Genius: A Conversation With ‘Hamilton’ Maestro Lin-Manuel MirandaJenny Anderson/Getty Images
This morning, the MacArthur Foundation announced its annual “genius grant” recipients. Playwright, composer, singer, rapper, and Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda was among the 24. The 35-year-old is currently on his second tour of turning Broadway on its head. His first, the musical In the Heights, which he composed and starred in, won four Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Musical, and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. It was a 2009 nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Now he has delivered Hamilton, a musical based on the life and death (spoiler) of Alexander Hamilton, his decades-long feud with Aaron Burr, and, in turn, the birth of the United States. Like Hamilton himself, the reality of Broadway is that if your show is going well, you’re always doing that show. Catching Lin-Manuel when he’s not performing is a tough task. In mid-September, between a 2 p.m. matinee (in which his understudy, Javier Muñoz, played the lead)1 and an 8 p.m. show in which he would perform, we met at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
We spoke twice. The first time was in his dressing room as he ate the grocery store sushi that you get in the plastic case and which you always hope was made that day. After half an hour, he departed for his daily duties in the Hamilton lottery outside the theater. Dubbed “Ham 4 Ham,” it’s a beautiful, insane display of fandom, with people putting their names in a hat to get an opportunity to see the biggest show in town. Half an hour later, after the crowd had dispersed, we sat alone in the seats that he looks out on every night.
Act 1: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Dressing Room, Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
It’s been interesting watching Hamilton become “a thing” beyond the crowd that follows Broadway. When I saw the show, Lenny Kravitz and Lee Daniels were sitting across from me — at first they were chill, but by the second act they were completely into it. That was wild for me to see. I’m sure it also is for you — not only seeing them after the show, but seeing them while you’re performing.
So, the scariest show we have done — and it’s all been easy since then — was three weeks at the Public Theater. Busta Rhymes is in the front row. Listen, this is an unapologetic love letter to hip-hop. [Rappers] didn’t come see In the Heights. A couple people did, Run-D.M.C., a few other old heads that love the genre in any form — they came. I was so nervous, [Busta] was in the front row, he took a redeye to get there. And I remember we were doing “My Shot,” and back at the Public, it was literally a “Pass the Courvoisier” line — it was, “Rise up, don’t this shit make my people wanna rise up” — and I saw him go [mimics big smile] and whisper to Riggs [Morales, a longtime record label A&R]. My feet are off the ground I’m rapping so hard because, you know, I got into a fistfight to get the last copy of “Scenario” when I was 13 years old. It’s the only fistfight I’ve ever been in in my life. I was like, Don’t look at Busta, don’t look at Busta. Then I look into the second row and Mandy Patinkin is sitting above Busta Rhymes. If there is a Busta Rhymes of musical theater, it probably is Mandy Patinkin. And it was just fucking crazy, when the people you’ve emptied your pockets to see are seeing you. It’s a crazy feeling. It’s both ennobling and totally humbling and totally terrifying. But after Busta, everything was cool.
Les Misérables is playing next door to the Richard Rodgers Theatre. I know you love Les Mis.
It was my first show.
It’s not just that you have a show on Broadway — if you literally take a step back on the street, your show and Les Mis, the show that helped mold who you are, are on the same block.
The things that you can see in Hamilton that are affecting people are also present in Les Mis. One, it’s trying to capture so much of the human experience that even if we fall short, we’ve got a lot of it. I mean, Les Misérables starts in prison. It’s “Look down, look down, you’re standing in your grave.” And then it goes up from there. And in terms of musical theater, it’s the opposite of what most people’s prejudices with musical theater is: It’s not sunny and uplifting. I think that’s why it struck such a universal chord with people. This is not happy show tunes. The one they do give you, it’s prostitutes. And it comes with this ironic twist.
It’s like a masterclass in how to use themes in order to take a short circuit to someone’s tear duct or heart or gut. You see Valjean at the end and they play that music that was playing when Fantine died and it’s like, we know what’s coming — OH SHIT. “NOW YOU ARE HERE.” — NO, FUCK FUCK FUCK. [Mimics wiping away tears from his eyes.] Like, we just know. And it’s a masterclass. So those are the things that I always responded to. There’s just so much in it, it’s such a full meal. I have so much fun quoting Les Mis to Twitter and shit, because I could do it forever. There’s literally a line for every occasion. It hits everything. The musicals that leave us kind of staggering on our feet are the ones that really reach for a lot. And so, we’re trying to do that.
