Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has a lot on his plate this summer: dealing with the Iran sanctions, the Greek turmoil, the queasy markets, the Puerto Rico debt crisis, the budget, and the impending need to lift the debt ceiling, among other issues. But the former New Yorker still managed to carve out a little time yesterday evening to see Hamilton, the hit musical about the debonair founding father and first man to hold Lew’s job. He spoke with New York about the man, the musical, and the controversy over Hamilton’s place on the $10 bill. A lightly edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.
Tell me about your evening! Did you enjoy the play?
I thought it was really outstanding. It was wonderful theater, a quite ingenious adaptation of a great biography to the stage, which if you had tried to imagine it without seeing it — most of us couldn’t even imagine it. Just as theater, it was really tremendous.
The part I found particularly impressive was how they took the story of Hamilton — which is a complex story, and not an easy piece of history — and captured the essence of a long, complex, and important biography. And they put it in a form that is accessible to so many more people. There’s part of me that’s always particularly happy when important ideas about American history become more accessible, and it showed the contributions that Hamilton made not just to the financial system, but to our political system as well.
It’s always struck me as funny that Hamilton had this soap-operatic life — an orphan who comes from nothing, this lusty character, ends up dying in a duel — but on the other hand, he’s involved in these deeply intellectual, almost academic questions about, for instance, how to structure the United States’ debt. That’s not easy to convey to a general-interest audience …
What the play did particularly well was that it did not ignore the fact that there were these troubling parts of his personal life. They showed the wholeness of him.
Had you read the Chernow biography? Are you a history buff?
I have read the Chernow biography, and there’s another biography of Hamilton and Gallatin focusing on their immigrant roots. I am a history buff. I enjoy reading history — and you can’t sit in the office I sit in and not feel this enormous respect for Alexander Hamilton. We all stand on his shoulders.
Did you get a chance to meet [writer and star] Lin-Manuel Miranda too?
We did get a chance afterward to meet the cast, and Ron Chernow was there. It was really enjoyable. I had not met Miranda before. But he and the cast — they’re very into the show, and very animated in their excitement about it. It was probably a place where they were more aware who they were standing with than at most plays. They were excited about the juxtaposition of the first and current Treasury secretaries sharing the stage.
They kept coming back to the importance of bringing history to a broader audience, and they talked about raising money to bring more students to future shows, to open it up in an accessible way to expose more people to a very important chapter of our history. What we’re trying to do right now in the conversation over our currency is to do the same thing.
Were you surprised at the outcry over removing Hamilton from the $10?
We’ve been talking about the redesign of the currency since before I came to the Treasury, and I made clear from the very beginning that we have to honor Hamilton. I think that it might have been falsely presented as a choice: Does he have a place on our currency or not? But we have a bunch of choices to make over how to honor Hamilton, as well as how to highlight the important contributions women have made to our country and honor our inclusive democracy.
We heard a lot of voices — mine being one of them — saying how important Hamilton is. So I wasn’t surprised by that. We’ve said all along that he’s going to be honored, and people will have to wait to form a judgment on whether we have made good on that.
We’re opening it up — getting ideas from young people and old people, from men and women, from advocates of different points of views, who have different ideas about what our currency should reflect. One thing I have found out is that the intensity of the public debate has shown how important this is.
So Hamilton will keep some place …
I have been asking people: What’s on the back of the $5? What’s on the back of the $10? What’s on the back of the $20? Nobody knows! Even people in the department can’t answer those questions. We’re remaking the whole bill, not just one square inch on the front, and that will increase the amount of space you can use to express some of the ideas we’re talking about.
The only thing I was surprised by was the assumption that it’s all a zero-sum game, and there are only winners and losers. When we launched this project, it was with great excitement, and we wanted it to be an elevating conversation. For the vast majority, that is what it has been — about what’s important and what we should be focusing on.
Going back to the play: Did you have a favorite song or moment?
In the reviews I read, it is described as hip-hop. But what I thought was ingenious was that there were different styles of music for each character — some jazz, some rock, some hip-hop. The way the music and lyrics were done was ingenious, developing personalities for the characters, and to give you a real feel for the relationships between the characters.
Now I want to see if Senator Burr has gone to see it. [Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, is a relative of Aaron Burr, who killed Hamilton.]
Needless to say, Aaron Burr is not the hero of the play.