Ron Chernow: That other ‘Hamilton’ guy
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In the beginning, there was Ron Chernow’s 818-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, published in 2004.
Then came the sun and the surf and a bit of vacation reading by a guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who already had won his first shelf of Tony Awards for his musical “In the Heights,” which opened on Broadway in 2008.
The rest of the story is history, with the latest chapter about to unfold as “Hamilton,” Miranda’s megahit second Tony Award-winning musical, prepares to open in Chicago.
But let’s backtrack a bit.
Before “Alexander Hamilton,” Chernow had made his mark with books about several fabled financial dynasties — including “The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance ” (for which he received the National Book Award for nonfiction), “The Warburgs: The Twentieth-Century Odyssey of a Remarkable Jewish Family” and “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.”
So his chronicle of Hamilton, the first U.S. treasury secretary (as well as a great deal more), was, in many ways, a natural segue. (Chernow’s subsequent biography, “Washington: A Life,” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography. And he’s now at work on a biography of another general and president, Ulysses S. Grant.)
On the other hand, although a lifelong New Yorker and a lifelong theatergoer, Chernow laughs as he allows: “I had seen hundreds of plays, but I was not an especially great fan of musicals. And I certainly never, in my wildest dreams, believed I would ever be on the other side of the whole process of creating one.”
Here is how it happened.
“I was walking around Brooklyn Heights with a friend one day in the fall of 2008, at the same time ‘In the Heights’ was playing on Broadway. He mentioned that his daughter had gone to Wesleyan University with Lin-Manuel and had told her he’d read my book while on vacation and was excited that she knew me. So I was invited to a matinee of his show and loved it and went backstage to meet him. He was charming and said he was thinking about turning my book into either a hip-hop concept album or a musical.
When: Begins previews Sept. 27; opens Oct. 19
Where: The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
“Little did he know that he had a complete ignoramus on his hands when it came to hip-hop,” said Chernow. “But the one thing I knew was that I wanted a serious rendering of Hamilton, not a glib satire. So I asked him,’Do you think hip-hop can be a vehicle for such a complex character?’ And that is where my education in hip-hop began.
“It also was when he asked me to be his ‘historical adviser’ for the show. Vetting the lyrics for historical accuracy was perhaps the least important thing I did because Lin had read the book closely and already knew when he had used dramatic license and compression. More valuable, I think, was the time we spent discussing the psychological complexities and relationships among the story’s characters.”
Here, as Chernow explained it, are his primary “lessons” by way of Miranda:
• “You can pack more information into hip-hop than other musical forms. In fact, Hamilton has more words than most characters aside from Hamlet. And the fact is only about 40 percent of the score is hip-hop.”
• “Hip-hop employs an enormous number of rhymes — both at the ends of lines and internally — which is part of the appeal of the score. It also engages in a lot of wonderful wordplay. The score is full of witty quatrains — something you realize from the opening song. And I myself have come to think of hip-hop as verse drama in the tradition of the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare.”
• “The show’s first song — which introduces many of the major characters — accurately and penetratingly tells you all you need to know about the first third of Hamilton’s life, and it took Lin a year to write. It took him another year to write the second song, in which Hamilton first meets [Aaron] Burr [who ultimately kills him in a duel]. After that, the show’s director, Thomas Kail, put Lin on a songwriting regimen, warning him that otherwise they’d all be dead by the time the score was finished.”
• “While many people who haven’t seen the show think of hip-hop as being misogynistic, that is certainly not true of ‘Hamilton.’ ”
Asked about what has changed since our Founding Fathers shaped this country with the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, Chernow said: “People often imagine that it was all very courtly and genteel back then. But, as I think Lin shows, there was ferocious partisanship, political malice and in-fighting.
“On the other hand, it was a moment in American life when the best minds went into politics, which is not the case today. They were an extraordinarily brilliant bunch of people. And think of it this way: The first census in this country was taken in 1790 and recorded a total population of 4 million people. Among that rather small number were Hamilton and Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. They were fiery, passionate, opinionated men who were intensely true to their principles, which is why they had such fights.”
So what would Hamilton be doing were he alive today?
“He might have an endowed chair at a major university or be the head of a hi-tech startup or be doing leveraged buyouts on Wall Street,” Chernow said. “I think he would be uncomfortable with a political life based on tweets and bumper stickers.”