Lin-Manuel Miranda: When Good Things Happen To Good People | Gradient
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Lin-Manuel Miranda: When good things happen to good people

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It’s dark out there, America. We need to take our hope where we can get it, and there’s one American I’d like to honor in the midst of a week from hell: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who took his last turn starring in Hamilton on Saturday night.

In all likelihood you know the Hamilton facts: the musical about our founding Treasury Secretary has been the hottest ticket on Broadway since the moment it arrived. The exuberant hip-hop opus starring actors of color as our founding fathers has had a historic year, and Miranda, as the show’s creator/composer/lyricist/star/figurehead, has been under the relentless heat of the spotlight since the beginning.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has spent the last year doing nothing but winning: between the rabid fans, the critical acclaim, the meetings with the President, the Grammy, the Emmy, the Tonys, the MacArthur genius grant, and the Pulitzer, the man has ascended to the absolute heights of worldly success. He’s achieved such universal admiration, even worship, that the whole thing can start to look suspicious to those among us with contrarian tendencies. If Beyoncè is our pop-culture #queen (potently charismatic and talented, politically engaged, ***flawless), raised up by critics and fans alike to a position of ultimate influence, then Miranda is arguably our king. (How rich, that we would seek to coronate the writer of a musical about the American Revolution!) Miranda has won over Broadway with his reverence for Sondheim and Rogers & Hammerstein; he’s won over hip-hop fans with his punchy flow, freestyling skill and encyclopedic knowledge of the rap canon; he’s won Tumblr with his wokeness and his nerd cred. The man’s received a lifetime’s worth of accolades in the space of this one triumphant year. 

But here’s the thing about Lin-Manuel Miranda, the reason I felt compelled to offer him a hagiographic sendoff in the wake of his final show: he deserves this. All of it. Hamilton’s wild success story is the kind of story we don’t get often enough in this world: the kind of story where good things happen to good people.

Scratch that: where great things happen to great people.

In a country drowning in chaos and injustice, we have to hold onto the knowledge that the world can, in fact, reward the right people sometimes.

I don’t mean simply that Hamilton deserves its successes this year, although it does; in the words of the Times review, “Yes, it really is that good.” I mean that Miranda himself is demonstrably morally worthy.

A lot of Miranda’s values can be sussed out simply from looking at Hamilton as a text. A basic moral reading of the musical shows us the conflict between an indefatigable immigrant who throws himself into the work of building a new nation and a calculating politician waiting to get what’s his; the impetuous, optimistic hero Hamilton against the cynical, opportunistic villain Burr. But Miranda “[doesn’t] believe in villains,” and it shows; he writes convincingly for a broad cast of characters with differing ethics. About writing Burr, he told Rolling Stone, “He earned some of the best songs, because he’s got such a weird and interesting interior life.” Miranda is attracted to biography for its empathy-generating potential: “Once I’ve spent some time in someone else’s life, it’s hard to shake.” As a writer-actor, he sees the act of writing different characters as a chance to step into the minds of others; in that same Rolling Stone interview, he says, “I got to play all the parts. I got to be Angelica and be as smart as her. I got to be Eliza and be as unconditionally loving as her. That’s the fun of writing the piece.”

A few critics have taken issue with Hamilton, calling it an overly-sunny picture of our nation’s founding and arguing that the show’s inclusive casting glosses over the harsh realities of exclusion at the dawn of our country. But it’s not that Miranda doesn’t see dark realities in the lives of our founding fathers. Here he is again in Rolling Stone:

Everything about these guys troubles me! […] I really don’t accept the premise that we lionize any of these dudes. I think our goal is to present them as human and not just the five facts you know about them from your history books. […] None of them gets off scot-free in our show.”

I think a show like Hamilton is just what happens when a person this hopeful and empathetic looks at history. When the Rolling Stone interviewer asks Miranda about Dick Cheney coming to see the show, Miranda responds with deference: “The thing I think about when Cheney comes, Clinton comes, all these guys, I think of the song ‘History Has Its Eyes on You.’ Because these guys are graded on such a harsh curve, man. […] I couldn’t handle that shit.”

