Music Credits: “In the Heights, “ performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and company, “Breathe,” performed by Mandy Gonzalez and company, “Carnaval del Barrio” performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and company, all songs from the play, In the Heights,” music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: That’s the reason I’m here, is because I had an amazing student-run theater program at my high school, and I was doing a play in the fall, a musical in the winter, and like, student-written plays every spring, and that's how I see my semesters. Like I couldn't tell you what classes I took, but I knew I would get good enough grades so that I could do the play in the fall, <laughs> the musical in the winter, and the student-run plays in the spring. And that's how I figured out who I was.
Jo Reed: That’s the creator and star of the musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
If you watched the Tony Awards last Sunday evening, I’m sure you noticed that the National Endowment for the Arts received a special Tony for its extraordinary support of theater over the past half-century. Over 100 plays and musicals that began with NEA support went on to be nominated for Tony Awards for best play or best musical, including Hamilton. You may also have noticed that Hamilton also took home a few Tonys Sunday night— like 11 of them, including Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Director and two Tony Awards for Lin-Manuel Miranda for Best Score and Best Book.
On the podcast a few weeks ago, we heard Lin-Manuel Miranda talk about what went into the making of Hamilton—recognized as a real game-changer in musical theater, and Lin-Manuel Miranda hailed as a theatrical genius. But even geniuses have beginnings, and today, we’re talking to Lin-Manuel Miranda about his. Granted, his professional life started off on a very high note. <music> His first play In the Heights won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. In the Heights takes place in the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights— a working-class Latino neighborhood. At the center of the play is a bodega, or grocery store, owned and run by Usnavi, a guy who’s just trying to figure out his place in the world as he nurses a mad crush on sexy Vanessa who only wants out of the hood. Meanwhile Nina has returned from her first semester at Stanford where she’s been struggling, while her parents are working desperately to keep their taxi business from going under. And so it goes-- real people, real problems, and filled with salsa and hip-hop-- the type of music you would actually hear on the streets of Washington Heights.
Usnavi was played by Lin-Manuel Miranda who also composed the score. He started working on In the Heights when he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan College. Lin-Manuel Miranda was motivated by a number of things— a longing to see a world he knew reflected on the stage and a cool-eyed appraisal of what opportunities there were in theater for performers who looked like him.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I grew up loving musicals, and knew I wanted a life in this business. I also knew I probably didn't dance well enough to play Bernardo, or Paul in A Chorus Line. And if you’re a Latino dude, that's what you got in the canon, in the canon of the great musical. Rent came out when I was 17. I saw it on my 17th birthday, 1997. And although I'd grown up loving musicals, I'd never really seen one that took place present day, which sounds absurd, but you have to remember the musicals I grew up with were the '80s, it was Phantom, it was Les Mis. Even Chorus Line, by the time I was a teenager, it was a period piece of the '70s.
Jo Reed: As was West Side Story.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: As was West Side Story. So neither of them were contemporary pieces to me. But suddenly here I was seeing a musical that took place not in a far off land, or in a far off country, but in the West Village with people struggling whether to stay in the arts or sell out. Something I knew was looming ahead of me as an erstwhile artist in training. People struggling with disease, struggling with poverty. It was the New York struggle in musical form, and it took place now. And I think that tacitly gave me permission to write about what I knew. And I knew I loved the musical form, but that told me, "You can write musicals. That's not something that only a few people have access to. You can write about it, too." Because Jonathan Larson was writing about his friends. And you know, the tragedy of his death, sort of brought his autobiography to the forefront. But also drove home the point, "You can write a musical about what you know." And that is valid. That is a valid evening in the theater. And I guess that connects to In the Heights very directly, because my first attempt at a full-length musical was In the Heights. I started writing my sophomore year at Wesleyan. It was a dare to myself in a lot of different ways. This was not for course credit. This was not my senior thesis. This was--
Jo Reed: You were a theater major?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I was-- yet to declare a theater major, because I was only a sophomore, but yes, I was barreling towards a theater major <laughs> and getting those credits. And it was sort of everything I'd always wanted to see in a musical. It was Latino characters. I think I was also empowered by the fact that I was living in a house with other Latino students at the time. I went to Hunter, here in New York. That's on the Upper East Side. All my friends were white Jewish kids on the Upper West Side.
