Lin-Manuel Miranda

Creator and star of Hamilton
Headshot of Lin-Manuel Miranda

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Music Credits: “The Schuyler Sisters,” “Non-Stop,” Cabinet Battle 1” all written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and excerpted from the play, Hamilton,

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Lin-Manuel Miranda: Any of the cast or crew could tell you I was very masochistic. All of the last things that needed to be written were all Hamilton’s. It was sort of the thing I kept saving for last because I don’t have to memorize lines. I’m making them up. <laughs> So I do not have the same process of like, oh man, that’s a lot of lines to memorize as the other actors in my company. So I always take great care that everybody’s got their stuff and then I’ll worry about my stuff, which was…exhilarating. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was exhilarating that I was still working on Hamilton’s last words until the day we froze.

Jo Reed: That is Lin-Manuel Miranda who created, stars in and wrote the book and music for Hamilton which was just nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. And I am happy to report we just learned that the National Endowment for the Arts will receive a special Tony Award this year for its invaluable contribution to theater over the last half century. And you’ll hear more about this over the next few weeks. Now, it’s onto Hamilton.

Hamilton is a cultural phenomenon as its 16 Tony nominations, Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award indicate. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda who himself received three nominations —for book, score, and his performance in the title role, the play tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life and death. But Miranda focuses on Hamilton as an immigrant, and he tells that story with a multi-racial cast and through hip-hop infused contemporary music, that nonetheless has some serious Broadway musical chops. The result is a riveting, immediate piece of theater that makes the founding of the country and the virulent arguments around its direction as current as today’s news.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was born and raised in New York City where he set his first play In the Heights –which by the way, won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score.

Hamilton itself was six years in the making. It opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater in January 2015 to rapturous reviews. But before it opened on Broadway that July, Lin insisted on taking two months to cut and polish the script and the score. Not unlike Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda is non-stop…

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton had like, a good six month run where I was in it and could feel the reactions. From an off-Broadway Hamilton to a Broadway Hamilton, I’d list 25 things with Tommy. Some of them were a line, some of them were a whole song we needed to address. But it was my list of 25 things and we just set about knocking them out. And yeah, we had a lot of fun.

Jo Reed: Good. Because when I was in the theater last night watching the play, I thought “God, I hope he’s having fun.” Because I was having so much fun watching it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Oh, yeah! I mean, that's the thing about-- well, here's the thing. You know, I get made fun of a lot because I'm on Twitter all the time. But I think of it as the opposing muscle group of writing a musical. Where I spent a year writing "My Shot." I spent a year writing every word that is in that song, and every note. So you know what, I'm gonna fire off some jokes on Twitter. Because that's the tricep to the bicep that is writing the musical. And the fun of it really is in trying to top each other for best idea, which begins with your creative team and then grows outward towards the larger creative team, and that extends to your actors who then get to play with this material and wear it and find new things. Some of the changes came out of that collaboration. You know, "The Schuyler Sisters" was like, we totally rearranged the music for that. It was very like, disco-y, off-Broadway. And I'd always pictured that song as a Destiny's Child tune. And I was like, "Well, we never chase that orally. So let's like, really go after that." And we have three actresses who loved harmonizing. I was in the dressing room next to them and I'd hear them harmonizing all the time. So I was just like, "Let's just build more for them to harmonize to. And build that into the song as well, because they love doing it, and they sound fantastic."

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So there's stuff like that. You realize what you have and you write to it. Certainly Daveed Diggs, who plays Jefferson, is one of the best technical rappers alive, period. I know I can throw whatever at him, if it's well-constructed, he can spit it at any speed necessary. And so that became enormous fun. I think the last line I wrote that went into the show was, "I mean, you gotta put some thought into the letter, but the sooner the better to get your right hand man back!" You know, like just to put one more fast rap for Daveed, because I had a bar where I could squeeze it in. So that's the fun of it, is in building it, finding the people who can do it, and then once you see what they can do, adding another layer for them to shine.