In the Heights came out at an important time for me — 2008, the recession, terrified to leave college in this climate, not knowing what to do with my life. I knew I wanted to write, but then saw the show and felt like there was the option to create something. In The New Yorker, you mentioned two things that kind of showed you the light. One was Rent.
Rent was the show that made me want to write. Or that showed me you’re allowed to write.
And the other, your going to Wesleyan, taught you that you could write about (or even talk about) where you’re from.
I got into Hunter [College] Elementary when I was 6 years old. So already, it’s like, they call me Lin at school and Lin-Manuel at home. It’s also super stark when there’s another language involved. I speak Spanish at home and English at school. And I’ve had all white Jewish friends from the time I’m 6 years old.
I saw Rent, I loved writing musicals, but the first two musicals I wrote in high school, they sound like Rent. There’s no Latin anything in them. It wasn’t out of shame or embarrassment, I just didn’t bring anything from home to what I was writing. It was just like, “This is for high school and I’m writing about high school shit.” So one of them was about an unchaperoned party and I think I gave one of the kids a Latino last name. But they were all white Jewish kids playing the parts in the show. And then I lived in a Latino program house my sophomore year at Wesleyan. It was called La Casa. It was such a dope house; you had to write an essay to get in about why you were a Latino community leader, and that was the first time — this was my version of your experience — there were kids whose parents owned bodegas, and there are kids whose parents were both Wesleyan alums and they always knew they were going to Wesleyan and they’re Latino, but they’ve got the code switch down easy like I do. And it was inspiring — like, we could make a Marc Anthony joke before the English-speaking world knew about Marc Anthony, and it was also coinciding with when Ricky Martin did “Cup of Life.” It was the Latin pop boom, suddenly Marc Anthony is singing in English, Enrique Iglesias was a thing — I was figuring out these things about myself at the same time that the world was figuring out that we had something of value to offer, musically. Oh, look at you guys.
These were some of the perfect storms that led to In the Heights. One of the other parts was The Capeman, which was going to be the great brown moment in musical theater, and it lived and died my senior year of high school. I was directing West Side Story; I wanted a life in this business. And there was this show written by fucking Paul Simon, starring Marc Anthony and Ruben Blades, two of my heroes — it just came and went. And it was us as gang members in the ’50s, again. It’s like, two musicals about Latinos and they’re both about the same fight. And so a part of me was just fueled off of that — we should be able to be onstage without a knife in our hand. Once. So that was a big creative fire.
The other real shit was that my high school girlfriend and I were still dating and we should have broken up like two years prior. And she suddenly went to study abroad, and then I had all this fucking time and angst about where we were and what we were doing. So there was this sad love story that took place in Washington Heights and I used hip-hop and I used the same cocktail that ended up in the final product. It was this love story about these two people who could never be together, because that’s what I was going through in my head. And so all of that formed to help make that first draft of In the Heights. I’ll never forget, there’s a scene when Usnavi [played by Miranda] and Benny [Christopher Jackson] are freestyling on the street and they’re rapping and looking out and seeing the audience physically go like this [mimics perking up]. Yes, they liked the show, it was well received at Wesleyan, but I saw a physical reaction on the hip-hop numbers. And was like, Oh, this is some new shit.
I remember seeing In the Heights, but I also remember that in-between period. Living in the Village, going to Le Poisson Rouge to see your group Freestyle Love Supreme perform. But by 2012, I remember beginning to think, with regard to you, Was that it? And I know if I thought that, there had to be some extent to which you thought or felt that. Because so much of In the Heights is that classic first-album thing, where you put your entire life into that first thing, and then it’s like — so do you have anything left to say?
I was pretty Zen about it, honestly. Well one, I had the idea for Hamilton when I was still in In the Heights. So, again, impossible to overstate: The success of In the Heights gave me a life as a writer, a career as a writer, it said, “You belong here.” Nothing will ever do for me what that show did — from broke to not broke — in every respect.
But you actually felt like you belonged on Broadway?
