EntertainmentLin-Manuel Miranda Is Ready For His Next Act
Lin-Manuel Miranda made Hamilton the most influential Broadway musical in ages and became a hero for his optimistic notion of a rich, diverse America. And he did it by following his gut, his dreams, and his vision—and never forgetting where he came from.
On one of the hottest days of summer, this guy you may have heard of, Lin-Manuel Miranda (no?)—who wrote and starred in this little Broadway triﬂe you may have also heard of, Hamilton (anyone?)—is standing on a street corner near the house he grew up in. It's a modest redbrick two-story his parents bought for $75,000 during the 1980s in Inwood, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, home to a mostly working-class Hispanic diaspora, which was, before that, home to the Irish. Such is the story of New York—and America—the ﬂashing tides of history reshaping our collective history, and this is the place, for Miranda, where the past and present are most porous, his memories most resonant, the energy most protean.
The ﬁre hydrant near the house is the same one that years-ago Miranda and friends used to wrench open in order to baptize themselves with icy water on scorchers like this; the front stoop—the same one where he now sits, at 36, with his father, Luis, a political consultant who is 62—is where, as a kid always ﬁlming himself, he delivered some of his best, if most embarrassing, material. Around the corner is Academy Street, what used to be gang territory in his youth, where at the ﬁrst hint of trouble he'd hightail it, painfully aware of his own mortality. "I knew when to run the fuck home," Miranda says, dunking a raisin bagel in his coffee. "I was Peter on The Cosby Show, you know? Like, they would get into some shit, and Peter would run out the door. That was me. I was like, 'I am out!' "
The block, the hood, the city—it makes him jittery, thinking about how he's going to miss it, even if temporarily, when he leaves. In ﬁve days, after a year of doing eight shows a week of Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, he departs for London to make a movie, Mary Poppins Returns, with Emily Blunt. "My wife and I left town for a week and a half on vacation," he says, "and I was tearfully glad to see the George Washington Bridge again. I relax more in my neighborhood because I know where all the stuff is. I feel comfortable with the noise and seeing other Latinos around me, and there's an ease I feel from 168th Street to the end of the island that I don't feel anywhere else on earth."
And what about those of us who have gotten very used to having him around just as he's up and leaving? You'd be hard-pressed to name an actor, musician, or author—anyone—who has owned the past year quite like Lin-Manuel Miranda, or transcended his station, to speak to our national moment. He's become national treasure, and National Reassurance Officer, both at once. He's that guy with the ponytail freestyling at the White House and delivering the "Love is love is love…" sonnet to the Orlando mass-shooting victims (and his wife) in that Tony-acceptance speech. Meanwhile, his Hamilton—about the improbable, Dickensian life of the "$10 Founding Father without a father," starring actors of all color and ethnicity as the architects of young America—has convinced even the grumblers that a Broadway play, and a musical at that, might call attention to the enduring power of our national DNA. The thematic Venn diagram of the play overlaps with so many of the biggest themes of our own lives—death, loss, parenthood, love, lust, betrayal, displacement, the American Dream, the immigrant experience, etc.—that Common went so far as to call it one of "the greatest pieces of art ever made," while Michelle Obama did him one better, calling it "the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life."
After stepping away from the lead role this past July, he spent three days with us in August discussing the singularity of the Hamilton experience and what could ever come next in the wake of such success.
Has it felt weird leaving Hamilton behind?
I was ready. My kid was born two weeks before rehearsals started. So we went from a newborn child at the beginning of this to complete sentences by the time I was leaving the show. That's a hell of a thing, and that's a marker of how fast it goes. I had so much stuff I had to do that was not getting full expression, because my life was built around 8 p.m. Performing Hamilton through two hours and 45 minutes, when you're in it, was the most relaxing part of the day. Because I didn't have unanswered e-mails, or family stuff I wasn't doing. I was just supposed to be Hamilton, and I know the script on that one. Playing Hamilton is like taking the nozzle off your id and letting it ﬂy. It's walking into the room and going, "I'm the smartest person in this room—and you need to listen to me!" It's getting to go out with your friends. It's getting to ﬂirt with everybody, male and female, as Hamilton did. It's getting to experience joy and grief. It's a 14-course meal of a role. So I leave very tired, but very fulﬁlled, every night. So I miss that. I miss the cast and crew. But I also had enough stuff going on in real life that I didn't need this to be the rest of my life.
