“The president came this way,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda as he heads down a dank alley to a back entrance of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. He’s speaking of President Obama, who on July 18 brought daughters Malia and Sasha to see the game-changing musical Hamilton, which had actually begun its journey to Broadway at the White House in 2009. Invited to perform a number from his Tony-winning musical In the Heights, Miranda, the New York City-born son of an activist and political consultant father and a psychologist mother (both born in Puerto Rico), instead chose the occasion to unveil a rap he’d written about founding father Alexander Hamilton. Today, that song is the opening number of a show that uses mostly actors of color to play “old, dead white men,” as Miranda puts it, and hip-hop, R&B and pop to tell the story of Hamilton’s life and death (inspired by Ron Chernow‘s biography). Since Hamilton opened in February at The Public Theater, it has drawn breathless reviews and a steady procession of celebrity and politician fans; with its move to Broadway, where it premiered Aug. 6, came $30 million in advance ticket sales. Three hours before his Aug. 8 performance, Miranda, 35, wearing a white “Go HAM or Go Home” hoodie and a colonial ponytail, talked with THR about his challenges in Hollywood, the dearth of realistic Latino characters in film and the parallels between his 18th century characters and the political figures of today (there’s a seat with your name on it, Trump).
“It’s an illusion,” says Miranda of Trump’s populist appeal on the right. “This is not a working-class hero.” Photo credit: AP Images
I can’t say I have enough experience with Hollywood to feel that I’ve encountered racism there. I can tell you that I did about five fruitless years of auditioning for voiceovers where I did variations on tacos and Latin accents, and my first screen role was as a bellhop on The Sopranos. It was actually an amazing experience. James Gandolfini stayed and did his sides even though he wasn’t onscreen. That’s the mark of the kind of actor Gandolfini was.
I don’t differentiate between black and Latino actors. We’re in the same struggle to be represented in a way that’s even close to honest. And I can tell you that the amount of Latino characters I can point at and say, “That’s what my life experience looks like” — I can’t think of any off the top of my head besides Jimmy Smits in Mi Familia.
Film was my first love. My mother made me see Last Tango in Paris when I was 10. Yeah, that’s right, “Go get the butter” — holy f—! With my mother I saw Breaking the Waves, Leaving Las Vegas and Schindler’s List. My dad and I watched Seagal and Van Damme. I went to Wesleyan to double-major in theater and film. But I realized, “Oh, you have to pay for your own student films, whereas the school gives you a budget if you want to put on a play.”
But there’s nothing like the instant gratification of working with collaborators in theater. That sounds paradoxical because Hamilton took six years, and In the Heights took six years, but the process of getting in a room with people and making something is so immediate, as is the rush of when you perform it live. The audience reaction is instant. I don’t give a performance and then a year later hope people like the movie. There’s nothing like it, the honesty of that exchange. When you’re a performer, all you want to do is connect.
When I was asked to do a song from In the Heights at the White House in 2009, I chose instead to do “Alexander Hamilton” because I felt like I was meeting a moment. This was a president that I had worked hard to help elect, and I wanted to show something about the American experience and do something new there because I felt like I was part of something. And now, with the show opening as Obama’s presidency is winding down, it feels very fitting and full circle. I don’t know what his legacy will be. I do know that the thing that Hamilton and Obama have in common is that they’re totally improbable stories — except they happened.
I always had an eye toward the stage for the story of Hamilton’s life, but I began with the idea of a concept album, the way Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were albums before they were musicals. And I built this score by dream casting my favorite artists. I always imagined George Washington as a mix between Common and John Legend (a pretty good description of Christopher Jackson, actually, who plays our first president); Hercules Mulligan was Busta Rhymes; and Hamilton was modeled after my favorite polysyllabic rhyming heroes, Rakim, Big Pun and Eminem. In Hamilton, we’re telling the stories of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience. You don’t distance the audience by putting an actor of color in a role that you would think of as default Caucasian. No, you excite people and you draw them in.
Hamilton is more autobiographical than Heights for me — not in the sense that I feel like I’m Hamilton, but in terms of how I feel about life and our country. My feelings about what this country is and can be are all in this show. When Eliza Hamilton sings, “Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now,” that’s true. I say that to myself every day. But I also laugh when Aaron Burr is shaking hands and saying, “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for,” because that’s not left or right, that’s most contemporary politicians. And we recognize him as, “Hey, that guy’s from our era.”