So that’s the interesting thing: When my wife and I got married in 2010, we went on our honeymoon and — again — I have the idea for Hamilton, and I wrote the King George song on our honeymoon without a piano around, and then when I got back from our honeymoon our producers were like, the show’s closing. So that was the starter pistol of Oh shit, I won’t have a show running on Broadway, which was my steady source of income. But at the same time, I was a big film buff growing up. And the book whose advice I really followed concerning that “first album-ness” of Heights was Robert Rodriguez, Rebel Without a Crew. And he said, “Just don’t let them know what your sophomore project is.” And he just went and did a bunch of random shit. He did Four Rooms. And he did a Showtime movie. And he did so many random little things that people couldn’t just say, “Well, when’s your next movie?” So I did this West Side Story translation. I cowrote the Bring It On musical. And I did each one — it was never in my soul and bones to write a musical about cheerleading. But I knew I’d learn a lot watching Andy [Blankenbuehler] direct and writing with Tom [Kitt], who to me is one of the best melodists of our generation. Watching him think through an idea and see it go through his filter — it was like, Oh, I’m going to learn some moves.
It was a way to stay sharp.
That, absolutely, but just learning new shit. I had to write backward for Bring It On, because Andy was so specific about the tempos of the songs he wanted. I’d start with the tempo, I’d start with BPM, and he would be like, “ca-ca-ca-ca-ca, ca-ca” and I would write that down, and then build a song backward from the rhythm, as he had it in his head. Which was great, because now I know how to do that. I knew I had Hamilton in my pocket and I knew I needed to focus and time to get it done, and that was the hard part, because I have a family and I’m trying to support them.
Yeah, it’s hard to just stop.
But Do No Harm was like a writing residency for me. It was a bad NBC show and I was sixth on the call sheet and I took the job because I was like, it shoots in Philly and you’re going to be killed off in the 11th episode. So it was like signing a potential seven-year contract, which I was not interested in doing or going to L.A. I wanted to have time to write. I would have days free in Philly to write.
Act 2: Richard Rodgers Theatre, Saturday, 6:15 p.m.
Even before you’d finished Hamilton, were you already writing a character with Chris Jackson in mind?
He was always George Washington. He’s just got that moral authority. He had it as Benny. In the beginning, someone was like, “Why do you have Chris playing this Lothario? Chris is so much more interesting than the character you’re writing.” So once we started writing for Chris, it became this R&B sound within the Latino thing, and it totally elevated the character. So this time I started with Chris. We didn’t know if Chris was going to do it, but it was going to have Chris’s skill set. You’re going to be able to spit and then sing an R&B ballad, like he’s this mash-up of Common and John Legend, fused into one person.
A reality of this musical is that there are many standout characters that are not your character. People come away from it raving about Daveed Diggs’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson.
That’s most people.
Like, maybe he did Thomas Jefferson better than the actual Thomas Jefferson. And Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr.
I stupidly gave him a lot of the best songs.
“Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens” are two of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life and he got them both.
It doesn’t feel like the Alexander Hamilton show, as in you and some background singers.
I don’t know how to do that. Heights wasn’t like that either. Usnavi is the narrator, but he’s offstage a lot of the time. I honestly think it’s because school plays were my way into theater. I think I’m always subconsciously trying to write the ideal school play. Lots of parts for everybody, great parts for women — don’t forget, more girls try out than boys in the school play; everyone gets to be in the school play. When this gets done in high schools, they probably won’t double the parts. So you’ll have two different actors to play. I think it has an enormous amount of resonance to double the way we’ve doubled, but it’s a way to get more people in the school play. But it’s interesting: With Heights, we studied Fiddler on the Roof a lot. That’s the best way to introduce an audience to a community that’s ever been written. So what can we learn from that? And there’s a lot of similarities between our opening number in Heights. With Hamilton, it’s not about a community. In the abstract, it’s about the creation of America, but it’s about this fucking one guy who just blazes through. Born, keeping score, and counting time. So we studied Sweeney Todd a lot. And we studied Gypsy a lot. Shows where the structure is, there’s one fucking character and they’re a life force and you’re either an obstacle or you’re a friend but get the fuck out of the way. But at the same time, it’s so much fun to get to write about these people we think we know, because they were in a history book. And be like, oh yeah — Jefferson’s going to be dressed like Morris Day. And that’s all Paul [Tazewell]. The leaps they took from the music into the other departments are so incredible. I grinned so hard when I saw Andy’s staging for this at first, and they introduced Jefferson and he’s walking down the staircase and everyone’s scrubbing the floor. They got it, before I even had to say anything. Like, yep — there’s Jefferson, talking eloquently about freedom while a slave shakes his hand and he goes like this [looks disgusted]. That’s Jefferson, write more eloquently about freedom than anybody, but didn’t live it.