Jo Reed: Did you know, the minute you read Hamilton, and you thought of it as a musical, did hip-hop immediately--

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yes, that was the actual impetus. It was, "This is a guy who writes his way everywhere." He writes his way out of poverty. He writes his way into the war through just, war of ideas. He writes his way into Washington's good graces. He makes himself useful to Washington as a writer. He was not his Chief Military Strategist. He was his Secretary. <laughs> He then also writes his way into trouble at every step of the way when cooler heads are not around him to prevail. So I immediately made the leap to a hip-hop artist, writing about his circumstances and transcending them. There’s also that self-destructive-- so you see rappers who have billions of dollars getting into wars of words with other rappers. It's a part of that verbal "one-upsmanship" gone corporate. And Hamilton is no different than that. He's the Secretary of State, but he's still got to answer this guy over here, because he's already said something. And so that was my initial leap, but my initial impulse was, I'm going to make a concept album. I was very aware that Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were albums first. And Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't worry about how they were going to be staged. He just wrote really good songs that told a story. And I said, "That's how I'm going to attack this. I'm going to find rappers, and I'm going to make this cool concept album, and then like, Tommy will figure out how to stage it later.

Jo Reed: And he was the director.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: And he was the director, yes. Tommy Kail, who by all accounts is smarter than me.

And I'm really glad I did, in retrospect, think of it as an album. Even if it was just to myself. Because what I got out of myself was a density. You know, I chased the lyrical density of my favorite hip-hop albums, which you don't always get in a musical theater album, because you're worried about everyone getting everything for the first time. That's like one of the tenets, right? Make sure everyone understands everything. And like, sure, absolutely, you're telling a story first and foremost, but what I love about my favorite hip-hop albums is, I'll catch a double entendre I didn't catch the first time, or some alliteration, or some word play. Years later, I'm still catching it because that's the form. That's the art form. And so by lying to myself, "This is just going to be an album," I think I wrote something that people keep wanting to come back and get more out of.

Jo Reed: Oh, are you kidding?!

Lin-Manuel Miranda: So that's been great! Because I feel like I didn't sacrifice any of the intelligence I know lives in my favorite hip-hop music. In writing it, I was chasing those guys. And I think, you know, it also works on a story-telling level, because I think people catch the surface layer of what's going on in the plot, and then they catch double meanings, and historical references, and hip hop references when they come back for a second--

<overlapping conversation>

Jo Reed: And musical theater references, as well.

You wanted to tell the story of Hamilton, but as we know there are many ways to tell stories, and everybody has many stories. What particular story were you going after?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: What I recognized in Hamilton, which connected me to the genre of hip-hop and the hip-hop culture, but also just felt personal to me, was his relentlessness. I mean, this is a kid who never stopped. There are songs where the other characters are just like, "How are you doing all this? And why don't you stop? And why don't you rest?" And that's really me, as the author, me as Lin Miranda <laughs> reading about Hamilton, I mean like, "Why don't you stop? Why don't you rest?" <laughter> <music> And I think that relentlessness-- I recognize that. I recognize that in people I know. Not only in my father who came here at age 18 to get his education and never went back home, just like Hamilton, but also so many immigrant stories I know, and friends I know who come here from another country. And they just know they have to work twice as hard to get half as far. That's just "The Deal". That's the price of admission to our country. It’s a credit to Ron's writing that I read his version of Hamilton, and said, "I know that guy! And I think I can write him." And I think he pulled out the best in me.

Jo Reed: You sang your first song introducing Hamilton at the White House for the first time, which was certainly a bold move. You were not wasting your shot at that one. <laughs>

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I was not. You don't know how many times you're going to get invited to the White House. It's usually just the once. And they'd asked me to perform something, and I knew I'd written-- like pretty much the rap you hear in the opening number. I didn't have a chorus yet. I wrote the chorus for the White House. I just knew, "Well god, I've got a hot sixteen about the guy on the ten-dollar bill, and the White House called." Like, it would be crazy not to do it. So, you know, I'd never performed that song anywhere outside my shower before I got that call. So I grabbed Alex--

Jo Reed: That was the first one.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: That was the first public performance of that song. I’d been writing to a beat I’d created on the computer and I grabbed Alex Lacamoire, figured out what the piano transliteration of that beat would be, and we went, and it was really scary. <laughs> But unbelievably fulfilling, and that's the hard work part of it. The luck part of it is that HBO filmed that evening, because they were following some of the other poets who were performing that evening. So the footage of the evening doesn't look like your typical C-SPAN three-camera White House event. It looks like a movie. You can see the dust flying <laughs> in the Easter Room in the spotlight. So the video went viral--

Jo Reed: And the audio was good.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: And the audio was good, and it really looks like some fictional movie about my life where I got to perform in front of the president. <laughs> Like I still think that when I watch it. And so I've known that teachers were going to come see this show for six years. Like I was not worried about selling our show to teachers, because they've been using it since 2009. If you look at YouTube comments for the past six years, it's, "My teacher showed me this. We saw this in eleventh grade history." Like, teachers caught it and grabbed it and ran with it as soon as it was up on YouTube. So I knew there was an audience for it, and I was like, "I have 50 more songs." <laughs>

Jo Reed: Yes, you do 50 songs.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yes, I know.

