The stand-out episode of Drunk History this season has arrived, featuring the creator of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda tells the tipsy tale of the man who inspired his great modern musical.
Being Australian, you'd be forgiven for not knowing a whole lot about former US President Alexander Hamilton. So, if you’re not up to speed with Hamilton, here’s everything you need to know.
What is Hamilton about?
Set in the 1700s, it tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the American founding fathers who started life as an orphan in the Caribbean before migrating to the American colonies and becoming a dedicated supporter of American independence. Hamilton fought during the American Revolution alongside George Washington and became an important figure in formation of government in America once they became independent from England. He was an influential interpreter and promoter of the American Constitution, as well as the founder of the nation's financial system, the United States Coast Guard, and The New York Post newspaper. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was the main author of the economic policies of the Washington administration.
Hey, I think I’ve seen this Hamilton guy somewhere before?
Yes, his portrait is on the American $10 bill. Hamilton is often referred to as the ‘$10 Founding Father’ but his prominence as a historical figure was never fully cemented because the political rivals who outlived him worked hard to bury is name.
So, how did his life become a hit musical?
Miranda, a successful musical composer and performer, was on vacation during the run of his musical In the Heights and was perusing an airport bookshop looking for something to read. He chanced across Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton. Captivated by Hamilton’s story, Miranda began investigating whether a theatre production based on his life had ever been staged. Miranda envisioned the story being staged as a musical and began writing lyrics. In 2009, Miranda was invited to perform music from In the Heights, which had just won the Tony Award for best musical, at The White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word. Instead, he performed a rough version of the opening number of what would become Hamilton. Miranda kept writing and Hamilton debuted off-Broadway in early 2015. The show opened to glowing reviews and sold out every show. Mid-2015, it moved to Broadway and allegedly took in $30 million before its official opening. Hamilton set a Broadway box office record for the most money grossed in a single week in New York City and continues to be one of the highest earning new musicals.
But it’s based on American history, sounds boring.
Here’s the twist, Miranda specializes in creating hip-hop musicals. A majority of Hamilton is rapped or sung all the way through with little stoppage for dialogue. Hamilton consists of more than 20,000 words packed into 2-and-a-half hours running at roughly 144 words-per-minute, according to stats done by FiveThirtyEight. If Hamilton were sung at the pace of a standard Broadway show it would run for 6 hours. The lyrics flow beautifully and create a fusion of all different musical genres.
It’s very hard to get bored during this show. In fact, Hamilton is being credited with reinvigorating interest in the American founding fathers and public schools and universities in America are building study materials around the musical.
Is there anyone famous in it?
The original cast was made up of musical theatre actors who were relatively unknown outside of the Broadway scene. They have all since made a name for themselves thanks to Hamilton. The show’s casting was done to reflect the diversity of America in 2016/17. “Our goal was: This is a story about America then, told by America now, and we want to eliminate any distance – our story should look the way our country looks,” Miranda told The New York Times. “Then we found the best people to embody these parts. I think it’s a very powerful statement without having to be a statement.”
The only main character played by a white actor is King George. The casting re-contextualises how we approach historical figures like George Washington and breaks down barriers to accessing dominantly white American history. Miranda’s career has exploded thanks to the success of Hamilton; he was hired by Disney to write the music for Moana, which gained him an Oscar nomination for best song; he’ll make his big screen debut in the Mary Poppins sequel due for release in 2018 and he’s working on composing the live-action version of The Little Mermaid. Miranda will also adapt the popular fantasy book series, The Kingkiller Chronicle, into a film with a tie-in television series.
What if I can’t afford to go to New York to see this show? It’s sold out years in advance already!
Yep, it’s nearly impossible to get tickets to see Hamilton, but the cast recording is kind-of, almost just as good as being there. It’s a musical that has a songbook that stands on its own. The majority of the story is told through the lyrics, so you can experience Hamilton from the comfort of your iPod. There is a rumour floating around that it’s coming to Australia sometime in 2018/19, but why wait when a blind buy of the album will give you the best seat to one of the great modern musicals.
How many awards has it won?
It won 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, a Grammy Award for best musical theatre album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Okay, okay, okay, I’m sold, who’s in this Drunk History episode?
Alia Shawkat plays Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza plays the found father’s rival, Aaron Burr. Bookeem Woodbine plays George Washington and there’s cameos from Dave Grohl, Tony Hale and Questlove.
Make a trip to your wet bar and pour yourself an adult drink before watching Drunk History on SBS VICELAND on Sunday night at 9:35pm. Previous episodes are streaming now on SBS On Demand: