When Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the hottest ticket musical Hamilton in New York last month, the audience voiced their displeasure. Little surprise – as Saturday Night Live joked, “Of course he was booed. He’s a guy from Indiana who believes in gay conversion therapy. Visiting Broadway is how people from Indiana realise they’re gay”. What’s notable is how the actors used their curtain call to address him, saying they hoped “the show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.” Not only did it go viral (not that the smash needed any more publicity), but it prompted rapper ?uestlove – who produced the show’s Grammy-winning album – to compare the cast to NWA.
“Obviously I’m a NWA fan but what we did was milder,” reflects Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and erstwhile star of Hamilton who was also involved in penning the message. “We’d come out of an election crisis that revealed a divided country and we asked the incoming administration ‘please represent us all’. I was grateful that Mike Pence took it in the spirit it was intended and listened. I was grateful for the dialogue, despite the Trump controversy that happened around it. It’s no different from when I met Obama and asked him to consider the case of Oscar López Rivera, a prisoner many Puerto Ricans want freed, but it just got caught up in something bigger.”
Trump retaliated by tweeting that Hamilton was “highly overrated”, but he’s alone in his dissent. The rap-musical about one of America’s lesser-know Founding Fathers – whose portrait was due to be removed from the $10 bill until the show’s success – has netted 11 Tony Awards, and found fans in Jay-Z, Kanye and Eminem, as well as a devoted legion of Directioner-like Hamilteens. Obama even quipped that a love of the musical was the only thing he and [Republican, former vice president] Dick Cheney agreed on. “It’s very strange to be at the centre of it,” says Miranda, speaking to NME in London, where he’s relocated to shoot Disney’s Mary Poppins reboot. “There’s no explaining a phenomenon like this. I think people have responded to the honesty of it. It’s a love letter to hip-hop as much as musical theatre. Fans from both genres can find an entry point.”
Brace yourself for a similar level of hysteria when it arrives in the UK October next year. Until then, it’s spawned a surreal 23-track mixtape, featuring the likes of Chance The Rapper, Nas, Sia and Alicia Keys covering and offering reinterpretations of the show’s songs. Miranda feels it brings the project full circle. “I didn’t set out to write a stage musical,” he says. “I thought I was going to get my Andrew Lloyd Webber on and write a concept album – a rap Jesus Christ Superstar. Hip-hop fits really well with Hamilton’s life, so I was imagining it as a mixtape.”
His first reading of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography eight years ago partly dictated the starry guest-list. “I wasn’t picturing the literal Founding Fathers on banknotes or statues,” says the 36-year-old. “Everyone knows what George Washington looks like but the fun for me was ‘what rapper or R&B artist captures his moral authority and spirit?’ I thought of John Legend and Common – they’re both on the mixtape. I read the name [of Washington’s spy] Hercules Mulligan and thought it was the best psedonymn Busta Rhymes never had. When I wrote Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza [Schuyler], it was in the style of an Ashanti/Ja Rule song – and we managed to get them to cover that. Also, I learned more about writing musical scores from making cassette mixtapes for friends in the ’90s than I did as a theatre major.”
As a confessed “hip-hop nerd”, Miranda admits to feeling emotional at the “kind in the candy store” line-up. “I know it would ruin my street cred but I never had any to begin with,” he says, “but I cried when I heard Busta Rhymes’s voice on ‘My Shot’. To see how deep he went and give voice to an idea that had been in my head for so long was overwhelming. It’s surreal to hear Wiz Kalifa take the hook to one of your songs in Hamilton and write something that could be on Washington By Your Side. Breaking his own rule to be on the mixtape, Miranda himself appears on ‘Wrote My Way Out’. “I want to be able to tell my grandchildren I was on a song with Nas once!”
Just as the cast used the Broadway show to make a point about diversity to Mike Pence, so too the mixtapes brings US 1700s politics up to date with the track ‘Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)’, which begins with a reporter’s voice boggling, “It’s really astonishing in a country founded by immigrants, ‘immigrant’ has somehow become a bad word.” “We take one moment of recognition between [Marquis de] Lafayette and Hamilton saying ‘hey we’re not from here – and look at the cool shit we’re doing – immigrants, we get the job done,” and approached our favourite international MCs, Riz MC,” says Miranda. “We get to rewrite the rules with this one, take that one line and make it a snapshot around what people think about immigration in 2016.”
There’s set to be another volume of the mixtape. “Deciding to do a second one was a way of letting ourselves off the hook as we had so much material. There was stuff that got left out. Big-names ended up on the cutting room floor.” Who knows? By the time it’s released, maybe even Trump might be convinced to spit a few bars.
The Hamilton Mixtape is out now