Creating an avenue for diversity through the cultural phenomenon, Hamilton
By Rosario Diaz
Lin-Manuel Miranda has earned several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, a Primetime Emmy Award in Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics, two Grammys, and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. His creative genius in both writing and music has spawned two major Broadway hits, he’s written music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, scored the music for Disney’s film, Moana and he’s even had a freestyle rap session with the President.
Everything this guy touches seems to turn to gold, and yet, his accomplishments alone are not the reason you see him gracing our cover. He’s there not because of his awards (though they certainly do warrant it), nor is it because he comes from humble beginnings—a former part-time teacher who’s seemingly found success and fame overnight. And it’s certainly not because he fits into that category of Latinos overcoming barriers. He appears on our cover because of the impact that he’s made for people of color. By creating an avenue for diversity and allowing people of color to retell the story of a founding father (and through rap and theatre, nonetheless), Miranda has done something that can perhaps be seen almost as revolutionary as the founding father himself.
But let’s take a few steps back, not just to get a better sense of why people are calling Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton genius, but to take a look at what this cultural phenomenon is really all about, because it all started long before Hamilton.
In the early 1980s, Lin-Manuel was growing up in the Latino community of Inwood in Upper Manhattan. It was here in the Washington Heights-adjacent neighborhood that Miranda would acquire the tools he’d later use for writing his first Broadway musical, In the Heights.
As for Hamilton, it would be years until Miranda would start writing and acting out the part of the famous immigrant who became Secretary of the Treasury, but much of what the musical encompasses can be traced back to these earlier experiences.
The child of immigrants himself, Miranda was well acquainted with what it meant to work hard for what you want—it was something he knew that his parents had to do in order to provide for his family. Additionally, young Lin-Manuel had often visited family in Puerto Rico, so he could see where the place where his parents came from, and upon returning home to the States, he could see what they’ve accomplished. It’s something that must have rung true in his mind and stayed with him years later when he constructed the lyrics for his character onstage, “another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom.”
For some of his colleagues, it didn’t come as much of a surprise in hearing that the boy who led the Sharks during the school production for Westside Story would go on to pursue musical theatre as an adult. In fact, Miranda attests that it was these very performances as a child that would come to make him so enamored with the stage. “I really fell in love with musicals by doing them,” Miranda commented to Yahoo Global News anchor Katie Couric. “I got to be Bernardo, Captain Hook, and Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie—which was really the killer because suddenly I’m 12 years old, I’m 3 feet tall and every girl in my grade has to pretend to be in love with me!” Miranda explained that his sentiments on theatre and performing at the time were a little something like, “Whatever this is, I’m doing this for the rest of my life!”
After graduating from high school, Miranda went on to study theatre in Wesleyan University and fell in love with the craft completely. “You’re telling me I can write something in the fall, apply to [Wesleyan’s] Second Stage, get a budget and put it up in the spring? I am not throwing away my shot,” he remarked to the Hartford Courant. Around the same time that he was developing and enhancing his skills as an actor and playwright, Miranda was also beginning to understand the severity of typecasting in Hollywood. While Miranda had played a variety of characters in elementary and high school productions, the world outside of high school theatre was far different.
Miranda longed to have a career in musical theatre, but he knew with the types of existing musicals that featured Latinos, that his chances were slim. In an interview with the Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, Miranda commented, “I don’t dance well enough to play Bernardo [of West Side Story], or Paul in The Chorus Line. And I don’t have enough of an operatic voice to play the Man of La Mancha. And if you’re a Latino man, that’s all you get.”
“I realized that the only way for me to have a career in this world that I loved, was to write it,” he said. That was how, in barely his second year at Wesleyan, he began to write the first draft of In the Heights. In the Heights was born from having limited prospects, and in the end, this production featuring “a Latino storyline in which we never played gang members once” would earn him four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. With In the Heights, Miranda achieved what every artist has ever dreamed of doing—to create something and have it hit big with critics and worldwide audiences alike. And what’s more, he did it with a cast of mainly Hispanic actors in a play that celebrates rather than depreciates Latino identities. What more could one hope for? Anything to top that would have to not just be great, it’d have to be revolutionary.
And, of course, that is exactly what Miranda’s next—and current production playing to sold-out audiences right now—has proven to be. In a world where the identities and stories of people of color are often white-washed, it becomes quite clear that diversity is not simply needed in entertainment and onstage, it is missing. So while in In The Heights was a refreshing break from the overwhelmingly white scope of entertainment—with a plot that centralizes the hopes, dreams and fears of a Dominican community in New York—Hamilton was a direct response to it.
“The idea,” Miranda explained in Rolling Stone, “has always been to look the way America looks now, and that doesn’t exclude anyone.” In a musical that centers around the life of a white historical figure, “the ten-dollar founding father without a father,” Miranda needed to connect his audiences with characters from more than 200 years ago. So rather than have an all-white cast to play all historically white characters, he invited actors from all backgrounds to try out. “It’s inclusive language. It’s ‘I know this is about the founding fathers, but there’s work for you here!’ ” He adds, “It helps create a connection that wouldn’t have been there if it was 20 white guys on stage.”
“What’s incredible about Hamilton and the reason you can’t get a ticket, is because everyone’s responding to it,” Miranda explains to Latina magazine. “Everyone is seeing a bit of themselves in it.” Even more incredible was the point that Miranda made by having a large cast of actors of color in a show bringing in more than 30 million in ticket sales. “It’s making money,” confirms Miranda. “And that’s what leads to change.” The success of Hamilton challenges the myth about people of color that is often purported by entertainment execs—that they can’t be leads, that they aren’t profitable. “We are bankable,” asserts Miranda, and the Broadway phenomenon Hamilton is unquestionable proof of that. “The exciting lesson that I hope people are taking away from ‘Hamilton’ is that you don’t need a white guy at the center of things to make it relatable,” he noted to Rockefeller Foundation’s Rodin. “ ‘Hamilton’ is a story very deliberately told to reflect what America looks like right now. We have every color represented … And it’s making a killing.”