Jo Reed: That is Hamiltonian. <laughs>

Lin-Manuel Miranda: That is Hamiltonian. But Hamilton would have done that in like a year. It took me six.

Jo Reed: The casting. I've read critics refer to this as colorblind casting, but it didn't seem very blind to me at all.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: No, not at all.

Jo Reed: That just seems misplaced.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: No, it was just-- it was just organic to the piece. The impulse of the piece was-- you can draw a direct line between Hamilton's life and the life of the hip-hop artists I grew up revering. So to that end, why wouldn't our show look like <laughs> hip-hop culture? And in that initial read of the book, I was never picturing Founding Fathers. I was picturing what artist could play George Washington, what artist could play Hercules Mulligan.

Jo Reed: Great name.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I mean, that's why he's in the show <laughs> to be honest. His name is Hercules Mulligan. It’s the best rapper name I've ever heard. And so that was a part of the initial inspiration, and then Tommy just extended that to our production. He said, "We’re eliminating distance between the audience and the story," and the genre of music lends itself to this type of casting because these people sound good on these songs, and it's also the added sense of, "These people are like you and me." It's only amplified by the fact that we have every color represented on that stage. It just eliminates distance between us and the story of our founders. It helps them feel more human to us because it's what our country looks like now. That's about as political as it gets, and we never threw around the terms "colorblind" or "color-conscious." I mean, that's how it shook out, but it was always with an eye towards, "Let's get the best actors for these characters and these songs," and that's what we got. It didn't become a big deal until critics starting reviewing it. They go, "Holy shit, these guys don't look like the Founding Fathers at all." <laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, I think the surprise was if you read an outline of Hamilton and you have a cast as diverse as your cast, you somehow think tongue is going to be in cheek somewhere, and I think it's the combination of the casting, the diversity of music, but the utter sincerity and integrity that informs it, and I think it's that combination--

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yes. Yes. And to be sure, the direct inspiration for the show was the improbability of Hamilton's life, and that is something that drew me totally unironically. I can't spend seven years on something I want to take the piss out of. There are artists who know how to do that, and there are brilliant satirists in the world, and I tip my hat to them and I am in awe of them. I don't know how to do that. I get bored making fun of something after about two seconds. I have to fall in love with something if I'm going to live with it as long as it takes to write a musical. And that doesn't mean the founders aren't problematic and that doesn't mean there aren't inherent contradictions in Hamilton. Good god, he's so flawed. He's the flawed-est person who ever lived <laughs> as far as I'm concerned. I get to play in those flaws every night. But the humanity and unlikeliness of the story is what drew me so I'm just trying to make them as human as possible, because that's what Ron did for me in that book.

Jo Reed: You also did it with the music. The depth of the lyrics-- the layers, the rhymes-- but it's so matched with the musicality of it. Did you study music a lot when you were a kid?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, I mean, I studied-- I did a semester of organ comp. I took piano lessons as a kid. But I mean, most of my studying is just chasing what I love and really learning to listen critically. I think what a liberal arts education gave me <laughs> was the ability to listen critically, and I had teachers-- and this is really more in film even than in theater-- I had great film teachers who said, "If a movie is boring you, stop to analyze why." And that's always what I tell people. To say like, "Ah, I loved it, I hated it," that's the least interesting thing you could say. If something is knocking you out, step outside yourself and figure out why it's knocking you out. If something is boring you to tears or repulsing you, check in with yourself. Why is it having that effect on you? And that ability to sort of look at things critically-- one, I think it makes for good writing. I mean, I think you're a better writer if you can stand outside yourself and see what's going on clearer, and it also makes me think of genre as very fluid. People who get lost in genre-- like, "But it's hip-hop!" But people who think hip-hop and melody are mutually exclusive are just kidding themselves, or they heard one rap song in 1982 that just had a drum and have not checked in since. So for me, I'm a big chaser of melody. If Richard Rodgers wrote it, if Taylor Swift wrote it, if it's got a good melody and good lyrics, or a good beat, or two out of three, I'm in. And so, I also think growing up loving Weird Al helps, because Weird Al makes a polka version of every pop song on the radio--

Jo Reed: <laughs> God, that's true.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: --and you realize, "Oh, you can literally boil every pop song down to like a two-chord polka jam." So genre is just clothing, and the underpinning is what's going to last. And so I think that's the reason there's 50 genres in all of my shows is because I don't think of it as one genre. It's just about what serves our character in that moment.

Jo Reed: And thank you for both plays being a love song to New York. Thank you.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, I get a lot of crap for that too, but I like getting the love for it. I just like the genre of Love Letter to New York as a genre of music, whether it's Taylor Swift or whether it's Kander and Ebb or whether it's Alicia Keys, everyone's got their "I Love New York" song in their personal canon and I wanted to write my entries, and I've got a couple of entries in that canon.

Jo Reed: Oh yeah, you definitely have a couple of entries. I keep walking around singing "The Schuyler Sisters" all the time. You wrote killer songs for other members of the cast.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I did.

Jo Reed: You were very generous.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Well, yeah. This is going to be a school play one day, and you don't want one kid to have all the good songs. I still think that the way I make theater is informed by the way I fell in love with theater, which was by doing it. It was not by seeing a ton of Broadway shows. I didn't see a ton of Broadway shows until I was an adult. And so my shows tend to be big ensemble shows, because that's like, the best school play. <laughs>

Jo Reed: That is the best school-- as many kids as can get in should get in.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, exactly.

Jo Reed: The phenomenon of Hamilton-- you're number one on the Billboard Charts for rap, you're the first musical cast album to get five stars. Obama loved the show. So did Dick Cheney. I heard Laura Ingraham talking about how marvelous it was.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: <laughs>

Jo Reed: Seriously. People who can't agree the sky is blue can agree about this show. What do you think touches people so deeply about this?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: That's a great question. I think it goes back to Hamilton. I think, one, I think we'd like to believe if we work harder than anyone else we can get far in this country. Hamilton is the proto-immigrant story, and everyone can get behind that. Two, I think anything that connects us to the founding in a real way-- like I think for me the joy in researching this show and writing it was being forced to find the humanity in the founders. I have to find my way into them to write their songs. That's the only way I know how to write, is I have to put their clothes on and figure out what they're thinking and what they're feeling, and then when it feels true I write it down. That's the recipe. That's the whole recipe. That's all I've got to work with. <laughs> And so that means digging deep and figuring out what is it about Washington that keeps him with one eye on posterity and keeps such a steady hand on the wheel in those turbulent early years, and even through the war, where even the people plotting against him are forced to apologize to him because he just kind of doesn't die and keeps going. <laughs> And Jefferson, who is such a complicated character, writes beautifully about liberty more than anybody else, but also owns a ton of people-- <laughs> does not extend that to the people he thinks of as property. But grapples with that question in an honest way, in an honest way for his time, and figuring out my way into him in relation to Hamilton, it became very clear how to figure that out because he has honest beefs with Hamilton. Hamilton is importing all this stuff that Jefferson thought he was running away from with the Revolution. "What, you're going to bring back banks and stockjobbers and taxes?" Like, "That's all the shit we ran from." So he's not wrong, and that was my way into Jefferson, was the stuff Hamilton is introducing is-- and Hamilton's perspective is, "Well, that's what works about the other country, so we're going to do it." <laughs> "That's why they have economies and we don't." <music> I had to find my way into them. I had to make them human for myself, and I think what is touching a nerve is, I think other people are finding the humanity within them as well. They leave with an understanding, or at least a partial understanding, of what they were like as people in some weird way, or they have their head around them that you don't get when you look at a statue of someone. I think, regardless of your political stripe, to be connected to your country in any meaningful way, or its country's founders-- even if you leave being like, "Oh, Jefferson was a jerk," or "Hamilton cheated on his wife," to make them human you can't dismiss them, and you have to reckon with them, because we live in their country. I think that's why everyone sees something in it.

Jo Reed: I think partly too, having a diverse cast brings up I think a couple of things. One, who was left out at that time.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yes, absolutely.

Jo Reed: And then also who we can't leave out. Who refuses to be left out.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not lost on anyone that the makeup of the stage would never have happened in the 1790s. <laughs> That was not an option. So I think just by that lens on it-- one, gives you hope for how far we've come, and certainly there's farther to go, but the other thing about the show is that the fights they have in the show-- the ideological fights, anyway-- are the fights we're still having. How often do we get involved in the affairs of other countries? When are we states and when are we one nation? What is the role of government in our lives? Is it big or is it small? It's not an accident that almost every character in our show dies as a result of gun violence. There are things in the foundation of our country that we will always be grappling with. We will always be grappling with them, and that gives me hope, because we'll go forward and we'll go backwards, but they were always there. This is not Paradise Lost. They were always there.