Jo Reed: I have a dear friend who's Chinese-American and grew up in Confucius Plaza, who went to Hunter, and every single one of his friends from high school-- white Jewish guy.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Right, right, right so I spoke Spanish at home and English at school. And In the Heights was really the first time I'd sort of brought my culture from home to school in a very real way, and in a big way, to write about the neighborhood I grew up in, or at least adjacent to. I grew up north of Washington Heights. And I wanted it to sound like my neighborhood. So I'm dabbling in these Latin forms that I grew up with around the house, but also playing with hip-hop and playing with musical theater, and just sort of trying to bring all of myself to it, because it was an 80-minute one act. And I wanted it to sound like this neighborhood. And we sort of doubled down on that when In the Heights went pro.
Jo Reed: What do you mean? Tell me what changed when you went pro.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: When I went pro is when I met Tommy Kail, who by all accounts is smarter than me, and had 50 ideas of how to make the musical better.
Jo Reed: And he was the director.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: And he was the director, yes. So we met after I graduated in 2002.
Jo Reed: And he went to Wesleyan.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: He went to Wesleyan, but we didn't meet at Wesleyan. We didn't meet until I had graduated, he'd graduated a couple of years prior. And so, that first day we talked about In the Heights and we always say, that was like the beginning of a conversation that still hasn't stopped. And we worked on it, sort of us for a year, and then we found the people who could help us really bring it to life, and that was Alex Lacamoire, our music director, and crucially, Quiara Hudes, our book writer, who came onboard in about 2004, and had the same upbringing and schism growing up in Northern Philly that I did in Northern Manhattan. And so then we really doubled down on, "Okay, let's make this about our community, and a love letter to the communities we grew up in." And not about the drug dealer on the corner. That guy is on the corner, as he is in every neighborhood in America, but the hard-working local businessmen who came from another country who works on the store inside the corner, which I think does make Washington Heights unique and standout. I mean, we're home to so many small businesses. And listen, Costco's coming, Starbucks is coming, but so far it's still home to an enormous amount of locally owned Latino businesses, many of whose owners came from other countries. <music> So that's the story of In the Heights. It started with me wanting a life in this business, and ended with me almost inadvertently creating the community I didn't feel a part of.
Jo Reed: Well, that's what I was going to say, because it was very moving, the last performance of In the Heights, when the end of your curtain speech when you said, "Just remember for a time, we had a home in a Broadway theater."
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Did you come away from that feeling as though you did have a home in a Broadway theater?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Absolutely! And yeah, it was a really beautiful thing, and when your show opens, that's just the rock landing in the water for the first time. You don't begin to see the ripples of it. I saw what it did to Latinos who saw the show, and finally saw themselves represented on the stage in a way that wasn't holding a knife. And over the years, as the show has gone to stock and amateur, and people have done high school productions of the show, and college productions of the show, I can't tell you how many times I've spoken at a college and I get kids-- male and female-- come up to me and go, "Nina Rosario is about me!" And the story of Nina-- and again--
Jo Reed: An Nina's the girl who went to Stanford.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Nina is the one who went to Stanford, lost her scholarship, and has pretty much given up at the top of the show, and leaves with a resolve to go back. And I don't think we tell that story a lot. You’ll see the story of "my parent forbid from doing something, but I'm going to do it." That's like a trope in movies and TV. But you don't see the thing of, "My parents like, killed themselves so that I could have a chance, and really worked hard for me to do something, and I'm going to honor that. I'm gonna honor their sacrifice." Which as, as a kid of parents who both were born in Puerto Rico, and came here, and, my dad left the nonprofit sector when I went to college, just so that he could afford it. I was so aware of the sacrifices they were making. I remember my sister had to take an extra semester to graduate college, and I remember the day she told my parents, and my mother bursting into tears. So that's real. And it's not a story that gets told a lot. At least not in mainstream culture, not in movies and plays. You see it in the news, but you don't see it in a show. All that to say, I have so many people come up to me and say, "I am Nina Rosario." Or, "I was failing and Nina got me through." And that's been unbelievably heartening and validating. Because in the early days, every producer who had an opinion and chimed in was like, "Well what are Nina's real stakes? Is she pregnant?" Like, you know. Yeah, no, you have no idea how many, "She should be pregnant" pitches got pitched to me. I was like, "No, you know what?" like-- "This is a real-stakes thing. Like it's harder to dramatize than pregnant. But we're going to try for this thing, because it's not a story that hasn't been told a lot." <music> And I'm glad we said "No!" to everyone who said, "She should be pregnant. She should have had an abusive boyfriend," and like go for the thing that's real, and in a lot of people's lives.
Jo Reed: So you were pitching both an unusual story, but music that really had not been heard on Broadway before.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah.
Jo Reed: So you really were doubling down!
