‘Rappers love Jesus Christ Superstar’
‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Lloyd Webber on musical theatre – from Hammerstein to hip hop
and I was like: “Oh this is about a songwriter who needs music to get girls to like him… this is about me!”
When I started out, everyone wanted to be either a Beatle or a Stone. If you said you liked Rodgers and Hammerstein, people looked at you as though you were on another planet. I was ploughing quite a lonely furrow. Funnily enough, the first piece of mine that really took off was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was written for a school – it was telling history in a new way… which I suppose brings us on to Hamilton.
That’s really our shared DNA, because when I read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, by the end of the second chapter, I realised hip hop was the only way to tell this guy’s life story. I said: “I’m about to get my Andrew Lloyd Webber moment. I will do a concept album and I will have rappers play the American Founding Fathers.” In my head, I was going to make this amazing album and everyone who listened would ask: when will it be on stage?
We were forced to do the Jesus Christ Superstar album because no one thought a stage musical about Jesus was a good idea. We recorded a single, Superstar, and it got a bit of traction round the world. As a consequence, the record company said: “OK, you can have money to do the album.” We did the record almost by mistake because no one would stage it.
With Hamilton I had to write the show in order to make the album – so I went around it backwards. I’d been saying hip hop belongs on Broadway for years. The things I love about hip hop are also the things I love about my favourite musicals – how you tell a story, how much you can pack into a lyric. The show had a weirdly public gestation. I performed the first song [of Hamilton] at the White House, as one does. Obama had just been elected; they invited me to perform something from In the Heights – “unless you have something about the American experience”. I sent the producer of the evening the lyrics. He wrote back: “You’re going to be the closing number of our night.” It went well and I then worked at a glacial pace, a song a year. By 2010, when I had two songs, Tommy [Kail, the show’s director] said: “Let’s start setting deadlines.”
I was drowning in the research. John Weidman [a librettist and frequent Stephen Sondheim collaborator] said: “Stop worrying about getting everything, just write the parts you think are a musical.”
That’s exactly what I did. There was a version where there were dialogue scenes between songs; we worked with a great playwright, who will remain unnamed, who wrote these beautiful dialogue scenes. But it didn’t work… The usual rule of musicals is that you talk and when it’s heightened, you sing – and when it’s even more heightened you dance. In our show, we inverted that: you only talk when it is super-important.
I remember meeting Richard Rodgers after Superstar came out. The only thing he wanted to know was: did I think the through-sung musical was going to be the future? I remember saying: I think it’s horses for courses, with certain shows you’ve got to have dialogue. You can have a great score and a bad story and the great score can’t necessarily carry the show. But you can have a not terribly good score and a great story and it will still work.
For me, the insight with Hamilton was: this is a story hip hop is uniquely suited to tell, because Hamilton created himself through his writing. I’d go: “Oh, he writes under pseudonyms, who does that? Rappers do that!”
What was incredible was that the show became a magnet for the hip hop community. All my dreams came true with In the Heights –I went from broke substitute teacher to Broadway composer – that’s the biggest leap I’ll ever make in my life. That said, it never really landed with the hip hop community, even though there’s a lot of hip hop in it. So to have the hip hop community come to Hamilton, and [American rap star] Busta Rhymes sit in the front row, was incredible.
Can success become a straitjacket?
It can be. I was the cover story on Time magazine in 1988 and I remember thinking: “I don’t need this, I’m a Brit, I’m not part of the Broadway community. It’s going to make things very difficult for me.” You have to remain true to yourself, and write next what you actually want to write rather than what you think you should write about.
Paul Taylor-Mills, artistic director of The Other Palace
After Hamilton what do you do next; and how do you keep your humility?
Musical masters: left, Lin- Manuel Miranda and Andrew Lloyd Webber in conversation at The Other Palace theatre, London