Rarely has a Broadway show and its creator accrued such explosive accolades as Hamilton: An American Musical and Lin-Manuel Miranda, its writer-composer star. His hip-hop-inflected American-democracy origin story shattered box-office records for much of 2015 and was hailed by critics as a breakthrough moment in the history of American musical theater. "This confluence of what's heard on the American musical stage and what's heard on the airwaves and in the clubs hasn't existed for at least six decades," enthused New York Times arts-desk staffer Ben Brantley, adding that Miranda's aural history lesson "convinces us that hip-hop and its generic cousins embody the cocky, restless spirit of self-determination that birthed the American independence movement."
Miranda was born in 1980 in New York City to parents with strong ties to Puerto Rico. His father Luis Miranda Jr. was an academic prodigy who earned his undergraduate degree at age 18 in Puerto Rico then came to New York for graduate study. Miranda's mother, Luz Towns-Miranda, was born in Puerto Rico and moved with her family to New York as a child; she became a clinical psychologist and shares her first name with her daughter, Miranda's elder sister Luz. Miranda's own unusual hyphenated first name is derived from a poem by Puerto Rican writer Jose Manuel Torres Santiago that mentions "My Son Lin Manuel" in its title.
Both of Miranda's parents were busy professionals during his high-achieving childhood. His father's early career as a Latino community activist eventually led to a job as director of the Office of Hispanic Affairs for New York City mayor Ed Koch in the mid-1980s; later he founded a political consulting firm, the MirRam Group, which worked with campaign teams for Democratic candidates such as longtime Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Miranda and his sister Luz were looked after by another Puerto Rican transplant, Edmunda Claudio, who had been their father's childhood caregiver. "My parents worked so much that I really remember them only on weekends," Miranda told New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead. "My dad and I would go and see an action movie, and then we would go and play Ping-Pong or pool. They were like weekend visits, even though we all lived in the same house."
That family home was situated near Inwood Hill Park, whose trees were among the remaining original forested parcels on the island of Manhattan. Miranda preferred the livelier scene further south in Washington Heights, a stronghold for New Yorkers of Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic origins. In the summer months he was dispatched to Puerto Rico to spend time with his grandparents and perfect his Spanish. Miranda's formal musical training began at age six with piano lessons. That same year he made a surprisingly impressive showing on the entrance test at Hunter College Elementary School, an Upper East Side institution for gifted students. Miranda had his middle-school and high school years at the other Hunter College-affiliated academies.
As a New York City kid Miranda saw the occasional Broadway musical, starting with the popular Les Misérables at age seven. Another Tony Award-winner for Best Musical was Rent nearly a decade later, and it was a game-changer for the 17-year-old Miranda. "Rent was the show that made me want to write," he said in an interview with Grantland writer Rembert Browne. "Or that showed me you're allowed to write." He began testing out his music-composition skills while immersed in Hunter High's theater-arts program, which occasionally benefited from some impressive parent-connections: when Miranda directed his senior-year production of the classic Broadway musical West Side Story, its original lyricist Stephen Sondheim dropped in to speak to the cast. "He told the most amazing stories of how the show was created," Miranda enthused to Mead in the New Yorker profile. "He told us how he had written an opening number and dialogue--he started singing us these lyrics--but Jerome Robbins said, 'No, I am going to dance all of that.' It made an enormous impression. It was the first time I had seen how a musical gets created for real."
Connected with Hispanic Culture
As much as Miranda loved West Side Story--an updated version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set against the 1950s Upper West Side of New York City backdrop of teen-gang rivalries--he sensed early on there was a dearth of contemporary Latino voices in American musical theater. He recalled the hype over The Capeman, a 1998 musical created by musician Paul Simon which opened to scathing reviews. "It was us as gang members in the '50s, again," Miranda told Browne in the Grantland interview. "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."
For college, Miranda headed to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to major in theater studies. He wrote a musical, Seven Minutes in Heaven, but experienced a profound intellectual shift during his second year when he moved into La Casa, the campus residence that served Wesleyan students aiming for a bilingual career. "It was such a dope house," he recalled in the Grantland article. "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."
