and cautionary tale. He was born out of wedlock and his father abandoned him and his mother died when Hamilton was about 10 years old.

He was taken in by a merchant and eventually impressed the community so much with his self-taught writing ability that they collected money and sent Hamilton to New York City for a proper college education.

He would enroll in King’s College — now Columbia University — in 1773. The start of the Revolutionary War ended his studies, but launched his career.

Hamilton was key in the victory over the British in the Battle of Princeton and would spend part of the war as an aide-de-camp of Gen. George Washington. He was given a field command in 1781 and was again key in the victory of a major battle.

This time it was Yorktown, and the surrender of the British essentially ended the war.

After the war, Hamilton was deeply involved with the formation of the United States, serving in the Congress of the Confederation, which produced the Articles of Confederation, and in the Constitutional Convention.

He wrote 51 of the 85 essays that make up The Federalist Papers and after the Constitution was adopted, he served as the first Treasury secretary.

He also was, as biographer Richard Brookhiser noted, the first American politician to be caught up in a sex scandal. Hamilton had been blackmailed over an extramarital affair in 1791 and 1792.

When news of the payments came out several years later, Hamilton sought to counter suspicion that he was corrupt with a 100-page pamphlet that detailed both his affair and the blackmail.

Perhaps the best-known event in Hamilton’s life was what ended it — a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. The two had known each other for decades, and the fatal disagreement came when someone printed an article saying Hamilton had offered “a still more despicable opinion” of Burr at a dinner party.

Burr demanded an apology, but Hamilton claimed he didn’t remember making the remark in question, so couldn’t offer an apology for it.

The vagaries of honor led to the fatal encounter in Weehawken, N.J., close to the site of the duel that had resulted in the death of Hamilton’s eldest son, Phillip, in 1801.

It’s unclear who shot first, but the result was a mortal wound for Hamilton, whose shot broke a branch above Burr’s head.

History and hip-hop

When Miranda met Cherenow, who would work as the historical consultant on the show, he said he saw hip-hop songs rising off the page when he read Hamilton's biography.

That creative decision would have a lot to do with the massive success of the musical.

Miranda explained it in an interview with The Atlantic in September 2015.

“This is a story about America then, told by America now,” Miranda said, “and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story.”

At the core of the story is Hamilton, originally played by Miranda. He's a brilliant but flawed man who helped establish the system of government we still use today and whose mix of ambition and intellect brought him both great success and great tragedy.

The show premiered off-Broadway in February 2015 and had a run of sold-out shows before opening on Broadway in August 2015. It would get 16 Tony nominations and win 11 awards as well as earning Miranda the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The mix of hip-hop and R&B with traditional musical theater conventions and songs thrilled audiences.

Miranda used hip-hop because he saw a parallel between the past and present, as he said in a February 2023 interview with Broadway Direct.

“It’s a rags-to-riches story — an American story — and it’s also the hip-hop story. All of Hamilton’s successes and all of his failures were due to his verbosity, his ability to argue and debate and use his words,” Miranda said.

“That’s what hip-hop at the end of the day is. It’s the culture that’s built out of people pulling themselves out of their circumstances by the way they put words together.”

The show's two acts chart first Hamilton's early life and the American Revolution and then Hamilton's role in helping to create many of the institutions still in our government as well as how his ambition and accomplishments — Hamilton helped draft the U.S. Constitution and wrote much of the Federalist Papers, which advocated for its adoption, among his many others — drove the rivalry with Burr that would end with a fatal duel in 1804.

Miranda saw more than just a reflection of the modern immigrant experience in the sweeping arc of Hamilton's story. He saw that the history of the United States has been one of conflict, argument, negotiation and change.

“The fights we’re having now politically are the same fights we were having six months after the country was born,” Miranda said during a 2018 interview with “States’ rights versus national rights, foreign intervention versus how we treat our own people. We’re always going to have these struggles. But we have also made huge strides as a country — toward LGBTQ rights, for instance — which is why I think we’re living in a time of enormous moral clarity.”

Hamilton's story touches on so many topics our nation is still dealing with, from the role of immigrants to the role of government itself.

Its continuing relevance and popularity is evident from the fact the show is in the middle of its third national tour and from headlines like "'Hamilton' not only holds up but seems more relevant now,” which appeared in May in the Dallas News.

And in May there was another milestone. Nearly nine years after the musical's Broadway debut, the first scholarly anthology about the show was published. “Hamilton, History and Hip-Hop: Essays on an American Musical,” edited by Kevin Wetstone, a professor of theater arts at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is a collection of essays about both Hamilton as a historical figure and about the cultural impact of the play itself.

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton. Library of Congress photo
In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Leslie Odom Jr., from left, Phillipa Soo, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson appear at the curtain call following the opening night performance of "Hamilton" at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York. Associated Press file photo
Actor Okieriete Onaodowan, left, actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, and actor Christopher Jackson perform the song "Alexander Hamilton" from the Broadway play "Hamilton" in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, Monday, March 14, 2016. Associated Press file photo
People walk near the "Hamilton" marquee at the Richard Rogers Theatre on Saturday, July 9, 2016, in New York. Associated Press file photo

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