On the night of May 12, 2009, actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda took the stage at the White House’s Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word. Visibly nervous, Miranda introduced his performance to the Beltway celebrities in attendance, including President Obama and the First Family.
“It’s a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton,” he explained to faint laughter as he assumed the character of Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s assailant in the most iconic duel in U.S. history. Miranda then launched into a churning, piano-accompanied paean to the “ten dolla Founding Father without a father” that concluded with a standing ovation
Miranda, 30, is usually more than comfortable with performing. While attending Wesleyan University, he was onstage every chance he got; in 2007, he wrote and starred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights. But he remembers his White House stage fright with chagrin: “I saw Obama turn to Michelle and mouth ‘This is great!’ and then I was so nervous I couldn’t look at them for the rest of the performance,” he says. “And any day that starts with a van ride to the White House with James Earl Jones is a surreal day to begin with.”
Alexander Hamilton is an unlikely topic for hip-hop, a genre more often concerned with inventories of property and sexual conquest than the author of the Federalist Papers. But the connection is obvious to Miranda, who dreamt up The Hamilton Mixtape between performances of In the Heights: “I read an amazing biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow, and every other chapter I was going, ‘This is Tupac! This is Biggie!’” he explains. “Hamilton pulled himself up out of nothing, the rags-to-riches story. That’s the American story, and it’s also the hip-hop story.”
After his successful White House premiere, Miranda is eager to write the rest of the album. His tone becomes exuberant as he rattles off ideas for other tracks, tracing the similarities between Hamilton and Tupac, both famous for their verbal and written barbs: “Hamilton caught beef with John Adams, while Adams was president. He had an incredible war of words with Thomas Jefferson. James Madison was his friend, but then went over to Jefferson’s side,” Miranda says. “And these weren’t battles over who was the best rapper, these were battles over what kind of country this should be. What could be more interesting to rap about than that?”