Author Ron Chernow discusses hip-hop musical 'Hamilton'

“I have thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
–Alexander Hamilton, letter of Aug. 13, 1782

Carlos Rene Perez/Provided
Author Ron Chernow is interviewed by Patricia Bosworth for the Weill Cornell Medicine Readers and Writers Series.

Among the dynamic duos that come to mind in pop-culture – Fey and Poehler, Seinfeld and Costanza, or Scully and Mulder – there are two names that you should get to know: Ron Chernow and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Although one is a New York Times best-selling biographer and the other a Grammy-award winning musician and actor, the pair has collaborated to create “Hamilton,” one of the most brilliantly executed musicals of the 21st century. And just like the musical’s title character, Miranda told the story as it is – and not how it ought to be.

For Chernow, author of the biography on which the musical is based, that is the only way the life of Hamilton should be portrayed. Sitting down with Weill Cornell Medicine students, faculty and staff on March 1 as the latest speaker for the institution’s Readers and Writers Series – which seeks to expose medical students to disciplines and subjects they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to explore – Chernow conveyed to the audience a sense of the magic behind making a smash Broadway musical.

“When Lin first approached me about his idea, he said Alexander Hamilton’s life was a classic hip-hop narrative,” said Chernow, whose book, “Alexander Hamilton,” has been on the Times best-seller list for 22 weeks. “And when he realized he was speaking to the biggest hip-hop ignoramus,” Chernow recalled, “Lin said, ‘Ron, let me educate you in hip-hop.’”

Miranda later invited him to be the historical adviser for the musical; Chernow remembered asking, “Does that mean I tell you when something is wrong?” To which Miranda sincerely replied, “Yes, I want the historians to take this seriously” – which, Chernow said, was music to his ears. Using hip-hop to pack Hamilton’s story into quick, condensed lyrics that told a very rich, complex story, the composer had seriously impressed the author.

Chernow recalled the whirlwind of emotions that have come with having a best-selling biography turn into a box-office-breaking Broadway musical. “The idea of middle-aged men sitting around discussing politics in 1776 conjures up remote, musty figures in our minds,” Chernow said. “But these gloriously talented, young, ethnically diverse performers have made the Founding Fathers seem approachable – bringing them to life.”

The author believes Miranda’s “Hamilton” is leaving a deeper impression in the lives of theater-goers – even greater than one of his favorites, “West Side Story” – because it is changing the way people see significant figures and events in U.S. history. One of the most memorable moments for Chernow was when African-American actor Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in the company, expressed to him that, “now my people will get a piece of this history.”

Chernow’s visit to Weill Cornell Medicine provided students with a break from the rigor and demands of medical education. Now in its fifth year, the series has introduced students to other authors, including Jonathan Franzen, Jamaica Kincaid, E. L. Doctorow, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee and Woody Allen.

“Medical education is so time-intensive that students can lose touch with the larger cultural world,” said Dr. Anna Fels, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and founder of the Readers and Writers Series. “The experience of hearing distinguished contemporary writers opens the students’ horizons. It’s both enlivening and fun.”

Jamie Black is an editorial intern for Weill Cornell Medicine.

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