EDIT: I had this queued to post on May 1st, but for whatever reason it never did. I’m posting this now because a few of you have asked me about some of my essays. These are all from 2014-2015. These are mostly opening lines btw
“Like most moments in my life, my first impression of academia can be summarized by Stephen Sondheim lyrics: bizarre; fixed; cold.” (Stanford)
“I think eighth-grade-me would hate myself for painting.” (Columbia)
“For as long as I can remember I’ve concocted elaborate assassination plots against myself” (Stanford)
“Ever since I draped an executioner’s hood over my face, shredded bundles of lettuce, and sent the resulting “Veganism” PSA to my entire school on April Fool’s Day, people told me I’m overly dramatic.” (Brown)
“From the age of eleven I’ve lusted for revolution.” (Brown)
“Dear Brown: You’re not like the other colleges.”
“In her grand Act I finale (“Take-A,Take-A,Take Me/Spooky College Wait Dream”), the candidate anxiously envisions her UChicago dream while encouraged by visions of Steven Levitt and Carl Sagan, whilst dancing cups of Ramen Noodles surround her.” (UChicago-I wrote the whole thing like a summary of a musical)
On a hot day in late August, Lin-Manuel Miranda sits in a lecture theatre at Columbia University in uptown Manhattan, fizzing with the kind of energy that only comes, one imagines, from the experience of creating a billion-dollar Broadway show. Two weeks earlier, Miranda took his last bow before leaving the cast of Hamilton, the rap musical he wrote and starred in and for which the word “hit” seems, at this point, inadequate.
Since its opening last year, not only has Hamilton sold $1bn worth of tickets, won a Pulitzer and 11 Tonys and become the most successful Broadway opening of all time, but Miranda has been credited with everything from reinventing musical theatre to revolutionising the way Americans think about their own history. He has rapped with Barack Obama in the Rose Garden, been quoted by Hillary Clinton in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, and seen his beard and ponytail combo become almost iconic. Such is the pitch of his fame that it is hard, today, not to encounter the 36-year-old, who is slight and boyish and unexpectedly clean shaven, and not simply burst into laughter. What does one do after a year like Miranda’s, I ask. He grins widely. “You cut your hair off,” he says.
This is only his second Broadway show – the first, In the Heights, has just been extended in London – and Miranda is still reminded daily of the fact that, 10 years ago, he was a supply teacher. In spite of the fact that his estimated royalties from the show total a mind-boggling $105,000 a week, he still flies commercial – “I don’t care about private jets” – and lives a stone’s throw from his old neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan; the reason we meet at Columbia is that it is around the corner from the apartment Miranda shares with his wife Vanessa and their 18-month-old son Sebastian, who was born two weeks before rehearsals for Hamilton started. (It strikes me that, were Miranda a woman, much more would have been made of this timing – the difficulty of having to be on stage every night with an infant at home. As it is, he says, it all worked out fine because, in spite of being “a very sleepless two years, my wife is a superhero. That’s the answer.”)
Clearly, Miranda works hard to keep himself grounded and surviving the experience has, he says, been a question of “staying on top of the emotions”. Nonetheless, so feverish has the acclaim for Hamilton been, I wonder if, as the frenzy around it grew, he ever thought; “God, what have I done?”
He shout-laughs. “What have I done?! I have to give enormous credit to [the director] Tommy Kail, who’s great at keeping the temperature low inside the theatre, especially when we moved to Broadway and the yell became a roar. That never came into the studio where we were working.” Instead, he says, they carried on with business as usual, telling themselves: “We’re making our thing better and still have 10 things a day to fix.”
One of the current questions surrounding Hamilton, as preparations are made for it to be rolled out, Phantom of the Opera-style, across the world, is how hard it will be for foreign audiences to love a show that rests, in large part, on knowledge of, and interest in, the American origin story. The life of Alexander Hamilton is a great tale, but the show’s real resonance comes from its interrogation of the American national character.