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, we were absolutely doubling down. But you know, it's the strength of our producers, whose office we sit in today, that once they were onboard, our producers never pitched us that, "Maybe Nina is pregnant," thing. Our producers really believed in what we were trying to do. And the music in the story, it's an old-fashioned musical. It's an old-fashioned musical that draws on contemporary forms. But we looked at Fiddler like crazy, while we were writing our opening number and structuring our show. We looked at Cabaret. We looked at the musicals that work. That are about communities undergoing change, because that's what our show was turning out to be about. And so I think that's the secret sauce as well as-- Quiara loves musicals, and I love musicals. Quiara actually teaches musicals at Wesleyan now. Which is an amazing sort of turnabout because there was no one teaching musicals when I was there writing them. But we come with great love of the form as well. This is not, "We're going to rip it up and start from scratch." This is not, "We're going to write contemporary music and that's going to be the spot--," like it’s-- we're using music that is recognizable to present-day Americans to tell the story of this neighborhood. And also drawing on what we know and love about musical theater storytelling.
Jo Reed: Well, the other thing In the Heights did was certainly open up the stage to other Latino actors who, as you said—it’s very, very difficult.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: That’s the other-- It's a really lovely thing. I remember being— I was going to a reading, and I walked into a rehearsal space and someone came up to me and said, "Hey, like since the rights have been released, I played two Kevins, two Piragua Guys," like he's like-- he has a career! He has a career because In the Heights is getting done everywhere. And that's enormously gratifying, because that was the thing that I knew was in scarcity back in 1999 when I started writing this when I was 19 years old. Was I want a life in this business, and Paul and Bernardo and Zoot Suit, but Zoot Suit doesn't get done that much. And so that was-- I had seen Capeman come and go, my senior year in high school.
Jo Reed: That was the Paul Simon?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: That was the Paul Simon musical. Paul Simon, Rubén Blades, Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario. I mean, that's a list of my heroes, and it just came and went. And I was like, "Oh!" And that was, in a way, that was a wakeup call, as well. Because it was like the universe slapped me in the face and said, "Hey, no one's writing your dream musical." Because that's the dream team, if I were to assemble someone to make me a dream musical, that would be the team I'd assemble. And it came and went. So that was as empowering as Rent was in another direction. That was the fear of just like, "Nothing's promised. And you've got to write it if you want to see it."
Jo Reed: Now you played Usnavi in In the Heights, but you didn't really write that part for yourself.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Not at all. I wasn't in my first production at Wesleyan. I was the writer and the director. And Usnavi was only in three scenes. He's really not it-- he was just sort of comic relief.
Jo Reed: No Vanessa.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Vanessa was in it. Vanessa was still Nina's best friend. Yeah, one of the first things Tommy said to me in that first meeting when we sat down, he sort of saw it ahead of everybody. He said, "You know, Usnavi's bodega is a great place for your characters to gather, because everyone goes to the bodega. And he's great, like, you could actually have him be your central narrator, and then you have the song “In Washington Heights,” which is really great. But in the Wesleyan version it was third. Why isn't that your opening song, that introduces us to this world?" So those were like the first three things Tommy said to me. And I was like, "Alright, keep talkin’.” That was the beginning of our conversation. But he really sort of saw with clarity, Usnavi's potential.
Jo Reed: How did you decide to take on the role of Usnavi?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I started playing him in readings to get backers, 'cause it was easier than finding someone to learn Usnavi's raps. Usnavi, even in the original version, exclusively rapped. My actor, who played Usnavi, couldn't sing very well. I don't sing much better than him. <laughs> So that was sort of born of necessity, initially, and sort of carried through with me. But I sort of did it out of convenience in those early workshops and then it became an asset to have the writer narrating. It added sort of a dimension to it. And our producers recognized that as well. And so I kind of fell in the snowball.
Jo Reed: You played Usnavi in In the Heights. This-- I'm just really curious about this. And you're playing Hamilton. And you're the writer, you're the composer, I know there's so many revisions that happen.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah.
Jo Reed: How do you get outside of it to see what's going on? Because, you know, as Jefferson says, "You can't put out a fire when you're inside the house."