Hamilton, in all its exuberance, is Miranda trying to do justice to human beings, to render them honestly. But he can’t help but paint in bright colors. It’s just how he sees. And you can feel, through all 170 minutes of Hamilton, the great affection Miranda has for the project, for Alexander Hamilton, for every character and every song. As he said of the choice to make musical theatre, “You can only do a project because of love, because they take too long.” 

But perhaps the key thing one can learn about Miranda through the lens of Hamilton isn’t about how he sees the past, but about how he sees the future. In press for the show, Miranda has constantly talked about Hamilton as an educational opportunity. Last week he spoke to a group of 200 high school theatre teachers about his experiences putting on Hamilton for New York public high schoolers, in groups of 1300 at a time. “What they do have to reckon with when they see Hamilton is that Hamilton made the most of his time. […] Charge your kids with that, the notion that life’s a gift, it’s not to be taken for granted, it’s not to be taken lightly.” Like Hamilton himself, Miranda is obsessed with his legacy — but Miranda sees his life’s work as a passing of the torch.

He told Grantland that he’s “always subconsciously trying to write the ideal school play,” and he has now, twice. Miranda is proud of having written plays with many roles for women and minorities. His first musical In the Heights, about a Dominican neighborhood in New York, is frequently put on by high schools, and he’s expressed his thrill at the idea that “there’s a generation of kids who had their first kiss as Benny and Nina, that there’s a generation of kids who are friends for life” because of their experiences putting on the play. He’s also excited about bringing a spirit of inclusivity and diversity to the high school theater experience: “I’m very happy when an overwhelmingly Latino or African American high school gets a show that reflects their upbringing and their life […] and I also like that there’s a kid in Utah right now waving a Dominican flag who would have no idea where that even was if not for [In the Heights].”

In a time where it’s increasingly apparent that it’s dangerous to be an immigrant or a person of color in America, Miranda’s voice is vital. With Hamilton, Miranda — a man of color — has made one of the most important pieces of contemporary art about what it means to be American, and he’s aware of his power to redirect that national conversation. Born to Puerto Rican parents, Miranda is outspoken about his pride in his heritage: “I have always, always been clear about being Latino.” He’s used his immense platform to call for action for Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, and to rewrite the script about immigrants in America: “Immigrants have been at every intersection, at every point in our founding and in our growth, and every 20 years they are a dirty word. […] I’ll be the counterweight saying, ‘We’ve always been here. We make our country better.’” Miranda’s career has shown Broadway and a generation of young people that a small, specific story about Latino culture can become a Tony-award winning hit (In the Heights), and also that our grand national myths can bear the weight of a racially inclusive reimagining (Hamilton).

Again and again, what you see with Lin-Manuel Miranda is his will to take the light shone on him and redirect that energy outward. Despite his punishing 7-show work week and publicity schedule, he maintains his intellectual curiosity and reads voraciously. When asked which writers working today he most admires, he responds, “Too many to list, really, not that I won’t try: Junot Díaz, Liz Gilbert, Patrick Rothfuss, Wesley Morris, Michael Chabon, Martín Espada, Sarah Kay.” He can rattle off a list of contemporary authors he loves just as easily as he can gush to Emma Watson about his favorite women who write children’s books: “Ah, you know, the women who made my brain!”

He talks constantly about his wife, Vanessa Nadal, who he’s quick to remind people is a scientist and a lawyer. There’s a song in Hamilton called “That Would Be Enough” in which Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, sings to Hamilton,

I don’t pretend to know

The challenges you’re facing

The worlds you keep erasing and creating in your mind

But I’m not afraid

I know who I married

So long as you come home at the end of the day

That would be enough

It’s a song of tender support for a spouse’s dreams. Miranda recounts to Emma Watson how he performed the song tearfully for his wife after having written it, to which Nadal responded, a little teasingly, “Is that what you wish I would say to you?” Miranda was taken aback: “No, it’s what I say to you.” He describes the song as a “love letter to my wife.” No matter how many times he’s cast as the protagonist of his own life, Miranda keeps finding ways to subvert that, to reimagine himself as a team player and supporting character.