What's been the high point?
Obviously, going to the White House was a very big deal. But often, it's the little things. I'm such a pop-cultural junkie. Alex Trebek came backstage, and the ﬁrst thing he said in that voice was, "Answer: This is America's favorite play." "What is Hamilton?" And I was like, "Did that really just happen? Is that how he starts every conversation?"
And the Hamilton mixtape we're working on has been incredible. I'm a fan of every single person who's working on it. And that's from the newer kids like Chance the Rapper to Busta Rhymes, who was the first rapper I thought of for this project when I was still reading chapter 4 of the Chernow book. I came upon the character Hercules Mulligan, and I said, "That's Busta Rhymes!" So to have him participate in the mixtape is fucking insane! The best way to describe the mixtape is that I drew on all my heroes to write Hamilton, and the mixtape is me taking Hamilton to all my heroes and saying, "What does this inspire you to make?" It's my heroes in the hip-hop sphere, and favorite songwriters of mine, like Regina Spektor, Ben Folds, Ingrid Michaelson. It's all over the map.
Did you have containment issues playing the lead role every night?
I didn't. I genuinely didn't. Like, I lose a son every fucking night. I get to cry over that. I get the catharsis of forgiveness. I get the catharsis of dying, and then at the end of the day I just wanna chiiiiill. Sometimes I have trouble coming down. My go-to calm-down music during the craziness of Hamilton was The Crane Wife by the Decemberists. I'd just listen to that suite of songs and lie down. And that's about 15 minutes, and it was the perfect comeback to yourself, comeback to the world. It's a beautifully told story, and you're done. And by the time it ends, you're like, "Okay, I can be myself again." That was like a big thing I clung to.
I ﬁnd that, for me, the work is a safe place to put all the stuff you don't want to put in your real life. I don't want to be a crazy, manic asshole. I don't want to have an affair. I don't want to have a fucking gunﬁght. But! There's a part of your brain that wants to experience everything, and so work's a safe place to explore it all. Both in the writing and in the performing. I get to write about an affair. I get to have the guilt and the feeling of that without having to fuck my life up. [laughs] Art is the place to safely explore all those other sides of you, because the side you want to bring home is the side that wants to be a good father and be a good husband and be a good son. In art we can be fucking nuts. So I didn't have any depression left to play outside of the theater.I was like a dry sponge at the end.
The role was something you had to shed, too, right? What was it like to cut off your ponytail?
It was like returning to myself, to me, who I've always been, after two years of wearing it. I couldn't take the train for
a while. I'd see people recognizing—and you know what it's like? It's like in Inception, the moment when you're aware in a dream and everyone walking down the street goes [looks slowly around, wide-eyed]. Now that my hair is off, and I look less like The Guy in the Thing, my life's been a little easier. Yesterday I took the train uptown, and I'm in this crowded 1 train, and this teenage girl next to me goes, "You look exactly like Lin-Manuel Miranda," and I go, "I know. I get that a lot." And she goes, "You even sound like him." And I go, "I've been getting that all year." I felt bad about lying to her, but it was a really crowded train and there was not a lot to be done.
You still take the train?