“I think that if we’ve done our job well and we articulate this individual’s life well, the themes inherent in that translate,” says Miranda. “It’s about legacy, about how much do we do with the time we’re given? And then there are themes that wrestle with the American character, but only in that Hamilton’s life is a rough-draft version of the arguments we still have as a country.” These too, he hopes, will travel. He tells the story of what happened when Fiddler on the Roof made its Japanese debut, after which a theatre-goer approached the producers and said: “They like it in America? But it’s so Japanese!”
Miranda sees the arguments started by the founding fathers as analogous to his fights with his sister. “The arguments a country has are its family arguments. I fight with my sister and it’s a version of the fight we had when she was 16 and I was 10. I think that’s true of both countries and families. We’ll always argue about the size of government in our lives and the role we play in the affairs of other countries.”
That these dry-sounding debates should animate such an electric show is, of course, a reflection of the scale of Miranda’s talent and his success in answering the challenge set up in the opening line, rapped by Aaron Burr, nemesis to Hamilton and foil to his character: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
Miranda says: “I think I threw the ball very high in the air with the opening line of the show. This big-ass run-on sentence, and we are going to purport to try to answer it. How does he get from here, to here?” In the first version of Hamilton, which was written for the Public Theater, off-Broadway, Miranda combined song and speech in a much more conventional-looking show. It didn’t work, “because the songs – especially our opening number – is really heightened speech, with melody in it. So when we went to regular speech, you could feel the audience pull out.” At some point, Miranda realised he was going to have to dispense with a script and simply “musicalise every second” of the show, a huge undertaking and one that saw him wandering around his neighbourhood muttering to himself every day, as he tried to fit lyrics to music.
He had never wanted to be a solo rap star, he says. “My ego is healthy, but it doesn’t extend in that direction.” Instead, from school age onwards, he had only ever wanted to be involved in the theatre. His parents had moved to New York from Puerto Rico before Miranda was born and landed in Upper Manhattan, where his mother was a psychologist and his father a political adviser to, among others, former New York mayor Ed Koch.
Miranda grew up in a household rich in intellect but not particularly wealthy and he was aware, at college, that sacrifices were being made in order to educate him. As a result, he was highly motivated and started writing In the Heights, a show about his Washington Heights neighbourhood, before he graduated, slogging away at it for the next six years while working as a supply teacher to pay the rent, until, in what he still regards as a miracle, it came to Broadway. Overnight, “I went from being a professional substitute teacher to a Broadway composer.” It was, he says, an even more “drastic life change” than the one brought about by the success of Hamilton.
In the Heights was a hit, winning four Tony awards, but the one disappointment was that it didn’t bring Miranda the interest or admiration of his heroes in the rap community. As an adolescent, did the part of him that loved hip-hop disparage the part that loved Broadway musicals? No, he says. “There are a few people who only like hip-hop music, and a few who only like theatre music, and the rest of us just like good shit. It doesn’t matter what form it comes in. I think we’re all a lot more eclectic than we give ourselves credit for. And I feel lucky to have grown up in the era when we made mix cassettes. I think it affected how I write scores. Because when you’re making a mix tape for your friends, it’s 90 minutes of music, in the order in which you curate it, so you’re creating the ebb and flow. That prepared me to write scores more than anything else. You want to surprise them, tell them how you feel about them, you want to express the wealth of your taste. How is that different from writing a Broadway score?”
Can he remember any of his mix tapes from that era? “Yes. I still think of the mix tape my friend Antonia made me that had both Sam Cooke’s Bring it On Home to Me and D’yer Mak’er from Led Zeppelin, which were the first two songs on side B. When I grew up, one of my favourite artists was Weird Al, who taught me that genre is just the clothes of the artist. Instrumentation can change, but we’re all dealing with the same 12 tones and a good melody is a good melody.”
