In the opening song of “Hamilton,” the cast of early Americans that populates the musical repeatedly sings the title character’s name — Alexander Hamilton — their voices tinged with reverence.
A similarly fascinated tone tends to emerge when people talk about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 36-year-old composer, rapper, writer, and actor who created and stars in the Broadway behemoth. For Irv Steinfink, the former social studies teacher at Hunter College High School who first introduced Miranda to Hamilton, that’s a hoot.
“I met a girl recently at a party, maybe 14 years old, who was so infatuated with the play she finally got a ticket and then discovered Lin-Manuel wouldn’t be in it,” Steinfink said, speaking with the Forward over the phone. “She was so devastated she cried for a whole week and her mother had to pull her out of school.”
Steinfink, who retired in the early 2000s, now lives outside of Boston and pursues photography. (When contacted by the Forward with an interview request, he wrote back, deadpan, saying “I didn’t know Lin-Manuel was Jewish;” when it was clarified that the Jewish angle to the piece was, well, him, he was resigned. “[With] a name like mine, he wrote, “there isn’t much wiggle room.”) He met Miranda when the latter was assigned to Steinfink’s “official class” — “like a homeroom,” he explained — at Hunter College High School. “I saw him through [a] five year span,” Steinfink said, “from a little boy into an adult.”
At one point during those years, Miranda enrolled in Steinfink’s AP-level American History class. As Newseek’s Jason Katzenstein reported earlier this week, while “Hamilton” lore holds sacred the story of Miranda finding inspiration after picking up Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton in an airport, the star’s first meaningful encounter with the founding father happened in that 11th grade classroom. Steinfink had assigned students to spend the semester writing a research paper on a topic of their choosing; when Miranda couldn’t think of a subject, Steinfink recommended the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
“He seemed to like it right away,” Steinfink said. “I don’t know if he knew anything about it, but he jumped into it.”
“I just know it’s a good fit for most kids,” he said. “It’s an intriguing story.” The paper did well, earning “an A or an A+.”
Steinfink had a particular interest in Hamilton, having researched him while in graduate school. He began to teach at Hunter in 1970, where he crossed paths with another famous alumnus, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who he did not get the opportunity to teach. Hunter operated with a free-ranging curriculum, and Steinfink’s courses ranged from American and Latin American to include comparative Eastern religions, photography, and film.
Steinfink’s connection to Miranda and “Hamilton” has made him a bit of a celebrity in his social circles. Beyond the aforementioned 14-year-old, who peppered Steinfink with questions about Miranda – “like you’re doing,” he said, to his chastised interviewer – friends have begun begging him to help them procure tickets. “It’s just not possible,” he said.
He did enjoy the musical himself, however, after his wife bought him a ticket to see it.
“I was very pleased,” he said. “It was like rap poetry, like a slam, using the characters’ actual words. That really knocked me out.” Yes, he and Miranda have been in touch about it, and yes, he does own the soundtrack.
As for that long-ago paper, well “[Miranda] did about as much as anybody else who had done that kind of research,” Steinfink said. “It was pretty complete.”
In high school, Miranda on Hamilton might have been good but undistinguished, but with “Hamilton” winning 11 Tony Awards this past weekend, on top of its already-garnered Grammy, Pulitzer, and Drama Desk Awards, it seems like its author might have finally triumphed over the competition.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @TalyaZax