Jo Reed: Yeah. So do you think then that art really does have this ability to allow us to think about these questions that, if we're talking about them in a political arena, it can become very virulent, we cannot listen to one another, but perhaps when it's mounted on a proscenium--

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, proscenium is exactly the right word. When you're sitting in the dark with 1300 other strangers, there's no filter. You're not just looking at the newsfeed of the friends who agree with you. You're not just looking at the clip of the gaffe of the guy you already hated. You're all reckoning with the same story, and that is something that happens at the Super Bowl and happens if we're all watching "Grease: Live" together <laughs>, but other than that we don't all sit down and watch the same things. We very much curate our reality. I'm particularly living in this because I live in this crazy Hamilton bubble now, so something really has to be on the news to penetrate because I just have my head down and I'm just trying to get through seven shows a week. But we curate our reality to an almost unprecedented level. There are very few things that we all watch together, and when you're in a theater, we make you turn your phone off, and we're all going to watch this thing together. So you have to engage with it, and that's the power of theater. I mean, that's the thing that theater has on every other art form. Movies have that too, but it's that thing of, "We're all going to sit in the dark and watch the same story," and we might laugh together, and we might cry together, and you don't get that staring at your computer screen; you don't get that alone at home. There's something about seeing that in a community that, I don't know, is magic about it.

Jo Reed: When you started "Ham4Ham," which is small performances you do for people who are waiting for the lottery of 21 ten-dollar tickets, you thank people for coming and supporting live theater.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah. Talk about an unexpected <laughs> new thing in my life. The "Ham4Ham" show literally came because 700 people showed up for our first lottery, and it was summer and it was hot, and I didn't want to send 680 people angry into the streets of New York. <laughs> That's bad juju. That's bad mojo. So I just got up and thanked everyone for coming, and then Tommy immediately was like, "We should do that every day. At least while we're in previews, we should just do that every day. Do a little something. We've got a bunch of actors in here. Just do a little something every day for the people who show up," and that sort of graduated into this thing. But again, these people have taken the time out of their lives to come show up to try to win a front-row seat to our show. The least I can do is give them a story if I can't give them a ticket. Because I believe in the communal power. Everyone's like, "Put it on TV so we can all watch it." I was like, "You know something's lost when that happens, right?" Like there is a power to seeing it in a theater with other people that I'm loath to give up until I have to-- and so the "Ham4Ham" has been a wonderful way to engage with the people who are just trying to see the show and leave them with a New York story if nothing else. "Oh man, I saw Kelli O'Hara sing on the corner of 46th Street."

Jo Reed: I saw Lea Salonga sing with you.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah. "I saw Lea Salonga." I mean, that's a real thing, and that's an incredible thing--

Jo Reed: No, that was a real thing. I saw it. I was there.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah. <laughs> Yeah, which was-- it was a real thing for me too. Good gosh. Lea Salonga is such a hero of mine.

Jo Reed: Are you feeling more hopeful about seeing more diverse people on stage, not just yours?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Well, listen. We are, by incredible good luck, in one of the most diverse seasons in the history of Broadway. It's Allegiance, it's On Your Feet, it's Color People, it's Shuffle Along, it's an incredibly diverse season. I will remind you that last year was the whitest Tonys I've ever seen. <laughs> It was-- all great shows-- but nary a brown face to be seen, with the exception of maybe King and I. And so for me it's very hard to assign trends to Broadway, because you're dealing with 40 theaters, you're dealing with three theater owners, and it's about what makes it to the pipeline and what's ready for a theater and what can find a home, so it's hard to say, "It's over! We achieved diversity. Take that, Hollywood. Hashtag 'Oscars So White.'" Like, it's not as simple as that. Our Tonys last year were just as white as the Oscars this year, so let's not kid ourselves. But that being said, I do hope that the financial success of On Your Feet, the financial success of Hamilton, empowers producers to say, "Hey, this is actually good business. It's good business to have diverse casts. It’s good business to have diverse stories," because that brings in a newer audience and more audience, and engages us in a different way. Because that's the only thing that really works. <laughs> Do you know what I mean? Like, it's got to be good business. Broadway is expensive. It's expensive to mount a show. So the fact that-- not only that these shows are here, but doing well, are really what gives me hope, because it means there's going to be more. Tomorrow there'll be more of us.

Jo Reed: That’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. <overlapping music> He’s the creator and star of Hamilton. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. <music>

Making history on Broadway.