The La Casa experience propelled Miranda to think creatively about why he felt so drawn toward the frenetic, multicultural Washington Heights scene in his youth. In the spring of 2000 he finished a musical that was later revised considerably for his first Broadway success, In the Heights. His senior project for his 2002 graduation from Wesleyan was another musical, On Borrowed Time. Returning to New York City, he resisted pressure from his father to pick a law school and took part-time work as a substitute teacher at Hunter College High School.
Miranda had some lean years as he struggled to develop a creative career in the performing arts while supporting himself. He and some friends formed Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improvisation act, but he also worked as a bar mitzvah entertainer-for-hire. When he reconnected with fellow Wesleyan alumnus Thomas Kail, who had been impressed by one of Miranda's college-era musicals, the two began working on a new version of what became In the Heights. Another instrumental figure was John Buffalo Mailer, son of legendary American novelist Norman Mailer and like Kail a few semesters ahead of Miranda's graduating class at Wesleyan. The three worked on multiple drafts, and Kail became the director of the 2007 off-Broadway version. Miranda wrote the music and lyrics while emerging playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes penned the book.
"Rich and Kaleidoscopic" Score
In the Heights opened at the off-Broadway venue 37 Arts in February of 2007. Miranda took the lead role of Usnavi, a bodega-store owner in Washington Heights whose yearning to return to the Dominican Republic intersects with the ambitions and setbacks suffered by an amiable and diverse group of friends, family members, and bodega customers. Their stories are voiced and choreographed across 22 musical numbers with lyrics in both Spanish and English. Just 27 years old on its opening night in New York, Miranda garnered exceptionally strong accolades for both his creation and stage presence. "The most obvious of the show's many virtues is that it doesn't sound like the ... pseudo-pop that clutters up Broadway. Miranda's score is rich and kaleidoscopic, as it needs to be," declared New York magazine writer Jeremy McCarter. "Songs slip into one another, advancing plot and shifting mood," McCarter noted, and he insisted that "Miranda's lyrics are some of the best that New York has heard from a young songwriter since Avenue Q."
In the Heights also introduced Miranda as an impressive newcomer to the New York theater scene. "In the terrific title number that opens the show," wrote New York Times critic Charles Isherwood, "Miranda raps a cityscape into vibrant life over the rumbling rhythm of a bass line. Shredding the air with his arms, rhymes percolating on his tongue, he introduces us to the men and women whose daily troubles," Isherwood continued, give voice to "Miranda's musical valentine to the barrio." After several weeks of strong ticket sales at 37 Arts, In the Heights was tapped for a next-season migration to Broadway.
Miranda made his Broadway debut as Usnavi when In the Heights opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in February of 2008. The musical had already earned two top honors for the off-Broadway theater season, including the Village Voice Obie Award in the Music and Lyrics category, and went on to win two major Tony Awards for 2008, Best Musical and Best Original Score. As his acclaimed show continued in the first year of what would become a 1,184-performance run at the Rodgers Theatre, Miranda was nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the original cast recording of In the Heights won a Grammy Award for outstanding musical theater album of the year.
In February of 2009 Miranda handed off the role of Usnavi to another newcomer and began mulling over his next project. He had already worked with Sondheim on an updated, credibly bilingual revival of West Side Story, and was seduced by the promise of large royalties for Bring It On: The Musical, for which he wrote music and lyrics. Part of a relatively recent phenomenon in American theater in which a quirky movie aimed at a teen audience becomes the basis for a full-on musical treatment, the cheerleading-squad dark comedy ran for only five months in late 2012, but Miranda's effort did yield a nomination as Best Musical at that year's Tony Awards.
By then Miranda was immersed in writing Hamilton: An American Musical, whose shape he began to conceive while reading historian Ron Chernow's acclaimed biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Hamilton died in 1804 after a long-running feud with Aaron Burr, who served as vice president during Thomas Jefferson's first term. In an almost improbable series of events, the two major political figures met at a spot in Weehawken, New Jersey--because duels were outlawed in New York State--and Burr's shot felled Hamilton, who died the next day.
