Best of the Decade: Lin-Manuel Miranda on making history with Hamilton
No 18th-century U.S. statesman had more sway on stage, more measure on music, or better brought the decade's zeitgeist to its zenith than Treasury treasure Alexander Hamilton, the immigrant hero about whom Lin-Manuel Miranda spun a Pulitzer-winning, genre-defying, generation-defining Broadway musical that demanded, among other things, a renewed spotlight be shone on the theater as a cornerstone of American culture.
Since Hamilton's February 2015 debut at the Public Theater and subsequent transfer to Broadway that summer, Miranda has had five years, three tours, half a dozen productions, hundreds of pre-show concerts, and a star-stacked mixtape to say just about everything he could about creating one of the biggest Broadway musicals of all time. And he's heard everything you can hear about it, too.
"The thing that always trips people up is the incongruity of a hip-hop musical from this historical tone, which I always find surprising," says Miranda, 39, whose previous Broadway successes included 2008's Tony-winning In the Heights, 2012's Bring It On the Musical, and the 2009 revival of West Side Story. "Because I live in musical-theater land, I know a disproportionate amount about Argentine politics because of Evita," he continues. "I know about a failed revolution in France because of f—in' Les Miz. I know what I know about the Constitution from 1776. To me it was not [out of place] to have a musical address historical subjects, and the musical forms I was applying to it were just musical forms I had been working hard to master. When I started reading [Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton] I thought, 'Well, this will be my Jesus Christ Superstar. I'll do a cool concept album and hopefully someone will figure out how to stage it.' That's not how it ended up panning out, but all I was looking to was tradition. I've been consistently surprised by how groundbreaking it has been perceived as because I feel like I'm just one in a long tradition of people who have used musical theater on unconventional subjects."
Yet Hamilton's standing as a zeitgeist sensation isn't just in what's on the page. Yes, that page is what earned Miranda two Tonys (the show won 11 overall), a Grammy, an Olivier, the MacArthur "Genius Grant," Kennedy Center Honors, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the approval of A-listers from Elmo to the Obamas — but it's Hamilton's auxiliary elements that helped the piece so sharply pierce the ether: An originating cast of powerhouse singers whose mega-watt smiles looked nothing like the oil portraits of the bewigged patriots they played, each one becoming an overnight celebrity by virtue of, at minimum, simply being in the ensemble; songs and lyrics that permeated pop culture with crossover chart success, and a signature production design aesthetic quick to register in parody, praise, or satire; a digital-first fanbase cultivated at grassroots and iterated across the internet thanks in part to Miranda's own social savvy and viral structures like the cameo-packed #Ham4Ham ticket lottery; and ultimately, a resonance among young people, the legacy of which still even remains to be seen, nascent but powerful in its galvanization of teenagers unfamiliar with musical theater or American history to reconsider their allegiances to both.
After the show's 2015 debut, it was a matter of time before educators became intertwined in the show's didactic potential; Hamilton's producers allowed for discounts, field trips, talkbacks, course studies, lectures, supplementary materials, and other scholarly efforts that allowed Hamilton to be more readily consumed by the academic masses. Much as the difficulty of procuring a Hamilton ticket is still a punchline even five years later, producers nevertheless made clear their continued efforts to wedge open the door of their standing-room blockbuster to allow as many people as possible to access the Broadway production. (And Hamilton will be even more accessible in a few years, says Miranda, when a presently-padlocked film of the original cast, shot and vaulted in 2016, will be released once a decided-upon majority of audiences have gotten the chance to see the show live on stage as intended.)
With its 46-track album quick to become ubiquitous in every high school theater department across the country, a show about the might of the people swiftly belonged to the people. "Anecdotally, I heard from countless families who say Hamilton's the only thing my family can agree on in the car — it's not the teen's music, it's not the grown-up's music, it's sort of everyone's music, and that has been thrilling," Miranda beams. He's heard tales of children with learning disabilities surprising their families by memorizing the words of the show, of kids with behavioral issues who found focus, relaxation, or solace in engaging with the libretto. "I think the tonnage of it is actually something that has its own legacy," Miranda points out. "The fact that it's literally so much show and so much music, it becomes this challenge for kids to wrap their minds around, the way my friends and I would memorize the Rent soundtrack and assign each other parts in high school a generation before. It's done that for a new generation of kids, so that's been really thrilling to see. More often than not, if someone is asking me for a signature or a selfie, it's on behalf of their children. A lot of, 'My kid would kill me if I didn't ask for this photo.'"
And yet, it's still tough to crack Miranda's humility (and through the years, EW has tried). Miranda would sooner list 50 line-item debts he owes to Jay-Z and Les Miz and N.W.A. and ALW and Menken and Moreno and Method Man than praise his own impact or boast of the creative genius others have described him as having. Perhaps that's why Hamilton's crossover into the mainstream brought him along with it, into a stimulating new leg of a career that taps into his acting (His Dark Materials), songwriting (Moana), dynamic displays of dramaturgy (Fosse/Verdon), and even downright old-school showmanship (Mary Poppins Returns). But Miranda also uses his star power to redirect his spotlight elsewhere: on hurricanes, on history, on anxiety and artistry and the difficult intersection of both.
Only anecdotes (and EW) force Miranda to acknowledge how Hamilton did in fact change the game, especially in its electrified dialogue around the multiplicity of perspectives and representation in entertainment. He offers one such tale he particularly treasures: "I had seen Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time in theaters opening weekend, and they actually quoted my words and the show — I will never forget that as long as I live — and I had the chance to meet her and she told me that when she first met with Disney about the movie, she said, 'I hope you know I'm doing a Hamilton on this,'" Miranda recalls. "The fact that she used that as shorthand for 'I'm casting this with actors of color and it's all hands on deck' — that was very, very moving to me. The fact that this show is cast the way it is and has been as successful as it has, I think broke down some kind of door. I hope we've ended the conversation about nontraditional casting in a very real way. There's no going backwards now."
Only going forward, into whatever creative heir to Hamilton lies in our 2020s and his future 40s. "I spent my 20s writing Heights and I spent my 30s writing Hamilton," says Miranda, whose milestone ages are tied to the turn of the decades themselves (he'll be 40 on Jan. 16, 2020). "I was actually pretty down at the top of this decade," he recalls. "I remember the hangover after my 30th birthday party… it was a great party, but I just remember feeling like this was adulthood for real, and [not knowing] what's going to happen. But it has also been the most fulfilling and joyous decade I've had so far. It's been unreal." And he'll enter his 40s in similarly surrealistic fashion: In addition to a movie of Heights arriving in June, he'll make his directorial debut helming a Netflix film adaptation of Tick, Tick… BOOM!, the 1990 musical by the late Jonathan Larson about a composer's midlife anxiety over his artistic accomplishments. Miranda doesn't need to point out the parallels. "We're shooting '30/90' the day I turn 40, so you wanna talk about decades? Jonathan Larson is almost exactly 20 years older than me, and to begin the decade telling his story, telling the story of the person who allowed me to believe I had a life in the theater? That feels like a really nice way to start."