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, well, a couple of things. Hamilton, it-- we had the system down by then. We had a few assets. One, a shorthand with this creative team who I'd worked with on Heights. I already knew-- I trusted Tommy's eye and Andy's eye, and Alex's ear, and so I could trust that if they said things were going well and it's looking good—like, I can trust that. And there's a bedrock level of trust there. Two, Javier Munoz, who is an incredible actor and singer, and was actually the first Usnavi to play it at the O'Neil’ when we were workshopping, so that I could sit out and watch. He sat out a week, and then I did the last week. And we just continued that into Hamilton. We would grab Javi. And he and I really collaborated on that role together. So having that, having the ability to step out, and having an actor as sensitive as Javi, who in the middle of a process, he noticed me doing something, slightly differently, and then being like, "Is that a change?" <laughs> And I was like, "I don't know if it's a change yet. I'm just still trying it out." But it's-- you know, when I'm writing for-- when I was writing for Hamilton, particularly once we got into rehearsal and production, I'm really just trying it on to see if it fits. So that was thrilling to work on with Tommy, and Oskar Eustis and Jeffrey Seller and our creative team. Because I was just trying it out in real-time, and I'm experiencing—I’m experiencing how the show works on a molecular level. It's not me trying to read the tea leaves of an audience reaction. It's coming at me! So I had that with Heights. We ran for six months, and then I had six months off, and I knew like in my gut, what was 100 percent laugh, what was only a laugh when Latino people were there; what was only a laugh like when, you know—
Jo Reed: The matinee laugh.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: The matinee laugh, exactly
Jo Reed: Let me just backtrack very, very quickly. How did your parents react to you going into theater? It's not the most-- it's not the stablest of careers.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: It is not. And my father knew that first-hand, because my father's uncle was a famous, famous actor on the island of Puerto Rico. His name is Ernesto Concepción. If you look him up, he founded the theater guild in Puerto Rico. And his son is still one of the best actors in Puerto Rico. He works on the island. He's on TV and he's in theater there all the time. When I brought Heights there, he was starring in Cabaret. That's my cousin on the island, Ernestito Concepción. And so my dad had a first-hand knowledge of how wonderful it was, and how hard it was to make a living. You know, my uncle was at the top of his field, but still like had to work miracles to make a living and raise kids. So I heard the constant refrain of, "Be a lawyer. Be a lawyer. Be a lawyer. Be a lawyer. You're very creative, be a lawyer. You're creative. Be a lawyer." <laughs> Rubén Blades was thrown in my face a great deal, ‘cause that is an amazingly successful and wonderful artist who went to Harvard Law School. So it was like, "Rubén Blades went to Harvard." I knew it was not going to happen. I just knew it was not in the cards. I aspire to Rubén Blades' <laughs> work ethic. I don't have it. I don't share it on things that don't matter to me. And so, you know, to that end, when they realized that was not going to happen, they made themselves as supportive as possible. And, anyone who went to Wesleyan in the four years I was there, can tell you about the Miranda Bus, ‘cause anytime I was in a show, or involved in the show, my dad would charter a bus and bring 40 people up from New York. I starred in Jesus Christ, Superstar my freshman year, and there was like a snowstorm, and I remember it was like, "All right, it's 8:05, we're just holding for the bus." Because it comprised of half the audience! <laughs> "We couldn’t start without them!" So that was both mortifying, and you know, amazing. So they were very supportive in that respect. They never missed a show, and their concern was me supporting myself while I pursued this.
Jo Reed: You won an Emmy for "Bigger," the opening number of the 2013 Tony Awards, and I have to say, it made me laugh with delight. But you end-- you don't end-- but you have Neil Patrick sing, "There's a kid in the middle of nowhere, and what might we do to reassure that kid, do something to spur that kid, because I promise you all of us up here tonight, we were that kid."
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Talk about why you inserted that, and what can we do to spur that kid and encourage that kid?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah. I mean, I was that kid. That's very clearly <laughs>-- you know, it's funny, because Neil called me to-- I had written the closing for him a couple years prior and he said, "We're back at Radio City Music Hall. I want to do the biggest number in the history of big numbers," and that was terrifying to me.
Jo Reed: Really?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Oh, yeah. I mean, this is just a lot of moving parts. If you're a lyricist and you don't know what's coming, like, what are you going to do? And I was writing lyrics up until the last day. "Bloomberg is in. He's going to be in on a trapeze." "Bloomberg is out, but we got Spiderman." Like, it was a crazy jigsaw puzzle to write that thing. But the other thing I counter-pitched him was like, "Well, if the song is called “Bigger”-- which was his title and his sort of pitch-- "then what's the bigger idea?" Like, why the hell do we do it? What's the grain of sand in there? And the grain of sand is, "We're going to blow some kid's mind who never thought this was for him and sees himself somehow up on that stage." And as a kid who memorized Billy Crystal's "It's a Wonderful Night for Oscar" songs, every time he did it, every time he hosted, I was that kid. I mean, I really-- I lived for those moments. And so I wanted to create one of those because Neil can do anything. So I knew whatever I could throw at him he could do, and then he—you know, I'd leave the room for a second and I'd come back and he's jumping through a hoop in Pippin. I'm like, "Okay, well let me figure out how to get you some more room to breathe within that lyric." <laughs> Because he just is-- he's fearless and can kind of do it all. But yeah, that came very much out of, "If I were a kid watching this show, what would I want to see?" And that's—that’s where that lyric comes from.