Won MacArthur Genius Grant
Miranda's Hamilton opened at the Public Theater in New York City in the first weeks of 2015 and moved to Broadway in August, two months after the actor and composer, who played the title role, collected multiple awards that spring, including the Obie Award for Best New American Theater Work. Because tickets sold out for almost the entirety of its Broadway run, Miranda appeared daily outside the Rodgers Theatre marquee to raffle off $10 tickets to clamoring fans.
Miranda married Vanessa Nadal, an attorney and fellow Hunter College High School graduate. Their wedding in September of 2010 was featured in the New York Times "Vows" section. Just after they celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, Miranda received one of the stealthiest--and most generous--professional honors for U.S. trailblazers: the fabled genius grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Awarded annually by an anonymous committee, with no nomination process, the MacArthur fellowships include a no-strings-attached $625,000 bequest. Miranda told reporters he planned to allocate some of his 2015 windfall as a bequest to a little-known New York City social services provider, the Graham Windham Services for Families, whose origins were in a charity co-founded in 1806 by the real-life Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.
A few weeks after the MacArthur honors for Miranda, Hamilton was part of a gala Democratic National Committee fund-raiser night at the Rodgers Theatre. President Barack Obama spoke at the event and expressed dismay that his day's schedule had not let him see it a second time. "Michelle and I love this show," Obama told supporters that night, according to a transcript released by the White House Press Office. Later in his comments he drew parallels between the unease felt by many Americans and the struggles depicted in Hamilton. "My primary message tonight--and this performance undoubtedly described it better than I ever could--is that we can't afford cynicism, and we can't afford to withdraw," Obama emphasized. "Our system only works when we recognize that the government is not something separate--it's us."
Born January 16, 1980, in New York, NY; son of Luis Miranda Jr. (a political consultant) and Luz Towns-Miranda (a psychologist); married Vanessa Nadal (a research scientist and attorney), September 5, 2010; children: Sebastian. Education: Wesleyan University, B.A., 2002. Addresses: Agent--John Buzzetti, William Morris Endeavor, 11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10019. Home--New York, NY. Web site--http://www.linmanuel.com; https://twitter.com/Lin_Manuel.
Musical-theater composer and performer. Stage writing credits include: In the Heights (music and lyrics; also originated lead role of Usnavi), 37 Arts (New York City), 2007, Richard Rodgers Theatre (New York City), 2008; Bring It On: The Musical (music and lyrics), St. James Theatre (New York City), 2012; Hamilton: An American Musical (music, book, and lyrics; also originated title role), Public Theater (New York City), 2015, Richard Rodgers Theatre, 2015--. Also credited for translations, West Side Story, Palace Theatre (New York City), 2009. Actor in films, including: Clayton's Friends, 1996; The Odd Life of Timothy Green, 2012; Looking for Maria Sanchez, 2013. Television appearances include: The Sopranos, HBO, 2007; House, FOX, 2009-10; Sesame Street, PBS, 2009; Submissions Only, YouTube, 2010; Modern Family, ABC, 2011; Do No Harm, NBC, 2013; How I Met Your Mother, CBS, 2013.
Winner of the following awards for In the Heights: Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding musical, League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, 2007; Obie Award (Off-Broadway Theater Award) for music and lyrics, Village Voice/American Theatre Wing, 2007; Tony Awards for best musical and best original score, both 2008; Grammy Award for best musical theater album, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 2009. Winner of the following awards for Hamilton: An American Musical: Drama Desk Awards for outstanding musical, for outstanding lyrics, and for outstanding book of a musical, all 2015; Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding musical, League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, 2015; Obie Award (Off-Broadway Theater Award) for best new American theater work, Village Voice/American Theatre Wing, 2015. Winner of MacArthur Fellowship, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 2015.
- New York, February 26, 2007.
- New Yorker, February 9, 2015.
- New York Times, February 9, 2007; February 18, 2015.
- "Genius: A Conversation with 'Hamilton' Maestro Lin Manuel Miranda," Grantland, http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/genius-a-conversation-with-hamilton-maestro-lin-manuel-miranda/ (October 14, 2015).
- "President Barack Obama Delivers Remarks at a DNC Event," Political/Congressional Transcript Wire, November 3, 2015.