Though the music is contemporary, costumes by Paul Tazewell stay true to the Revolutionary War period. Photo credit: Eric Ogden
The first Republican debate took place on the same night Hamilton opened on Broadway. I missed it. I’m like most people, I don’t really pay attention until it gets closer to the election. And my father was in politics, so I’m inoculated. I did read a piece in The New York Times that compared the Republican candidates to the characters in the show and discussed the notion of politics today as entertainment. With the advent of 24-hour cable news, we’re not talking about policy, we’re talking about who got a zinger off or who crashed and burned.
It would be fun to have Donald Trump see the show. I’d be interested to see his reactions to the fact that one of our greatest commanders of the Revolutionary War and the creator of the financial system that allowed his father to get rich and allowed him to play with his father’s money were both immigrants.
From left: Soo, Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones play the Schuyler sisters. Photo credit: Joan Marcus
My reaction to his comments about Mexicans isn’t important. What matters is that the world reacted, and he saw that speech has consequences. You can say the most hateful shit you want, and you can be boisterous and loud and get attention, and that has worked very well, but it’s going to have consequences. If Trump performs the magic trick of making working-class people believe in a guy who spends his father’s money, more power to him. But it’s an illusion. This is not a working-class hero.
We’ve had characters like Trump in American politics forever, characters who trade on xenophobia. I don’t have to remind you of the “Irish Need Not Apply” signs at the end of the 19th century. This happens in waves, and I’m trying to take the long view and not make Trump a part of my life; it’s bad enough we have to endure his ugly buildings.
Remember during the debates of the last election, when Rick Perry said he was going to eliminate three government agencies if he was elected but could only remember two? Or the memes of Joe Biden‘s incredulous faces during that last vice presidential debate? It’s more wrestling than it is real. I find it ironic that on the night Hamilton opened, there were real candidates in a real debate that meant nothing, while in a theater, actors playing Hamilton and Jefferson were re-creating, in hip-hop verse, a debate where there were enormous stakes: Whoever wins sets the precedent for how the country is going to run.
The fights we’re having right now politically are the same fights we’ve been having since six months after we became a country: states rights versus national rights, foreign intervention versus how we treat our own people and the rights we have. The original sin of slavery and its repercussions; the original sins of, “Oh shit, we said everyone could have guns and now everyone has guns” — that’s all still here and we’re going to be reckoning with it all as long as we’re a country. It’s MSNBC and Fox News instead of Hamilton and Jefferson, and the polarities have flipped several times, but we’re always going to be having these struggles. We will have periods of anger, and we will have periods of bloodshed, but hopefully we’ll take more steps forward than we take back.
The difference back then is that news traveled slower and public opinion did matter. The Federalist Papers were essays that Hamilton co-wrote with James Madison (before they found themselves on opposite sides ideologically) that said, “This is our best shot at self-government.” These men did the hard work of creating consensus through their writing. The papers were written over the course of six months, as states ratified the Constitution. Now, Drake releases a dis track, and there are 500 memes before breakfast and a backlash to the backlash before lunch. It’s harder for one person or group to control the message, but maybe it’s also a little more democratic. Popular things get popular.
Fans including Vice President Biden, Jennifer Lopez and Danny DeVito have signed this lifesize cutout of Hamilton while visiting backstage. Photo credit: Eric Ogden
I have been amazed at the filmmakers who have expressed interest in adapting Hamilton. I would insist that the movie be exactly the same in terms of diversity. That conversation’s a ways off: It’s not happening anytime soon. What I learned from my go-round with In the Heights is that it’s tough to make a movie. In Hollywood, even the people in charge have people in charge.
I don’t have my head around Hollywood yet. If I can find the version of what I have in theater, which is producers and collaborators that I trust, I’d jump in with both feet.
I’ve met some amazing executives in Hollywood — Larry Mark, when I worked on something at DreamWorks Animation, and Marc Platt. But when I had meetings at Universal, which acquired film rights to In the Heights in 2008, I met a lot of new people who seemed very nice, but I had no idea what their input was on the story or the screenplay. I just did not understand the exchanges taking place. At that point, the picture was budgeted at around $37 million, and I’d go to a meeting and there would be Donna Langley and Tracy Falco and people from international — there are a lot of cooks when there’s that much money on the line.