Well, I still want to live in the world, you know what I mean? I think the thing I love best about New York is that the city pushes us all against each other. You are on the same train as the guy who's gonna sell hot dogs, as the guy who's going to a multimillion-dollar meeting. It's always my favorite place to write. You choose your level of involvement with the world on the train. You can talk to your neighbor and say, "Hey, how are you? How was your day?" Let's all look at this cute baby together. Let's all look at these cute breakdancers together. Let's all look at this cute mariachi band together. Or you can be in your cocoon. And I like that. I like being able to choose my level of engagement with the world. When Hamilton was at its peak, and I couldn't ride the train without people wanting to talk to me the entire train ride, that was tough, because I no longer had the choice of engagement. And, you know, I hope to get it back.
Have you ever had real safety concerns?
Outside the theater I had some safety concerns. Doing the stage door became an unsafe situation because everyone is trying to push in, so even though it's not out of malice, everyone is trying to get their book signed, little kids, too. I just had to stop at a certain point because I felt it wasn't safe for the people standing near the barriers, but 99 percent of the time the fans are awesome and sweet, and you go, "Aww, okay." What was tough was the autograph hounds. I'm not talking about the autograph guys who have been there for 30 years and get everyone's autographs—they're just the Broadway stalwarts who have made a life out of it. I'm talking about new guys who are just selling your autograph on eBay. They chased my car all the way to Sixth Avenue, and every time we'd stop at a light—thump thump thump—you know, just banging on the window, so… In the last month it got a little mad. Because it's also that frenzy of "He's leaving!" It's so funny, because when we did the show off-Broadway, there was no barrier. You'd just go to the lobby of the Public [Theater], and everyone's there. And it's just so civil. You know, the crowds were smaller because there were only 300 people at a time, and we just talked to everyone. No one was pushy, and there was no tense energy. But when you put up a barrier, you create a situation.
That's being yourself. Chasing wherever inspiration goes, even if it's radically different from the thing that people know you as.
This kind of huge, sudden celebrity is something apart from the people who have to carry it. It kind of visits you. You are who you are. So there's always this interesting—
And it's gonna go! You know what I mean? I had this conversation with another songwriter. There are people who have a hit that connects with great success, and then they chase that success for the rest of their lives, and that's their doom. You think of artists who had that big thing, and then they go back to that well again and again with diminishing returns, but the world has moved on. And then there are the artists who really stay true to themselves. Doing what inspires them. The world really ﬁxates on them for a moment, goes away, goes to other places, and then remembers them.
I think about Johnny Cash all the time. Johnny Cash ran earth back in the day, like, live At Folsom Prison, and then life went on. Johnny Cash was doing the same thing—Johnny Cash never stopped doing his thing, and then everyone remembers Johnny Cash, like, "Oh, Johnny Cash is still here! Johnny Cash is the fucking best!" But he never stopped being himself. Bowie didn't release, like, Ziggy Stardust 2. [laughs] He was on to the next incarnation of himself. And that's being yourself, too. Chasing wherever inspiration goes, even if it's radically different from the thing that people know you as.
I really believe in that. I am acutely aware of the fact I could spend seven years on a project that opens and closes in a night. That's the reality of my business. And I've had shows that've had nice long runs [In the Heights]. I've had shows that have closed within six months and moved on [Bring It On]. And so you have to have a reason that can't be success. Success is the gravy. Success is if everything goes well, wonderful. But you have to have a reason where if it opens and closes in a night, you go, "Well, I learned a lot, and I wouldn't trade it for the world." I think one of my biggest fears is regret. I would hate to spend seven years on something, and you did it for the wrong reasons.
How do you keep it straight when you're in year four and a half, like "Aww, shit when is this gonna end? Does anybody care?"
I had the rights to a book– it was a book called My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, one of my favorite books growing up, I think one of the most beautiful and honest books about what it really means to be an artist, and it has really beautiful lessons about how to be an artist—and my rights period to the book was at the same time that Hamilton was really starting to write itself. When faced with actually having access to this book I've loved since I was a kid, I doubled down on Hamilton.