There are some artists — Kanye West stands out — who treat music secondarily to telling stories and changing people’s perceptions of things and fucking with people’s heads.
But even if you hear him describe his music, he talks about it like paintings. It’s visual for him. Which I found really interesting. I saw some interview with him where he was talking about creating the beats and he’s like, “I’m making a painting here.”
When it comes down to it, if you had to pinpoint one thing, is it making musicals? Is it telling stories? Is it filling in the gaps of American and New York history? Is it being part of a musical theater lineage that connects you to people like Sondheim and Hammerstein?
Well, I’ve learned an enormous amount from that lineage, quite literally. Getting to work with [Stephen] Sondheim. Getting to talk to [John] Kander. Getting to talk to Sheldon Harnick. These are the guys that do it the best. That’s the thing the theater affords you. I don’t think Hollywood really affords you that, or even music. Because everyone kind of works in their own world. There’s a Nashville world, there’s an Atlanta world, there’s an L.A. world. But everyone that’s the best at this works in these blocks. These 15 blocks. And so I’ve been the beneficiary of an enormous amount of knowledge from that. I’ll tell you, the person I talk to the most about the show is John Weidman, who wrote the book to Assassins and Pacific Overtures. And I have emails to him where I’m like, “I’m getting lost in the research and I feel like I’m fucking drowning.” And he was super encouraging. And I think that’s just true of musical theater. I talk about this with Tommy [Kail, the director of Hamilton] a lot. Directors don’t ever get to work together. Like, there can be collegiality, but they’re all up for the same gigs. I can’t write Next to Normal. I can’t write Fiddler. It wouldn’t come out of me like that. And I also think because composers know they have to collaborate for the theater, composers for the theater are among the most generous creative artists I’ve ever met. Because there’s no competition between me and Bobby Lopez, you give us the same assignment, we’re going to write two totally different things. So we could just be friends and talk about that shit. And so, I find it a very welcoming world. And a world to learn from.
That being said, there’s other shit I want to write. It’s interesting, I think of it as, What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world? Heights is very much like, there should be a show with Latino people where we aren’t gang members and drug dealers, because that’s been super well represented already. We’re good on that. What’s the other thing? With this, I read that book [Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow] and it was such a perfect marriage of form and subject, and it was like, this music is the only way you can tell this guy’s story. You could do a Les Mis–type musical about Hamilton, but it would have to be 12 hours long, because the amount of words on the bars when you’re writing a typical song — that’s maybe got 10 words per line. Whereas here we can cram all this shit in all the margins. One of the last things I wrote for the show was one more fast rap for Lafayette, before he hands off a letter. Because I had Daveed. And he’s just the fucking best. And there was an opportunity. It was just them vamping, like, “Get your right-hand man back, unh, get your right-hand man back [scratches].” And it was like, no — we will fill that with stuff. It’s like Mad Magazine, where Sergio Aragonés is drawing cartoons in between the cartoons. There’s a lot of that in the show. I could just fill it with everything I think I know and the story allows that because it’s such a rich story. So, OK, I’m going to write a “Peter Piper”–type rap for “Washington on Your Side” and have them all trading back and forth, yeah. It allowed me to make a paella because it’s so rich.
One of the great buried ledes is how it does come back to New York, how it comes back uptown.
A detail that I couldn’t get into the show. It ends with Eliza [Hamilton] and it’s all about her 50 years alive after Hamilton died. Something else: Eliza established the first school in Washington Heights.
Yeah. And we had a line. And I put it in, where it was like “the first school” — and they went, in Washington Heights. I took the melody from my own shit in In the Heights, but it was just too on the nose. You just can’t. Even though it’s historically true, I can’t actually say “in Washington Heights” at the end of my fucking show. But it was there to be mine.
You didn’t even make it up.
So imagine, I’m reading this book. And then I read that in the closing chapter. It was a confirmation — I was supposed to do this.
