When I think of rap musicals, the first thing that comes to mind is the hilariously atrocious Rap the Musical! comedy sketch from Mr. Show. But audiences can expect a far more powerful and incisive fusion of rhymes and drama with Hamilton, a new production now playing at the Public Theater in New York City. Created by composer/rapper/Broadway staple Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical explores the American Revolution through the experiences of Alexander Hamilton. The story is inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton—an orphan from the West Indies who went on to become America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. And what makes the musical brilliant is the fact that while the founding fathers were all white dudes in powdered wigs, the cast mostly consists of nonwhite actors and the music they use to found the nation is pop, R&B and hip-hop.
Daveed Diggs, a member of Los Angeles hip-hop trip clipping., plays the roles of Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette. He points out that back in the day, before the existence of TV soundbites and hashtag campaigns, great politicians lived or died by their writing and oratorical skills. And Diggs says that the musical’s casting reflects the identity of the nation, as it is now and as it’s always been.
“It’s not diverse for diversity’s sake,” he says. “It’s that these are the actors who should play these parts, and it looks like America looks.”
Speaking by phone while on a break from rehearsal last week, he talked with me about his roles in the musical, a great Revolutionary War-era rapper name, and American history past and present.
— Peter Holslin
So, what’s it like playing an African-American, rapping Thomas Jefferson?
Daveed Diggs: [laughs] It’s pretty fun. The great thing about this script and what Lin and all the rest of the creative team has here is that it’s one of very few theater pieces that I’ve read or been a part of where the rapping aspect isn’t the gimmick. It’s just the way people talk in this world. Which is great, when you think about it, because pop musicals have been a thing for a long time and rap music is I think old enough where, you know, none of us interact with it as if it’s a gimmick, right? None of us are like,
“Hey did you hear that new crazy rappin’ song on the radio?”
That doesn’t happen. It’s just what music sounds like. So it’s great to also be in a piece that treats it like that.
I was watching a video from 2009 of Lin performing a song from the musical, and in that context the rap music really makes sense. Do you feel like that’s the case with your roles, too? What Jefferson is doing fits with the genre?
DD: Yeah, totally. All of these guys were really great writers, and really smart, just incredibly smart people, and witty in the way rappers are. And when you look at how political campaigns were run at the time, everything was happening in the newspapers. It’s not like there was television. So the way that you got information about somebody was because somebody wrote it down and published it if you weren’t there. So setting these guys up as guys who are good with words makes sense. Format-wise, structuring a cabinet meeting as a rap battle makes sense. There’s something about the format that works.
The thing about it too is there are cadence references. There are direct lyric and cadence references to all kinds of rappers throughout the show.
You mean like the style of delivery?
DD: Yeah, exactly. You’ll hear a cadence that you will recognize.
Like the Migos Flow?
DD: Mostly older stuff than that. I mean, there’s a couple things that maybe could be construed as Kendrick-style references, but I don’t know if they’re that specific. But there’s some Biggie stuff. There’s some Lauryn Hill. There’s some Brand Nubian.
How did you first come across this role?
DD: Lin and the director Thomas Kail are part of a group called Freestyle Love Supreme. It’s kind of like where freestyle meets sketch comedy in a way. They do these full, evening-length, sort of improvised shows with Lin playing a bunch of different games with the audience. I’ve been a periphery member of that crew for a while, and they would just call me in when they needed folks to come in for tours or whatever. About, I don’t know, I guess it was 2013, 2012, they got asked to do some things at the Super Bowl when it was in New Orleans, for ESPN. They asked me to come along and do that if I was available.
That’s the first time I worked with Tommy, and pretty soon after that he mentioned this to me. About two and a half years ago they did a workshop of just the first act at Vassar as part of a thing called New York Stage and Film, this summer residency series for new theater. I came up there and did it, and I’ve been associated with the project ever since. Which is cool. It’s been really great to see how it’s grown and changed.
In the musical, what role are you playing at this point in Thomas Jefferson’s life?
DD: We meet Jefferson in the show right as he’s returning from France. He’s over in France as the ambassador for essentially the entire revolution. Thomas Jefferson missed the whole war and was just over in France, so we meet him in the second act when he comes back. He was just given the job of Secretary of State pretty much upon his arrival. He shows up and then goes up to New York to start being part of the government, and that’s where he meets Hamilton and becomes a sort of foil to a number of Hamilton’s ambitions.
Alexander Hamilton was the founder of the Federalist party while Jefferson led the Democratic-Republican Party. In the play do they get into it over Republicanism versus Federalism?
