Have you listened to the music from the Tony Award-winning musical #Hamilton? Better yet, have you been lucky enough to catch a live performance? The Broadway show’s composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was inspired to write a hip-hop musical after reading a biography he picked up on vacation in 2008. This week’s #RespectYourElders feature is Ron Chernow (born 1949), author of that book, “Alexander Hamilton.”
Chernow was born in Brooklyn, New York and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Yale University and Cambridge University. He began his career as a freelance journalist before turning to nonfiction writing. Since 1990, he has written six biographies about business and political leaders throughout American history. The books’ subjects range from J.P. Morgan to George Washington, and of course, Alexander Hamilton.
Chernow has won multiple awards for his books — from the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998 for his John D. Rockefeller biography, to the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington. His 832-page biography of Alexander Hamilton, published in 2004, remained on the New York Times’ Best Seller list for seven months after the musical “Hamilton” debuted.
Once Miranda came up with the idea to create a musical based on “Alexander Hamilton,” Chernow found himself as a historical advisor to a musical — a role he never expected to take on, especially for a show with hip-hop music. When Miranda approached him with his idea, Chernow admitted, “Little did he know that he had a complete ignoramus on his hands when it came to hip-hop. … 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.”
Hamilton premiered in New York City in January 2015 and is currently playing in New York, London and in Chicago at the PrivateBank Theatre through January 2018. At the 2016 Tony Awards, it won Best Musical and Best Original Score, among several other accolades. The musical was also awarded a Grammy, a Drama Desk award and even a Pulitzer Prize.
Chernow isn’t done writing biographies of historical American figures — but we’ll see whether they turn into hit musicals. Chernow’s latest biography of the 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant will publish on October 17. Read more about it in the Chicago Tribune.