The Room Where It Happened
How did a bastard orphan go on and on to become a musical phenomenon? Loren Plotkin and Nancy Rose on the legal work behind Hamilton
Published in 2016 New York Metro Super Lawyers magazine
on September 21, 2016
Updated on July 2, 2020
A hip-hop musical about the first secretary of the Treasury? The guy on the $10 bill that nobody wanted on the $10 bill? The founding father of our national bank?
“It didn’t sound like a commercial slam dunk,” admits Nancy Rose of Schreck Rose Dapello & Adams, who reps Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. “But Lin-Manuel is a brilliant artist and I believed that if he was driven by the subject matter, he would make it great.”
“Did you read the book?” asks Loren Plotkin of Levine Plotkin & Menin, who reps the show’s producer, Jeffrey
Seller, referring to Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton. “I read it, and I just didn’t see how you could make a musical out of this biography, which is a very dense 600 to 700 pages. But when you deal with artists—and I’ve been dealing with artists most of my adult life—they see things that aren’t there. Lin is an artist who sees things other people just don’t see.”
Now everyone’s seeing it—or trying to. Hamilton, which began at the Public Theater January 2015, and moved to the Richard Rodgers last August, is sold out a year in advance. It set a record for Tony nominations with 16, and won 11, including best musical, director, choreography, actor, featured actor, featured actress and score. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, only the ninth musical to be so honored, and the cast album has won a Grammy and gone platinum. Miranda has graced the cover of countless magazines, including Time (as one of its “100 Most Influential”) and Rolling Stone (“Hamilton Mania!”). It even changed our currency: The popularity of Miranda’s opus is probably the biggest reason why Alexander Hamilton remains on the $10 bill. It’s all a hugely improbable success.
Then again, improbability is what Hamilton is about. It’s the rags-to-riches story of a founding father (“How does a bastard orphan / son of a whore and a Scotsman …”) told against the improbable founding of the United States (“How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower / somehow defeat a global superpower?”).
But the legal work behind the play? Not only probable but fairly congenial.
Theater negotiations tend to be collaborative anyway, says Plotkin. “You have to create a show that costs somewhere between $10 million and $15 million,” he adds. “So you can’t have a hostile contract and expect to be able to do the work of producing a Broadway show. … What I explain to the young lawyers in my office: When you’re negotiating a marriage, you’re negotiating something very different than negotiating a divorce. [With the former], you want everybody to feel good about the outcome.”
It helps that, with Hamilton, everyone knew everyone, since many of the principals worked on Miranda’s previous musical, the Tony-winning In the Heights, in 2007 and ’08. “Tommy Kail is the director, Andy Blankenbuehler is the choreographer,” says Plotkin. “There was no question about them coming in. No question about interviewing any other directors or choreographers to do it. This was the team that was going to put this show together. It was a relatively direct and compact kind of trajectory and negotiation.” Plus, instead of negotiating with a separate composer, lyricist and book writer, as is often the case, Plotkin had to negotiate only with Miranda.
Meanwhile, Rose negotiated with Chernow’s agent for rights to the book. Miranda had been working informally with Chernow since 2008, when he was still talking about a concept album; but once the project morphed into a musical, a deal was struck. “The basic facts of Hamilton’s life are well-known and available from many sources,” Rose says. “But Lin-Manuel felt that Ron’s book helped him to unlock the musicalization of this chapter in history, and his book served as a huge inspiration.”
The other main inspiration was hip-hop. Hamilton is peppered with homages to The Notorious B.I.G., DMX, Grandmaster Flash, Mobb Deep and others. “For example,” says Rose, “when Hamilton introduces himself, he spells out his name in the same cadence that Biggie used to spell his name in ‘Going Back to Cali’; and the song ‘Ten Duel Commandments’ is a riff on Biggie’s ‘Ten Crack Commandments.’ So we needed to vet the score to identify all third-party interpolations, and then consult with Lin-Manuel on which ones needed to be cleared or could be dropped.”
Once the play opened, the negotiating wasn’t over. “I think it’s more work after it opened than before,” says Plotkin. “Before it opened, it was just a regular show. … Now what’s happening is we’re working on two companies in the United States; there will be a London production sometime in 2017; and we’re working on a number of things that haven’t become public yet.” He also negotiated a profit-sharing deal with original cast members. “It’s an attempt to compensate the people who helped make the show such a success,” Plotkin says. “It also serves to develop the familial relationship that producers want to promote. … It’s a win-win.”
For Rose, there were negotiations on the cast album, mixtape album, coffee-table book and PBS special. “In every deal,” Rose says, “our goal is to secure partial or complete ownership of the work for Lin-Manuel and to maximize his financial participation wherever possible.”
Of course, the popularity of the show has brought out more than the usual trademark and copyright infringers: Hamilton on caps, T-shirts, etc., as well as smartphone recordings of the show. “It’s like Whack-a-Mole,” says Plotkin. “If we stop them in one place, they appear in another. They are clearly not the fan base. They are simply there to make money on the intellectual property. … After [the pirates] see that you’re engaged in a vigorous enforcement regime, they back off a bit.”
Equally important, he says, is differentiating between the pirate and the fan. “There are a lot of people who really love this show,” he says. “In their exuberance, they may do things like using the intellectual property which goes beyond their right to do. We want to encourage the fans. We don’t want to do anything to shut them down or alienate them.”
It’s quiet uptown
Both lawyers count themselves among that fan base. They first saw an early workshop of Hamilton in April 2014 at a private performance at the 52nd Street Project. “There were maybe 100 people in the room,” Plotkin remembers. “It was clearly something that was extraordinary. … Everybody knew we had seen something special.”
“Tommy Kail used a bare stage with some scaffolding and a moving ladder,” Rose remembers. “I cried from the moment Hamilton’s son dies in the second act until the end of the show. I could not speak for at least two hours.”
Rose and Plotkin, former firm partners, are also longtime friends, and a few weeks before the Tonys they met for lunch. And what did these two powerhouse Broadway attorneys talk about? The Tonys? Hamilton? All of the people pestering them for tickets to Hamilton?
“Mostly our kids,” Plotkin says with a laugh.
HAMILTON BY THE NUMBERS
- 2 Rap battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the musical
- 3 Broadway cast albums to reach the top 10 on the Billboard charts in the past half-century: Hair, Book of Mormon and Hamilton
- $10 Price of front-row seats raffled off the day of the show
- 11 Tony awards
- 16 Tony nominations
- 23 Weeks (and counting) the book Hamilton: The Musical has been on The New York Times best-seller list
- 365 Days it took Miranda to write the song “My Shot”
- $849 Price for premium tickets, a Broadway record; price was raised in June to cut into the secondary market
- $600,000 Estimated profit of show, per week
- $60 Million Estimated amount resellers are making per year on the secondary market, per The New York Times