For Miranda, one of the most gratifying aspects of Hamilton’s success has, therefore, been the fact that every high-profile rapper in the US has dropped backstage to tell him how much they love the show. “What hip-hop artists pick up on that your average theatre-goer doesn’t is that I’m using different flows for every character, the way a classical composer would use a different theme in, say, Peter and the Wolf. Everyone raps in a way that is consistent with their character and I’m modelling that after my favourite hip-hop artists. Hercules Mulligan is Busta Rhymes in my brain, and Hamilton is from the school of Eminem and Big Pun, where it’s how many syllables can I rhyme within a line, versus [George] Washington, which is much more straightforward and on the down beat. Because that’s who Washington is. Very regimented and a moral authority. To hear what Eminem, André 3000, or Chris Rock caught that I embedded in there – that is really fun.”
Miranda has no idea what his next show will be, only that the one fruitful way to find out is to maintain the right priorities. “I work in a world in which only one in five shows returns their investment. Failure is the norm. So you have to walk away from the years that you spent on something, thinking: ‘I did it for these reasons and I got that.’ Financial success cannot be your goal. But if your goal is, ‘I want to tell this story’, or ‘I want to learn from working with these people’, then things have a good chance of working out.”
It is also a question of understanding one’s own motivation, he says. “I think when you’re making something, you’re trying to fall in love with it; to express the best version of that idea. I think, naturally my subconscious tries to create the high I first felt when I was in Pirates of Penzance in the eighth grade.”
This was, he swears, all he was doing with Hamilton, staging it with no expectations, just to “see how the world responds”. Miranda smiles widely. “And the world freaked out.”
04-22 Portland, OR - Crystal Ballroom ^ 04-23 Seattle, WA - Neptune Theatre ^ 04-24 Vancouver, British Columbia - Vogue Theatre ^ 04-25 Vancouver, British Columbia - Biltmore Cabaret 04-27 Boston, MA - Northeastern University 05-08Atlanta, GA - Shaky Knees Festival 05-10 Austin, TX - Austin Psych Fest @ Carson Creek Ranch 05-28 Düdingen, Switzerland - Bad Bonn Festival 05-29 Toulouse, France - Festivals Des Curiosites 05-30 Barcelona, Spain - Primavera Sound 06-02 Tel Aviv, Israel - Barby 06-04 Porto, Portugal - Primavera Sound 06-06 Manchester, England - Parklife Festival 06-07 London, England - Field Day 06-11-14 Manchester, TN - Bonnaroo 06-26 Londonderry, VT - Friendly Gathering Music Festival 06-27 North Adams, MA - Solid Sound 07-17 Chicago, IL - Pitchfork Music Festival 08-08 San Francisco, CA - Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival 08-11 Boston, MA - Royale 08-12 Portland, ME - Port City Music Hall 08-13 Montreal, Quebec - Metropolis 08-15 Toronto, Ontario - Time Festival 08-16 Buffalo, NY - Tralf Music Hall 08-17 New York, NY - Bowery Ballroom 08-18 New York, NY - Webster Hall 08-19 Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg 08-20 Brooklyn, NY - Warsaw 09-06 Salisbury, England - End of the Road Festival 09-07 Glasgow, Scotland - ABC 09-08 Bristol, England - Motion 09-09 London, England - Roundhouse 09-10 Birmingham, England - The Institute 09-14 Toucoing, France - Grand Mix 09-15 Paris, France - La Cigale 09-16 Amsterdam, Netherlands - Paradiso 09-17 Cologne, Germany - Gebaude 9 09-18 Berlin, Germany - Postbahnhof 09-19 Copenhagen, Denmark - Vega 09-21 Stockholm, Sweden - Debasser Strand 09-22 Oslo, Norway - Rockefeller 09-23 Gothenburg, Sweden - Pustervik 09-24 Aarhus, Denmark - Voxhall 09-25 Hamburg, Germany - Reeperbahn