Watch the video of Watson with Miranda. The two are seated on a couch side by side, and Watson is clearly doing her best to maintain her composure, to sit up straight and act as the mature adult conducting an interview, but she’s always seconds away from giggling and blushing. And you can just see Miranda rooting for her, willing her to succeed, shooting positive energy her way. His whole body is turned toward her, his eyes lit up and locked on hers. When she’s talking, he’s nodding; when she makes a joke, he throws back his head in laughter. Both of them are performers and they know they’re on camera, but Miranda is absolutely focused on making Watson feel like she’s succeeding at her feminist campaign, #HeForShe.

Toward the end of the interview, he tells her that he’s been meaning to ask her some questions, and wants to hear her sort the Hamilton characters into Harry Potter houses. When he finds out she’s already worked on this and written out her answers, Hermione-like, he’s beyond delighted, whisper-shouting “I love it!” And he does. If you watch the viral segment at the end of the interview, in which he cajoles Watson into beatboxing, you see him looking at her with pure adoration as she puts her dignity on the line. He engineers a moment of pure, silly joy, and ends the interview looking at the camera and pointing at her, as if to say, “Look at this one. Look at her go.”

Or watch the video of Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, winning the Tony award for Leading Actor in a Musical (for which Miranda was also nominated). Watch Miranda as Neil Patrick Harris announces his name among the nominees: as Miranda sees the camera go to him, he offers a meek non-smile and a stiff little wave, making quick, awkward eye contact with the camera. And then watch the contrast in the split-screen as Odom Jr.’s name is called: Miranda pumps his fist, bursts into a grin, is the first to jump to his feet. Odom Jr. thanks Miranda in his acceptance speech: “God bless you, man. Really. You’ve given us a new vision of what’s possible. I thank God for your mission. I thank God for the calling on your life.” We see Miranda in a reaction shot, and he’s beaming with pride, tears suspended in his eyes.

One could still argue that it’s all a show. Miranda is an actor, after all, and perhaps he’s merely perfected a performance of humility. I suppose that’s between him and his own conscience. But my take is that in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s demeanor, we see the best version of the actor’s temperament. As a theatre actor, Miranda is trained in listening and responding to others, in living in the moment with total emotional openness. He has to live the same story every night and find fresh feeling and meaning in it every time. That’s the way he plays the role of Alexander Hamilton, and it’s also the way he plays the role of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Every day, every moment is an opportunity to be fully there with your scene partners, to say “yes, and…”, to find your character’s motivation, to dig into the new possibility latent in something you’ve done a thousand times.

Each morning and night, Miranda tweets a note of encouragement to his followers, a way to greet and leave each day with hope and purpose.

It’s another outgrowth of a worldview shaped by the experience of theatre acting: a will to start each new day like another performance, with hope for the possibility of great things, a will to work with others to make them happen, but peace in the knowledge that everything is ephemeral. It’s an almost liturgical practice for him, setting and sharing an intention, exhorting us to care and to work, putting the day to rest. That this is what he’s decided to do with his 615,000 followers every day speaks volumes about his generosity of spirit; he’s framing his life as the act of doing the good work, day in and day out, and then extending that call outward to all of us. “Let’s go.”

There’s a moment in Hamilton where George Washington is explaining to Hamilton why he has to step down from his position as president: all good things must come to an end, and he has to “teach the country how to say goodbye.” It’s time for Washington to rest. He sings:

Like the scripture says:

“Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree

And no one shall make them afraid.”

They’ll be safe in the nation we’ve made

I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree

A moment alone in the shade

At home in this nation we’ve made

One last time

It’s an extraordinarily moving moment, both in American history and in the show. It’s watching a man at the height of his nobility and power decide to step back, to pass the torch, to rest content knowing that he’s established something good that will continue without him.

Miranda already has several new projects in the works, and I doubt he’ll be spending much time under his fig tree. But he’s earned this moment, this breath of contentment. He’s spent a year showing us what it looks like to win with grace and kindness. Now he’s teaching us how to say goodbye.

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