It's about following your gut, so that even if it doesn't break the way you wanted—my dad told me a story—this is, like, a really good story about my dad… When I finished my first year of teaching—my first job out of college was teaching at my old high school, I taught seventh-grade English, I loved it—they offered me a full-time position. And I e-mailed my dad and said, "What should I do?" [laughs] Which is not a thing I ask my dad a lot, because my dad is all too giving with his opinion. I'm usually like, "Shut up! Yeah, I got it. Shut up, shut up, shut up!" But I actually asked him what should I do, and he said, "I would actually like to tell you to keep teaching. It is stable, and you can make your rent, and you should do that. But if I do that, I also have to acknowledge the fact that when I was 18, I gave up a very safe job as the manager of the biggest Sears in Puerto Rico to go to New York, where I didn't speak the language, to go try to get my degree, and that nothing in my life prepared me for that moment, and it didn't make sense, but it was the thing I felt I needed to do. So, you know I'd love for you to keep the teaching job, but you should chase the thing you want to chase." And I kept to that.
Have you regretted anything during this run?
I missed the chance to perform for Prince. When he came to Hamilton, I went to my friend's wedding. And my friend is the biggest Prince fan. In fact I bragged to him, "Prince is at my show tonight. I came to your wedding. That's how much I love you!" And Prince was gone two months later. I don't regret going to my friend's wedding. I wouldn't have missed that for the world. But you know, who would have thought we ever had a limited time with Prince?!
There's a thread in your work, this idea of time being short, life being ephemeral, the imperative to create while you can. Where does that come from?
Well, I think every New Yorker has it on some level in their molecules. I think there's a low blood-alcohol level of dread. I saw a bicycle-delivery guy get fucking pounded by a car two days ago. He was ﬁne. The car was not ﬁne. The bike was really not ﬁne, but that's just part of the bustle of New York, you know?
I remember seeing two dudes—I don't think I've told this story before; it was a really seminal day for me—I remember I was coming home from seeing Braveheart. I was 15, I was taking the train home. Thirty-fourth Street, some very skeezy dude is hitting on this lady, she's not having it, she tells him so. She gets off at 42nd Street. Everyone's just judging this asshole. And this one big guy's really looking at him. And the skeezy guy catches him and is like, "What?" And the big guy says, "We can go if you want!" And I had the presence to yell, "Don't ﬁght on the train!" as these guys start circling each other. These dudes get off at the next stop, literally separate doors and just go at each other on the platform, start ﬁghting, people start yelling, "Someone's got a knife!" I'm still on the train because I live all the way on fucking Dyckman Street! I do not get to see how this story ends.
By the time I'm at 168th Street, it's all different people. The woman who got off on 42nd Street doesn't know this guy had a fucking ﬁght on her behalf. I don't know who pulled out a knife. Three incomplete stories. And I remember being shaken and crying. So I think part of it's being a New Yorker. The chaos of that story is actually life in a nutshell. I just wanna make the best of the time I have now. It's very wired into my bloodstream.
I think a lot about trying to meet the moment as honestly as possible, because I don't pretend to have any answers. In fact, I have inﬁnitely more questions than answers.
Would you say you're agnostic?
Um, I don't know. I would say I'm questioning. I was raised Catholic, like, did all the sacraments. Sebastian was actually my saint's name before it was my son's name. And then I sort of did the teen-questioning thing of everything. I had a great Eastern Religions class in high school. We had a great teacher, Irv Steinfink, who showed us Groundhog Day because he said this is the best example of a bodhisattva. This is a guy living life over and over again until he learns something, and he gets to go on to the next day. And I was like, "Shit, I didn't know Groundhog Day was that deep." I don't go to church, but at the same time religion keeps popping up in my work. You know? I'm not religious, but Abuela Claudia in In the Heights is. I'm not religious, but Hamilton really leaned on religion during some of the trauma of his later years. So that's my answer. I don't consider myself religious, but at the same time it keeps popping up on me.
In the play, you have Hamilton rap, "I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory," and called it the most autobiographical line that you've ever written. Are you really that death-haunted a person?
