The current moment has forced the original cast and crew of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s massive hit musical Hamilton to revisit and reevaluate the story it tells about America’s founding. As Miranda himself told The Root’s Tonja Renée Stidhum, “All of these guys are complicit in the brutal practice of slavery, slavery is the third line of our show… that is just a prerequisite for the story we’re telling.” But he didn’t first set out to write history. “Originally, this was a concept album. I wanted to write a hip hop album, so I was never picturing the guys on the statues that are being torn down right now. I was picturing, ‘What are the voices that are best suited to tell the story.’”
Debuting in more optimistic times, when the country had its first Black president, Hamilton declared, says Leslie Odom, Jr. (who played Aaron Burr) that “if this history belongs to all of us… then we’re going to take it and we’re going to say it and use our own words to tell it!” Controversy and critique aside, there’s no denying Miranda’s tremendous gifts as a dramatist and songwriter, on display not only in Hamilton but in the Moana soundtrack.
How does he do it? Riding the wave of renewed Hamilton fandom after the Disney release of the original cast film, Miranda recently sat down with Rotten Tomatoes to discuss his process. When he gets to Hamilton, he gives us a detailed breakdown of “My Shot,” which, he says, took him a year to write.
“It was not only writing Hamilton’s ‘I want’ song,” says Miranda, “although it certainly is that. It was also proving my thesis that Hamilton’s intellect is what allows him to propel through the narrative of the story.” The play’s protagonist proves his intellectual worthiness by mastering and making his own the styles of Miranda’s favorite rappers, from Big Pun to Jay Z to Biggie to Mobb Deep. “I’m grabbing from the influences and paying homage to those influences. …I’m literally calling on the ancestors of this flow. …The ‘Whoah’ section, I’ll just say, is based on the AOL startup sound because I wanted it to feel like …his words are connecting with the world.”
Whether or not any of Hamilton’s younger viewers have ever heard the AOL startup sound, the detail reveals how Miranda’s mind works. His creations emerge from a matrix of references and allusions, each one chosen for its specific relation to the story. Many of these callbacks go over the audience’s heads, but they still have their intended effect, creating tension in “the densest couplets that I could write,” Miranda says. The message in “My Shot,” within the context of the musical itself, is that “Hamilton is the future within this group of friends.” But the message of Hamilton has nothing to do with the 18th century and everything to do with the 21st. Perhaps its most subversive idea is that the highest leadership in the U.S. might just as well look like Hamilton as Hamilton. See Miranda and the Hamilton cast perform “My Shot” at the White House just below.
via Laughing Squid