Ron Chernow at Drew University: It’s All About Alexander Hamilton
Biographer reflects on the man and musical.
April 2017 – In 2008, Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow took a “life-changing stroll” in Brooklyn Heights.
During the walk, he ran into a friend whose daughter knew playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. The friend relayed that Miranda loved the Hamilton biography that Chernow published in 2004. That encounter triggered a meeting between Chernow and Miranda that fueled the creation of one of the most popular musicals of all time.
Chernow told that story and many others during an electric talk at Drew University. Chernow, the guest of the University’s Drew Forum speaker series, regaled a crowd of nearly 800 with highlights from Hamilton’s remarkable life, including his unlikely trajectory from orphan in St. Croix to architect of America’s federal government. But it was the backstory to Hamilton: An American Musical that had attendees hanging on his every word. At one point, he even rapped the play’s title song, illustrating his transformation from learned biographer to hip-hop enthusiast.
Here are the six most intriguing tales about the musical, as shared by Chernow during his talk, which was sponsored by the Thomas H. Kean Visiting Lectureship.
The book could have been a movie before it became a play. “The story was so extraordinary [that] I did think there would be a dramatization,” Chernow said. “In fact, the book came out in 2004. It was optioned three times by Hollywood for a feature film. It disappeared into this black hole. Nothing happened. I said to my literary agent, ‘I don’t understand this. What more could one want from a story?'”
At one point in its development, the musical had dialogue. Miranda hired an accomplished playwright to write dialogue for between the songs. That version of the play, however, was short-lived. “The hip-hop was so intense that every time the music … stopped and the dialogue began, the energy seemed to drain out of the show. So, Lin made what seems like the greatest decision. He said, ‘Okay, this is going to be wall-to-wall music.’
Early on, most people snickered at the idea of a hip-hop musical about a founding father. After connecting with Manuel, Chernow became a historical advisor to the production, listening to the songs Manuel wrote and offering feedback. And while both were enthusiastic about the play in progress, few outsiders were. “Even a couple of nights before it opened, I was walking on Lafayette Street right near The Public Theater, where it started. … I heard one young woman saying to the other, ‘It’s a musical about Alexander Hamilton!’ They both started roaring with laughter,” Chernow said. “And then the first one added, ‘And it’s in hip-hop!’ Then they really roared with laughter. That was basically the reaction we were getting from everywhere.”
Key characters represent different musical styles. If Hamilton is Mr. Hip-Hop—a driven, almost frenetic man—some of the older, more established leaders like Thomas Jefferson and King George III are all together something else. “Jefferson was 12 years older than Hamilton. So, Lin sees him as someone of an older generation. So, he sings in jazz,” Chernow explained. “George the third is five years older than Jefferson and so he sings in this kind of British pop, Beatles style from the late 1960s.”
“Satisfied” is Chernow’s favorite song from the musical. Why? Because it provides perspective at a joyous and optimistic moment. It’s also central the author’s favorite scene.
The play’s success helped keep Hamilton on the $10 bill. Months after the U.S. Treasury revealed that it was thinking about dropping Hamilton in favor of a female historical figure, Chernow noticed U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sitting across the aisle from him at the show. “I went over and introduced myself. I said, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to have you here.’ And Jack Lew said, ‘I brought my wife because today’s our anniversary.’ And as soon as he said that, I said, ‘Hamilton has been saved on the ten!” because I realized he would never have brought his wife for their anniversary” if Hamilton wasn’t still on the bill. Later, Lew acknowledged as much, noting that the Treasury was “absolutely stunned and overwhelmed” by the “number of people who spoke out in favor of preserving Hamilton. And he said that the one thing that he had not recognized is the popularity of the book and the musical itself.”