Lin-Manuel Miranda did not say that. It was LL Cool J who once said it to Miranda when Miranda asked his fellow New York rapper-turned-actor about plans to make any new music. “But the way he said it was, ‘I want to work in marble,’” Miranda explained the exchange to Rolling Stone. “That really stuck with me. So when he came to [Hamilton], I said, ‘I tried to work in marble, sir.’”
Despite penning the most successful Broadway show ever—Hamilton: An American Musical, 2015’s multicultural hip-hop romp about the life and death of one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton—Miranda’s humility in the presence of his hip-hop heroes speaks to his sense of groundedness as a storyteller and entertainer. But with Hamilton breaking Broadway box office and Tony Award records, Miranda’s career has been more than just another case of island boy makes good: He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, he’s starring along with Emily Blunt in Disney’s long-awaited sequel to childhood classic Mary Poppins, he’s voicing fan favorite Gizmoduck in the reboot of children’s animated series DuckTales, and he’s working on the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. Talk about classics in the making.
“I saw Little Mermaid when I was 10 and it changed my life,” Miranda said on the red carpet at last year’s Academy Awards. “I couldn’t believe they broke into a Caribbean tune in the middle of a Disney movie. And here I am with a nominated tune for a Disney movie. How…cool is that?”Miranda got the Oscar nod for collaborating on the musical score of the 2016 Pacific Island-themed animated feature film Moana. According to Deadline, six months before Hamilton even started rehearsing, “…[Miranda] was on a plane to New Zealand, where the rest of the team was already doing research, and meeting with different choirs, and sort of really soaking up the music, the musical world of, the musical heritage of this part of the world.”
In addition to the journey of several thousand miles Miranda took to get into the appropriate musical mood for the film, the inspiration for his Oscar-nominated song from Moana, “How Far I’ll Go,” points directly to why his songs resonate so strongly with audiences, and he found it much closer to home. “If I’m writing a teenage character and I need to connect with that angsty part of myself that feels like the future is forever away and everything is life or death,” Miranda told People, “I can just go and lock myself in my childhood bedroom.” It is this down-to-earth relatability in Miranda’s work that keeps the audience enthralled, even as characters such as would-be heroine Moana, fast-rhyming Alexander Hamilton, and In the Heights bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega—all islanders—facilitate escapism on screen and on stage. It is an escapism in which everyday people can actually see themselves.
Indeed, even as he crafted his modern, even revisionist version of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda drew from his own experiences as the son of Caribbean immigrants, much like Nevis-born Federalist Hamilton himself. “I always tell people, ‘I’m just playing my dad in the show,’” Miranda told the Boston Globe. “Down to the hair.’’
Born in New York City in 1980 to parents of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage, Miranda used his upbringing on the northern end of Manhattan Island as source material for his 2008 Broadway hit, In the Heights. But it was a combination of summers spent with his abuelos in Puerto Rico, and his father’s political work for the Democratic Party, that helped influence Miranda’s real-life advocacy work in raising awareness about Puerto Rico’s crushing debt situation and hurricane recovery.
“More than 150 schools on the island have closed,” he wrote in a 2016 New York Times column that attempted to humanize the island’s $73 billion debt crisis. “It’s estimated that a doctor a day leaves the island. Engineers, accountants, blue-collar workers, and entire families are emigrating daily. According to the census, Puerto Rico has lost nine percent of its population in the last decade, with 84,000 leaving last year alone.” While some historians have argued that Hamilton—the hero of Miranda’s most successful project to date, and who served as Treasury Secretary under George Washington—pioneered a pro-creditor economic system of the type that currently has Puerto Rico on the ropes, Miranda focused on a similar plea Hamilton made after tragedy befell another Caribbean island.
“O ye, who revel in affluence, see the afflictions of humanity and bestow your superfluity to ease them,” Hamilton wrote in 1772 after a hurricane ravaged the isle of Saint Croix, where he spent his teenage years. “Say not, we have suffered also, and thence withhold your compassion. What are your sufferings compared to those? Ye have still more than enough left. Act wisely.” Miranda used these words in asking for public awareness and congressional action to Puerto Rico’s complex economic and humanitarian woes, caused by a combination of governmental mismanagement and an oppressive tax structure imposed on goods and services in the territory. He used that same gusto to fight back against the federal government’s perceived lack of leadership during 2017’s Hurricane Irma recovery efforts.
And it is Miranda’s passion for the place that overshadows any dissidence between Hamilton’s fiscal policies and their common roots as island men. “Every summer my sister Luz and I stayed with our grandparents in Vega Alta, a small town on the northern coast,” Miranda recalled in his Times editorial. “In Vega Alta, I was ‘el nene de Luisito, que se fue a Nueva York’ (‘The son of Luisito, who left for New York’), but welcomed every summer as a cherished member of the community. I walked from one end of town to the other, waving at the business owners, many of whom went to church with my grandparents, feeling a sense of community that often eluded me back in New York.”
Just as that community reels from the current economic hurricane—“My uncle is a pastor at a church and they were robbed a couple of years ago at gunpoint as they were counting the collection plate,” he told Rolling Stone. “My cousin is graduating with a degree in engineering and he cannot find work on the island.”—Miranda is bringing work to the island himself, adding a bit of star power to bolster tourism in Puerto Rico.
“We opened a plaza in Vega Alta yesterday,” Miranda tweeted last August. “It’s named after my Abuelo Guisin, who was the George Bailey of Vega Alta. It’s got kiosks and a museum of my stuff (awards & pics n stuff). Tourists visiting PR—it’s our hope that on your trip, you come to our placita in Vega Alta and take a pic. Spend locally.” Miranda also has a star on Puerto Rico’s Paseo de la Fama (Walk of Fame), bordering Ashford Avenue in the Condado district of San Juan, alongside luminaries such as Broadway hoofers Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, bon-bon shaker Ricky Martin, fellow Nuyorican Jennifer López, and late film and stage actor Raúl Juliá. The paseo was inaugurated in 2015 to help bolster tourism in the Puerto Rican capital, historically one of the Caribbean’s largest cruise-line ports of call.
In the end, it’s the visibility that these types of projects, as well as Miranda’s characters, bring to the fore—the relatability and the sense of belonging, the sense that you matter. Last year, Miranda wrote a heartfelt homage in Vanity Fair to actor John Leguizamo in thanks for the Colombian-American theater and film star’s early examples of visibility. “As an erstwhile theater kid whose knowledge of it was strictly confined to traditional musicals such as Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof, witnessing a Latino actor write and star in his own show, reveling in the specificities of our culture with brilliant, razor-sharp wit and a uniquely hip-hop energy, exploded my every notion of what theater could be.”
That cultural specificity and inclusion, even validation of hip-hop on the Broadway stage has been part of the driving force of Miranda’s career since he started conceiving In the Heights while in college. And despite rising to the ranks of the world’s best-known rappers, albeit not on the traditional ladder of ascension that recording artists usually take, Miranda remains humble in the presence of his heroes. “Busta [Rhymes] was the first and the greatest, because he sat in the front row [of Hamilton],” he told Rolling Stone. “That was about as nervous as I’ve been. For me, it’s been exciting to meet a lot of lyrical giants. Andre 3000, when he came, I was very conscious of him. Eminem was another one of those…When Nas came, I was a wreck.
Miranda’s humility also extends to his own creativity. “I’ll never write another Hamilton,” he told the Boston Globe in 2016. “Hamilton is singular: the man and the creation of the show.’’ But while no man is an island, Lin-Manuel Miranda is fast becoming that other singular thing: a classic.
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