Lin-Manuel Miranda has
connected audiences to
American history and
inspired a bold, hip-hop
flavored revolution on
the Great White Way.
By: Jesús Triviño Alarcón
Albert Einstein was a genius. He was also a horrible dresser—seemingly always disheveled, wearing oversize sweaters—and that hair. Oh, for the love of Pantene, that hair. In comparison, modern-day genius Lin-Manuel Miranda is the coolest motherfunker on planet Broadway—sporting a Fania-inspired T-shirt (“Todo Tiene Su Final”), his hair slicked back in a colonial pony-tail—not a man-bun, thank God. But Miranda does have one thing in common with Einstein: He looks tired.
“Can I get a cafecito with a lot of leche and a lot of azúcar?”
Miranda asks his publicist, plopping down on a gray couch in his 500 Broadway Productions offices in Manhattan. He’s exhausted, and he’s busier than The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus at Comic-Con.
Alas, this is the life of the man behind the hottest ticket on Broadway in decades, the hip-hop musical Hamilton, based on founding father Alexander Hamilton. The show accomplishes the extraordinary feat of stirring up genuine interest in a figure whose accomplishments are familiar to history students—a bastard immigrant from the West Indies, he became a key figure in the American Revolution and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, served as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and was shot dead as a still-young man in an infamous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. Yet for all that, he is possibly best known by most Americans today, unfortunately, as the dude on the ten-dollar bill and little more. Where education has failed, however, Miranda’s Hamilton succeeds, offering high drama, brilliant music and lyrics—all composed by Miranda—and inspired stage performances, with Miranda in the lead role.
Mainstream theater has been largely a white domain with dabs of color throughout its history—until now. Hamilton, along with the Gloria and Emilio Estefan–produced On Your Feet!, Eclipsed, and other shows, is diversity incarnate. But in the theater business, like any business, profits are the lifeblood, and Hamilton’s financial success is significant in and of itself: The show notched a whopping $30 million in advance sales alone.
“The real change is that it’s a cast of black and brown performers and it’s making money,” confirms Miranda, 36. “And that’s what leads to change. Because of the success of Hamilton and On Your Feet!, you can’t hide behind the old argument of, ‘It needs to be bankable, so we can’t put all these people of color in the show.’ We are bankable. The reason Hamilton works is because there is no distance between that story that happened 200-some-odd years ago and now, because it looks like America now. It helps create a connection that wouldn’t have been there if it was 20 white guys on stage.”
The New York City–born Miranda is the product of the city’s Puerto Rican intellectual elite—his father, Luis, a political consultant, founded the Hispanic Federation; mami Luz is a psychologist—and they encouraged his intellectual and creative growth. Early on, Miranda developed a love of musical theater—cast albums specifically—and of hip-hop culture. “Hip-hop felt like our generation’s music,” he says. “When I started writing musicals in high school, there was always a hip-hop element involved. I think hip-hop tells stories just as beautifully as any other genre of music, and for some stories it’s uniquely suited.”
After graduating from Wesleyan University in 2002, Miranda continued to work on his breakthrough Broadway production, In the Heights, which won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. Even though In the Heights garnered Miranda instant respect, his renown seemed contained to Broadway. Hamilton is bigger than Broadway.
“What’s incredible about Hamilton, and the reason you can’t get a ticket, is because everyone’s responding to it,” he says. “Everyone is seeing a bit of themselves in it. Whether they are seeing themselves in Hamilton—who can never shut up, is super ambitious and got so much done in his lifetime—or they are seeing themselves in Burr, who sometimes stands in awe of Hamilton, but is also his intellectual equal in every way, pero no habla tanto.”
Hamilton’s success has afforded Miranda the ability and money to help the next generation. Thanks to his
recent $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, Miranda is supporting charities like Graham Windham, a child welfare organization cofounded in 1806 by Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth, and the Mariposa DR Foundation, which focuses on girls’ education and development in the Dominican Republic. Additionally, funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, 20,000 public schoolchildren will attend Wednesday matinees of Hamilton this year alone.
“You can imagine a future for yourself in theater as a person of color because the parts exist,” Miranda says. “When I grow up I could play Hamilton, or Burr.”
Miranda’s own “pop-culture dads,” he says, are Marc Anthony and, unexpectedly, “Weird Al” Yankovic, right up there with Priscilla Lopez of A Chorus Line and one-man-show icon John Leguizamo. (“I memorized Spic-O-Rama and used to do those monologues in my house,” Miranda says.) Yankovic’s hilarious parodies of mainstream hits by Michael Jackson and Nirvana showed Miranda that through osmosis, music can be anything and any genre, he says.
“Marc Anthony is our Sinatra,” he adds. “My goal is to write a song for Marc Anthony in English that is as good as the ones that I loved in Spanish. I mean, he has had some great English-language songs but his Spanish-language songs...,” he says as he looks up to the heavens. The feeling is mutual. “Lin-Manuel is an inspiration and a role model,” Anthony says. “His work ethic and talent speaks for itself. I am proud of him as an artist and as a Puerto Rican.”
It’s easier and more levelheaded to have others call you a genius and an inspiration. Like Charlie Rose, the New York Times, and even Marc Anthony. If Miranda went around saying he was a genius he wouldn’t be Miranda, he’d be Kanye West. But being constantly called a genius has disrupted many a past artist. Comedian Dave Chappelle left $50 million on the table; Lauryn Hill seemed to leave this world.
“For me the thing that keeps me sane is that I am in the show every night, and it’s the most peaceful part of my day,” says Miranda. “And doing the hard work of performing live keeps me humble because I mess up every night. Eminem came to see the show and he goes, ‘What happens when you mess up?’ And I said, ‘I messed up three times because I knew I was in front of you!’ ”
It doesn’t end with Hamilton. Miranda is busy writing music for Disney’s next animated film, Moana, and releasing a Hamilton Mixtape this fall, featuring Common and Busta Rhymes; he’s also rumored to be up for a role in the sequel to Mary Poppins.
“Immigrants—we get the job done!”
goes Hamilton’s showstopping line, jointly delivered by Miranda and Daveed Diggs, who plays the Marquis de Lafayette. It always interrupts the show until the applause subsides.
“The renewable life source and blood source of this country has been people who come here and do the jobs that no one else is willing to do in order to make a better life for themselves and their children,” Miranda says. “So to have Hamilton and Lafayette saying immigrants get the job done is just as true in 1770 as it is now.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jesús Triviño Alarcón
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Jesus Trivino Alarcon began his professional journalism career at Vibe and has held editorial positions at Harris Publications, MyNuvoTV.com, and BET.com. Additionally, he has written and reported for the NY Daily News, SLAM, The Source, XXL, Inked, SOHH.com, People.com, Essence.com, and many more. In his 14-year career he’s interviewed countless celebrities including Carmelo Anthony, Demi Lovato, Marc Anthony, Rosario Dawson, Willie Colón, Jay-Z, Nas, Jessica Alba, John Leguizamo, 50 Cent, Kanye West, among others. Today, as Latina’s Entertainment Director he’s constantly thinking WWJD—What Would Juanes Do? Follow me on Instagram @JesusTalks and Twitter @JesusTalkz