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In this production of 'Hamilton,' everything is done in German

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning musical "Hamilton" has been playing to sold-out houses in New York, around the U.S. and in various English-speaking countries since 2015. This past week, a production of "Hamilton" opened in one of the top foreign venues for musical theater, Hamburg, where everything is performed in German. Translating all the elements of this very American musical was complicated, as reporter Naomi Lewin discovered.

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: For starters, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda says there's the sheer volume.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: It's 23,000 words in this thing, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALEXANDER HAMILTON")

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Aaron Burr, rapping) How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in...

LEWIN: In "Hamilton," those words go by at breakneck speed, full of English idioms and the rapping rhymes and rhythms of the musical's hip-hop roots. Also, U.S. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton isn't exactly a household name abroad. But none of that fazed German playwright and lyricist Kevin Schroeder, who specializes in translating musicals. When he saw "Hamilton" in New York shortly after it opened, he approached Stage Entertainment, which presents musical theater all over Europe.

KEVIN SCHROEDER: And then Stage said, yeah, we are convinced it's possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Aaron Burr, rapping in German).

SCHROEDER: But they said, we think we should also have somebody who's got more of a hip-hop background.

LEWIN: Enter the German songwriter and rapper Sera Finale, who had barely heard of Hamilton. The two men didn't know each other, but Schroeder says they made the perfect team.

SCHROEDER: I bring in all the musical theater experience from my work, and he's just a brilliant rapper, lots of experience for flow and language as a rapper.

LEWIN: Sera Finale explains.

SERA FINALE: So rap is all about the consonants. It's all about the (vocalizing).

LEWIN: When "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was approached about the project, he says he was concerned about preserving the musical's innovative sound.

MIRANDA: This is not the kind of show where the only rhyme is at the end of the line. There's lots of vowel agreement all along the way. My first question is, is that possible to maintain that? Because I do believe that the success of the show is the rigorousness of the way in which different characters express themselves through rhyme or not rhyme or the degree to which they do it. Hamilton tends to get rhymiest (ph) when he's most stressed out or agitated.

LEWIN: Having translated Stephen Sondheim's lyrics for "West Side Story" into Spanish, Miranda, who doesn't speak German, encouraged Schroeder and Finale to go with the spirit of the text and take liberties if necessary. For instance, the song "My Shot" contains multiple meanings of the word shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHOT")

MIRANDA: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping) I am not throwing away my shot. I am not throwing away my shot. Hey, yo, I'm just like my country. I'm young, scrappy, and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot. I'm a get...

Over the course of that one song alone, it means gunshot, opportunity, liquor shot, and several more along the way and past tense of being shot.

LEWIN: Kevin Schroeder says schuss, German for shot, has some of those meanings, but not one that's key to the song.

SCHROEDER: And especially we don't have that meaning of shot as an opportunity or a chance you have.

LEWIN: So they found German words that cut several ways to indicate that Hamilton himself was ready to explode.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping in German).

SCHROEDER: But translated, it's, man, I only got this one shot. Man, I only got this one shot. I'm just like my country, about to get going, to blast off. I am young. This is (speaking German). (Speaking German) is like, if you're talking about ammunition, it's like locked and loaded, in a sense. But (speaking German) is also hot or edgy or keen, and (speaking German), again, is like loaded with a shot but also, like furious. There's many different layers to it. By making Hamilton the gun, now a version - somehow becomes the gun, and then it suddenly starts to make sense. I only got this one shot. I'm a loaded gun about to blast off, but I only got one shot.

LEWIN: The translators also swapped out imagery they didn't think would fly in German. The original line, I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory, became, every day death writes between the lines in my diary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Alexander Hamilton, rapping in German).

FINALE: This is an example for me that I just translate with the heart. I don't know if my head and my heart are still friends. I don't know exactly, but I use to translate with the heart.

LEWIN: All along the way, Lin-Manuel Miranda says he gave painstaking input.

MIRANDA: Every three months, we would get a three-column list on the latest songs they had translated - my lyrics, their German translation and then a literal translation of their German translation so that I could understand the metaphors they were changing, the ways in which the phrases were different from mine, and I could literally see it sort of lined up.

LEWIN: Kevin Schroeder and Sera Finale estimate that it took 2 1/2 years to produce what Schroeder calls an adaptation. Finale says, for him, the thrill was accomplishing something everyone said was impossible.

FINALE: It's like moonwalk on the razor blade to translate the "Hamilton," but we just did it.

LEWIN: For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Naomi Lewin