Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton opened to previews this month on the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and it’s already being hailed as the breath of fresh air that Broadway needs. In a time where blockbuster and Oscar-nominated films are delivering roughly 0 to 46 seconds of lines from non-white actors, Miranda’s cast is full of actors of color. In Miranda’s rendering, Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington have black and brown faces. And then there’s the music: hip-hop that marries 2015 slang with the type of flowery lyricism you’d expect from dudes living in the 18th century. As the LA Times put it, “To the Donald Trumps and Tea Party folks with anti-immigrant rhetoric and sentiments, Hamilton is an aesthetic rejoinder that suggests their position is practically un-American.”
Miranda not only wrote the piece but also plays the lead character, Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the nation’s financial system – his first Broadway acting role after 2008’s In The Heights. The three-hour R&B and hip-hop opus tells Hamilton’s story from the time he was a student, to his marriage and fatherhood, to his life in politics – right up to the duel with Aaron Burr where he died. The show has received universal acclaim since its off Broadway premiere at the Public Theater and was even recently seen by President Barack Obama. Miranda has won Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards and should he win an Oscar would become the second Latino (after Rita Moreno) to EGOT (i.e. win all four major entertainment awards).
We caught up with the renaissance man, to hear about his inspirations, career, and representing Latinos on the stage.
How do you decide which projects to undertake and which character if any, you wanna play?
There are the projects you generate and the ones that are brought to your desk. The only thing you have in this life really is your gut. This is going to be a few years of your life so it’s got to be that fulfilling to you. The reception has surpassed everything I expected but if it hadn’t, it still would have been worth it because I’m very proud of the work I did . “Bring It On” is an example of something that landed on my desk. I knew I was gonna learn from my collaborators. I went it to be in the room to make the thing. Playing Usnavi from “In The Heights” was a happy accident, it was easier than teaching other actors the raps. For this, I went back and forth between Hamilton and Burr but Hamilton’s too much fun. You get to go through every life experience. It’s all the fun stuff any actor would want to do on any one project, it all happens in this show.
What are some of your biggest influences on your life and career?
I think everything goes in the blender. Seeing works of art of any form becomes just as important as making works of art. If we have a shared reference, we can find a common language. I took it upon myself to see and read a lot of the theater. Big influences on this show are Sweeney Todd and Gypsy, musicals where there’s one character who blazes through the thing – and every other character is affected or affects this character. This is opposed to the other type of musical that focuses on a community like Cabaret, In The Heights and Fiddler on the Roof.
When constructing a narrative, what usually comes first – melody or lyrics?
Every song is different. For “My Shot” I had the hook, didn’t know what music it was going to go over. For George Washington, I needed to go to melody first. “Satisfied” is a song I wrote three years ago, I used its chord progression since it had the urgency of what I wanted. Every song attempts to tell a moment in his life, we’re either elapsing time or crystalizing it.
Like the rest of your work, “Hamilton” has an interracial, multi-ethnic cast playing predominantly white characters. How important is cultural representation?
Oh, it means the world. I’d seen 2 musicals with more than one Puerto Rican in the cast, (gang musicals) West Side Story and The Capeman. I wanted to deviate from an overrepresented reality. With this show, we wanted to eliminate distance from past and present. I want everyone to be able to see themselves in this guy’s story. As a Latino male and an actor in general, you’re always kind of subject to how people see you. It’s been historically pretty reductive. They’re not gonna cast me in a Hamilton biopic, they’ll cast someone who looks like the guy on the $10 bill.
What advice would you give emerging talents finding their artistic voice?
Write, write, write. And to find likeminded individuals, that’s the most important part. Doing the thing you love, surrounding yourself with similar people and being part of a community. Finding fellow travelers and having time to do the work and figure out what you like and don’t like, that’s the most important part about being an artist.
Who influenced your performance of Hamilton?
A mix of (choreographer) Andy Blankenbuehler and my dad. Both relentless guys, Andy has a ton of different ideas for a scene which is very Hamilton. My dad, for the notion of coming from the Caribbean, making a life in New York and having a sense of ambition and outspokenness.