I did find it fascinating that one of the artists you’ve cited as a musical influence, and you can hear it from time to time, is Outkast. For me, Outkast did what both Rent and Wesleyan did for you: They taught me I could write and that I could write about home. Part of my job is to tell a story about my home when I’m not there. Because once you leave, you become a representative of what a lot of people know about a place, and people are going to take cues about a place off of what they get from me.
You’re an ambassador.
They gave a lot of people that confidence to do that about their home. That’s part of their arc.
They’re our Lennon and McCartney. They’re hip-hop’s Lennon and McCartney. Down to the double album where they each do one thing, which was like the “White Album.” And you’re just grateful that they did shit together as long as they did.
I’ve always treated everything we’ve gotten in recent years as playing with house money. Just grateful for anything.
I remember one of my best friends from high school played me Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, when I was too young to even fully absorb it. What I knew was all East Coast hip-hop. And nothing else would go into my brain, like, my body rejected it, was like “I don’t know what this is.” I literally don’t understand what’s happening, didn’t process it. And then Aquemini came out my freshman year of college. And it was the soundtrack of college. And then by Stankonia, it was all I listened to.
This may be a tangent, but I think about Andre 3000’s verses on all these random songs as these little orphans. Like someone needs to put them together. Like, “Sixteen” on the Rick Ross album is the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard in my life: “while I’m jelly beans descending / into the palms of a child,” like what the fuck is even happening? And it’s hiding inside a Rick Ross song. And “Walk It Out.” And “Pink Matter.”
How did you decide to essentially make Hamilton without dialogue?
We actually went down the road with a playwright. There’s a version of Act 1 where we had songs and they were the songs that are in the show, but we found that if you start with our opening number, you can’t go back to speech. The ball is just thrown too high in the air. So then the challenge for me became, how do I write scenes that still have this hip-hop feel? And that’s when I would listen to “Friend or Foe” by Jay Z on a loop. And like, most people if they’re writing hip-hop for theater, think it needs to sound a certain way. And that’s where growing up with hip-hop actually comes in handy, because we know it contains everything. I can write the most conversational, Reasonable Doubt–era Jay-Z: “Don’t do that, you makin’ me nervous / my crew, well, they do pack / them dudes is murderers.” That level of conversationalism is what you’re trying for in the scenes. But then there’s the songs that are heightened.
Something that happens so often with minority figures, in the arts or otherwise, is this sense of responsibility. Have you wrestled with that? I’m sure you felt it in In the Heights, too.
I did, and I got pitched every Latin-themed anything that was coming from anywhere. So, we’re not Hollywood actors, in that we do the thing once and then we hope they like our movie in a year. We’re chefs. And not like Raekwon, like we got a five-star review and you’re coming to see our show tonight and we’ve got to cook the same meal for you that we cooked for the critic that gave us the five-star review. It has to keep going, and it keeps you humbled. I’m drinking this shit that’s fucking terrible with parsley and lemon and ginger and swiss chard, because it’s good for me. Because you have to keep making the meal. Just the work of that is humbling. But the relaxing two hours and 45 minutes of my day or spent during the show, because I’m not supposed to be doing anything else but that. Everything else is crazy.
Good crazy or bad crazy?
Just, Gerard Butler standing next to Justice Kennedy crazy.
It’s famous person Mad Libs.
Every night is Mad Libs. But also, you don’t ever want to get used to it or take it for granted. You want to be pinching yourself the whole time. There was a rapper that was supposed to be coming — not going to give his name up because he’ll come eventually. Anyway, they were trying to get him in, it was tough to get him a ticket, I helped get him a ticket, I literally kicked a friend out. And then he didn’t show. And I found out like 15 [before the performance]. And I spent the opening number pissed off. I can’t fucking believe I kicked my friend out for this rapper, and then I was like, “I don’t ever want to be the guy who is in my hit Broadway show and mad because the most fam— one of the most famous rappers ever isn’t there. I have to get that shit out of my system.
Check your priv.
It was the ultimate check my priv. I almost got hit with a chair [during] the number and I was like, “OK, check your privilege.” I can’t be in that headspace and make this thing. So doing the show keeps you honest, keeps you humble and focused and grounded.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This post has been updated to correct one name and clarify another. Tom Kitt composed the music for Bring It On, and Tommy Kail is the director of Hamilton.