Jo Reed: What can we do, just in terms of what's happening in the arts, what's happening in public education, for that kid, so that the next Lin-Manuel Miranda can emerge?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Well, I think it starts with arts funding in our schools. Like, that's the reason I'm here, <laughs> is because I had an amazing student-run theater program at my high school, and I was doing a play in the fall, a musical in the winter, and like, student-written plays every spring, and that's how I see my semesters. Like I couldn't tell you what classes I took, but I knew I would get good enough grades so that I could do the play in the fall, <laughs> the musical in the winter, and the student-run plays in the spring. And that's how I figured out who I was, not only because I loved this art form and loved being a part of it in a practical way, but also even if I'd never gone into theater, the ability to make friends with kids from other grades, which is so important when you're in high school and everything seems like the biggest deal in the world. "Oh, I can go to another hallway," and go hang out with a friend who's not involved in whatever the drama is in your grade, in ninth grade, and who likes who and who hates who. To meet friends of different ages, to all work on something together, the values of teamwork, camaraderie, and my god, just practice and rehearsal and how long it takes to get something right-- those would have served me well in whatever I'd gone into just by virtue of having done them. So to me it's the silver bullet that lets you do all the other things well, and that is the most essential, because not everyone can afford Broadway tickets. Believe me as the writer of Hamilton, <laughs> I know not everyone can afford Broadway tickets. And I couldn't afford Broadway tickets when I was a kid. So it's about, for me, creating as many opportunities on the ground for people to be involved, whether it's community theater, whether it's after-school programs-- I was involved in a great NYU after-school program called Creative Arts Team that-- we did improv games every Tuesday after school, and it was the highlight of my week to go meet kids from other schools and play, you know, energy ball <laughs> and do-- and learn how to do improv, and community-building exercises. It makes your community stronger, it makes your kids smarter. It's so important for everything else, as important as sports in terms of building a team and building camaraderie. It needs to be the counterweight to that because, by the way, everyone wins in theater. <laughs> That’s the joy of it, is it brings your community together. So it's really making space and money available for those opportunities to exist.
Jo Reed: Do you have a sense of what you want to say next? The extraordinary success of Hamilton is I'm sure-- it's a wonderful act to follow, but I would think maybe perhaps daunting.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Well, what I'm going to do is what I did last time, which is I go-- after you're done writing a musical, like, you want to go do anything but write a musical. <laughs> Not because it wasn't fun doing it, but because you've been working so hard to push this particular rock up this hill. And so I'm going to go write for other things. I'm going to go act a little bit. I'm going to go read a book on the beach until I fall in love again. The ideas that sustain the amount of work it takes to write a musical are very few and far between, to be honest. For every musical you've seen of mine I've written, I'm sure there's three more that I played with for a month or maybe a year and then just like, "Oh, no. It's not-- my passion is not going to sustain this thing through to completion." So to that end, I'm writing songs for a Disney musical, which is an unbelievably fun and different challenge, and in a lot of ways is like musical to the nth degree, because you're not just getting notes from your choreographer and your director, but your lead animator and storyboard artists, and the directors of other Disney movies in the canon. We're all working on different projects in the pipeline, which is a joyous way to work. Everyone knows what they're talking about, so you have to kind of pick what makes the most sense. And-- so I'm having a lot of fun doing that, because it's almost like my musical theater muscles have built me to work in this arena. So that's been a really fun challenge that I've been doing concurrently with Hamilton. I starting working on that show-- Moana is the Disney musical that comes out in November of this year, and I got that gig the week we found out my wife was pregnant. My son is 15 months old, so I've been working on that for about two years, in the margins of my Hamilton writing.
Jo Reed: Being a new father, do you sleep?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I sleep now. I didn't sleep pretty much the entire off-Broadway run. <laughs> But my son is sleeping through the night now, so-- which is really awesome of him. I really appreciate it. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Lin, thank you so much. Considering how busy you are, thank you. I really appreciate it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Lin-Manuel Miranda. The creator of Hamilton and In the Heights. If you want to hear the first part of my interview with him which is all about Hamilton, look for it at arts.gov under Podcasts.
You’ve been listening to Art Works. For the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed thanks for listening.
His life in the theater didn’t begin with Hamilton.