I've gotten better. I was very preoccupied with it my entire childhood, my entire teens, you know, and it was sort of the dark side of me. I would get in a serious relationship, and I would imagine the ten ways my date could have died on the way home. Which, to my mind at the time, was like, "Well, that's realistic. Nothing's fucking promised." Which happens to be true, but you don't have to live your life picturing every horrific scenario. And I think I spent a good amount of real estate in my youth doing that, and it's still a habit for me. And to me it's a Spidey sense gone bad. Just dialed up to the nth degree. I remember when I wrote that line and articulated it out loud, it felt—I felt a little naked saying it, because it bares something very true. But it also applied to Hamilton. I felt good giving it to him, because it made sense.
At what point were you able to take some of that darkness and rather than let it paralyze you, make art from it?
I mean, it's a mix of growing up and going to therapy and realizing you're not alone. After I broke up with my high school girlfriend, I spent the summer in therapy. There was no stigma in that. My mom is a psychologist. My parents met at NYU grad school for psychology. So I only regret that I waited so long to do it, you know? [laughs] I should have done it at 14, not at 19. And the best thing about going to see a psychologist is you say, "I've never told anyone this," and you unload your deepest, darkest thought in your head, and they go, "Okay." And you go, "But you don't think I'm the worst person in the world or I'm the best person in the world or like a crazy person?" And they go, "No, that's really normal. A lot of people feel like that." And, you know, my preoccupation with death was one of those things. You work out the stuff you've built up in your head, and you talk it out until you can lay it on a table and look at it and go, "Well, that's fucking crazy." And that's true, but I don't have to sit with it all the time. It doesn't have to rule me.
Do you feel like being in England is going to hinder your ability to comment on things in America, to be as socially relevant?
I never meant to be socially relevant. [laughs]
What about your Tony-acceptance speech?
I don't see myself as chasing these moments. The Tonys were scheduled on Sunday, and that shit [the killing of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub] happened in the morning. I would have liked nothing better than to thank all my peers and the hundreds of people who went into making Hamilton possible, but this thing happened that morning, and you have to meet that moment. I think a lot about trying to meet the moment as honestly as possible, because I don't pretend to have any answers. In fact, I have inﬁnitely more questions than answers. You know, the opening line to Hamilton is one long run-on fucking question,* which we puzzle out but never really answer. That's all I control: I can control how I meet the world.
*How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a / Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence / Impoverished, in squalor /
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
What about when people put you on a pedestal? You're this award-winning icon, and then you go and do Drunk History?
I have to live with me at the end of the day, so I can only be honest to who I am. Whether that is having a silly time with Derek Waters and getting drunk and recounting the stories I couldn't ﬁt into Hamilton, which is what I ended up doing that night. I drank three-quarters of a bottle of honey whiskey and butt-dialed a lot of friends.
Why Mary Poppins?
Mary Poppins is to be directed by Rob Marshall, the guy who knows how to direct modern musicals. This was a formula that was put in a bottle and thrown in the sea. Hollywood forgot how to do it for a really long time. What I'm excited about in London is surrendering to a different artistic world and seeing what that brings out when I'm singing, dancing, and being an actor for hire. What will that free up in the rest of my brain? I have ideas for what I think I can write next, but that may totally change once I'm out there. I never really lived in another country for this long. I didn't do it in school. I was too busy making shit. So I'm, you know, it's my year abroad. I got it a million ways till Sunday, you know: "Stay as Hamilton!" [laughs] And it's like, "Well if I stay as Hamilton, you're not gonna get another show out of me." It's no accident I had the idea for Hamilton on my first vacation from In the Heights, you know, the moment my brain had a second to breathe. And so I want to spend time with the guy who makes the best and learn from that, and also Mary Poppins is an incredible world. To live in the world of Mary Poppins, singing and dancing—feeding my brain fifty different ways—and then going home to my wife and child, I actually can't think of a better way to spend six months.