DD: There’s a little bit of that. The two main debates that are showcased during the show—one is about the banks and where to put the banks and this idea of debt, and whether debt should be a thing that other states could be able to bear for money they didn’t spend. If there was a national run bank, then everyone is sort of in it together, which is of course eventually what Hamilton started and it’s the system we still use.
The other big debate that they have in the show is over whether to support France in their revolution, to aid in a foreign war. The great thing about that is that these are debates we’re still having all the time in our current political system.
Tell me about Marquis de Lafayette. The only thing I really know about him is that he’s the guy who all those streets are named after.
DD: He’s a really interesting dude. Apparently it was a big thing during the revolution for French aristocracy to come to the U.S. and enlist, because the French were also planning their own revolution. They were really into this American ideal of democracy, and because of that, people in the leisure class, people with free time—”I’m going to go to America and be part of a revolution”—[that] was a really en vogue thing to do. I was actually reading some letters from Washington where he was writing to Congress being like,
“Hey guys, if you’re going to let rich French people come over here, could you please make sure they could fight or something first? It’s actually more detrimental to our already suffering army than not having them at all.”
Lafayette was another one of these guys, but he was from a big military family, and he and Washington really hit it off. Washington really thought of him as kind of the son he never had. He got injured and Washington would keep him in his house and have his own personal doctors attend to him. They were very, very close. And even after the war, there are a lot of letters back and forth from them talking about how to secure their legacies, how they would be remembered, who they should get to build statues of each other. It’s sort of different from today, where it’s about being famous right now. A big part of being famous in that time was about how you were going to be remembered, and who you were at the moment was kind of an afterthought, in a way.
What is Lafayette’s role in the musical?
DD: In the first act, which is essentially the war, Hamilton, Lafayette and John Laurens and Hercules Mulligan make up a crew that we refer to as the Sons of Liberty.
I’m sorry, did you just say Hercules Mulligan?
DD: Yeah, that’s a real guy. You should for sure check out Hercules Mulligan. It’s the best rapper’s name. He was a tailor’s apprentice who became a spy. He would measure all of the British soldiers and government officials and then come back and report intelligence that he had gathered to the U.S. Yeah, so those are Hamilton’s friends. They are the guys who sort of all fight in the war together.
How does the musical resonate with what’s been going on in the country now?
DD: We’re still having the same fights, and that’s kind of equal parts horrifying and amazing, you know? It’s great that we created this system where we can have these fights, which isn’t true everywhere. But sometimes frustrating at the lack of progress. The other thing that resonates for me, and I think for a lot of us in the cast, is that they were very careful to make sure that, ethnically, the cast reflects the nation now. There’s a certain amount of ownership over the country that I think everybody gets to feel. At least I know I do.
Oftentimes I’m in the minority by design. You feel like an outsider. But the story of this show is that this country was built by young immigrants, and then you look onstage and see these people who look like people that you know. People from your neighborhood, or people in your family—doing this thing, making a country, that these people who we’ve always put on these very specific pedestals did.
With the Michael Brown shooting and the death of Eric Garner and everything else that’s happened in recent months, it’s interesting this musical is coming out right now. Do you feel like there’s a significance there?
DD: Absolutely. We’re in an interesting time right now as a country, and it’s really frustrating, at least for me, that there has to be a slogan like “Black Lives Matter,” you know what I’m saying? That that’s a thing that has to be shouted for everybody to hear is crazy. So, I think—and this is certainly not written into the show or anything, it’s just by the nature of what the show is and by the people making it—it does resonate with people a lot.
You come to it and you get to watch black and brown people embodying things that are actually outside of this totally ludicrous discussion of that concept, too often with Internet trolls, about whether somebody “deserved it,” whether X-Y black person shot down by a police officer deserved it because they were a “thug” or a “gang-banger,” which is insane. There is something that happens for me, at least, about watching brown people embody these figures who we only know because they’re on the money. And when we talk about who is American and who is entitled to rights as an American citizen—if the founders of the country don’t, then nobody does. And they were immigrants too, right? So that’s something to think about.
While we were just starting rehearsal was when all of the . . . I mean, there were a bunch of big protests happening at the time, and it was interesting to be in the midst of that but also coming to rehearse this thing. Getting to work on something that felt important while all of that was going on was really good for me, I think, because I might’ve just lost my mind. I don’t know. I still have a hard time processing these repeated atrocities that are occurring.