Alexander Hamilton's Financial Legacy Is A Hit Musical

Alexander Hamilton's Financial Legacy Is A Hit Musical

7:33pm Oct 15, 2015

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Right now, the hottest ticket on Broadway is the hip-hop musical "Hamilton." It's written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is also its star. The musical tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first treasury secretary, but not just that. Basically, Hamilton laid the very foundations of America's modern economy. We asked NPR's Jim Zarroli, who normally covers the business world, to see how Miranda managed to transform Hamilton's financial legacy into a Broadway show.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: The Great Falls in Paterson, N.J., the birthplace of America's industrial revolution. One day in 1778, George Washington stopped here to have lunch and with him were General Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton.

LEONARD ZAX: We actually know what they had for lunch. They had a ham, tongue, biscuits and grog.

ZARROLI: Attorney Leonard Zax heads the Hamilton Partnership, which raised money to convert the falls into a national park.

ZAX: And one could imagine then George Washington's admiring the view, and General Lafayette's thinking, can't they get better wine in this country? And Hamilton's sort of saying I see industry here.

ZARROLI: Zax says Hamilton would later write a hugely influential paper about how the new country could become an industrial power, and these falls would play a part in it.

ZAX: He believed that if you got people coming here, take advantage of the power, rent the space, don't have to have a big investment - they can try out new ideas.

ZARROLI: It sounds kind of like one of today's tech incubators. Hamilton's forward-thinking created the nation's first central bank and its first commercial bank. He created the modern market for federal debt.

RON CHERNOW: I like to think of Hamilton as the messenger from the future.

ZARROLI: Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow says the U.S. economy today would simply not be the same if Alexander Hamilton hadn't existed.

CHERNOW: Hamilton saw a place that would not only have traditional agriculture, but that would have banks and stock exchanges, corporations and big cities manufacturing. In other words, the country very much as we see it today.

ZARROLI: Banking and stock exchanges don't usually make hearts flutter on Broadway. So when Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to turn Hamilton's story into a musical, he had to tackle some pretty dry material. He brings it to life by portraying a Caribbean immigrant who rises to greatness through genius and drive.


LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, singing) I'm past patiently waiting. I'm passionately smashing every expectation. Every action's an act of creation. I'm laughing in the face of casualties and sorrow. For the first time I'm thinking past tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) But I am not throwing away my shot. I am not throwing away my shot.

ZARROLI: Hamilton falls in love, fights in the revolution and ultimately dies in a duel with Aaron Burr. Along the way, Miranda tells the story of how the American economy became what it is. In his dressing room after a Wednesday matinee, Miranda eats sushi and talks about the show. He says before writing "Hamilton," he barely knew the difference between macro and micro economics.

MIRANDA: But I had to learn because, you know, the other fun challenge of writing this show is I have to put words in the mouths of geniuses. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton - these were the intellectual lights of their generation. And I have to understand their arguments and then I have to figure out how to make those arguments rhyme and compelling and sort of unpack them in a way that they translate across the stage.

ZARROLI: Miranda says finance was no theoretical concept for Hamilton. At one point in the show, Hamilton sings about the hardships faced by Washington's forces at Valley Forge. They, like the colonies as a whole, were still dependent on British currency. So the soldiers had trouble buying food and supplies. Miranda says they were reduced to eating their horses.

MIRANDA: I think about that a lot when it comes to Hamilton and the economy because this is not someone for whom economics is an abstract idea. This had life or death consequences to him and his friends. And when our money is worthless, we're worthless. We live, we die by what we can do economically.

ZARROLI: After the revolution, Hamilton arranged for the federal government to pay the debts that the individual colonies had run up. It helped forge the strong centralized government we have today. For Hamilton, an orphan from the West Indies, the issue was personal.

MIRANDA: This is a guy who doesn't have a homeland he claims or is proud of. So he sees us as a United States while everyone else is very much still in a colonial mindset. And so his financial scheme, in a way, could only have come from him and also begins to get us in the notion of we're a United States. I'm not Virginia versus Connecticut versus South Carolina.

ZARROLI: Not everyone liked Hamilton's ideas. Miranda wrote a rap battle between Hamilton and his political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson.


MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) If we assume the debts, the union gets a new line of credit, a financial diuretic. How do you not get it? If we're aggressive and competitive, the union gets a boost. You'd rather give it a sedative?

ZARROLI: Biographer Ron Chernow says language like this translates to contemporary audiences.

CHERNOW: I think that it's an entire course in American history in a two-and-a-half hour show. And I actually feel that it's the greatest opportunity in our lifetime to interest people in American history, particularly younger people.

ZARROLI: The show even contained a song about war bonds, though Miranda ultimately had to cut it. He says you can only give audiences so much economics.

MIRANDA: It was - I'll try to remember it. It was like (rapping) all night bull session, tell them what we need; something, something, something, bring them up to speed. Tell them about the plan to buy war bonds at cost. How the speculators won, how the war vets lost. Tell them about the plan for a bank and assumption, tell about the arrogance, the gall, the gumption. Tell them to be ready when Hamilton starts debating. Now walk him in the room. George Washington is waiting.

There's so much other stuff going on, I could literally see it bouncing off the audience's heads and not going in.

ZARROLI: But Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to get a lot in that would normally go over the heads of most people. And Alexander Hamilton's accomplishments aren't really well understood by the public either. His story has often been overshadowed by the other founding fathers. With "Hamilton" the musical, he may finally be getting his due. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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