What I appreciate about the theater business is that when I get in the room to talk about the content of the show with my producers and investors, I sit down with Oskar Eustis, who is the artistic director of The Public Theater; producer Jeffrey Seller, who brought Rent and Avenue Q to Broadway and co-produced In the Heights; and Tommy Kail, our director. Those are the people who make decisions and give me notes. Groundbreaking is what they do, so I never got a note saying, “Can they rap less?” or a visit from a cartoon cigar-chomping executive saying, “There’s not a tune you can hum!” And there was no one questioning casting decisions because the demands of this show are so specific that just finding someone with the right skill set seriously limited the talent pool. The lyrics to “Satisfied” — in which Angelica Schuyler recounts how Hamilton and her sister Eliza met and married — are some of the most intricate I’ve ever written. I can’t even rap them, but Renee Elise Goldsberry, who plays Angelica — that’s her conversational speed. That’s how fast she thinks. You really get the sense that Angelica’s the smartest person in the room, and she reads Hamilton within a moment of meeting him.
A lot of the reason the Universal version of Heights went away is that they were afraid they didn’t have a big enough Latino star to bankroll this movie. The people I dealt with at the studio who wanted to make this movie were very passionate about it. We had a very strong hand at the wheel with Kenny Ortega, who has made some of the great musical movie moments of all time, from Newsies to Dirty Dancing. But the bean counters were like, “Well, they don’t sell international.” You know this speech very well. That’s Hollywood being scared, and that’s everyone there having to answer to somebody else. And one of the things I learned was, the less money that’s involved, the more power you have.
Miranda (center) in ‘In the Heights,’ his musical about Latino families in New York’s Washington Heights, which won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical. Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux
We were acquired by Universal the same year Mamma Mia! happened. That was a big honking movie musical, and so Heights was pitched as a big honking movie musical. Two years later, it went into turnaround. My experience with the studio was: “We’re going to make a big honking musical. Oh, we can’t afford that musical. Goodbye.”
The world has changed since then. You’re seeing the power of the Latino dollar in the marketplace more than ever, and now we’re aiming for a scrappy $15 million movie of Heights that is more in keeping with the spirit of the show. There’s a new screenplay.
I love Louis C.K. I’m proud that he’s a Latino, too, and he was asked to comment about people tweeting him about other comedians stealing his material. His response is, “Well, f—, I’ll write more jokes” — which is exactly the right response. You have to believe your next idea is better than your last one. I was disappointed when In the Heights went into turnaround, but I was already pregnant with my next idea.
What I can tell you is that works of art are the only silver bullet we have against racism and sexism and hatred. Joe Biden happened to see Hamilton on the same day James Burrows was here. James Burrows directed every episode of Will & Grace, and remember when Biden went on Meet the Press and essentially said, “Yeah, gay people should get married”? He very openly credited Will & Grace with changing the temperature on how we discuss gays and lesbians in this country. It was great to see Jim Burrows and Joe Biden talk about that, and Jim thanked Biden and Biden thanked Jim because that was a piece of art changing the temperature of how we talked about a divisive issue. It sounds silly. It’s a sitcom, but that doesn’t make it not true. Art engenders empathy in a way that politics doesn’t, and in a way that nothing else really does. Art creates change in people’s hearts. But it happens slowly.
“The most hip-hop story I ever heard,” says Miranda (second from right) of Hamilton’s life. He took a bow with (from left) Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo and Christopher Jackson at the show’s Aug. 6 Broadway premiere. Photo credit: AP Images/Invision
How TV and Film Can Catch Up to ‘Hamilton’
Emmy-winning OITNB casting director Jen Euston does her job the old-fashioned way — with curiosity and color.
‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Courtesy of Netflix
When I read the latest study about the lack of diversity in American movies by USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, I didn’t bat an eye. How could any moviegoing American find these numbers shocking? Think about the last film you saw in a theater. Was the screen chock-full of women, minorities and homosexuals? Most casting directors aren’t as fortunate as I have been, working with women showrunners like Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black), Lena Dunham (Girls), Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) and Tina Fey (the pilot for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). But they aren’t the only people I’ve worked for, and I’ve seen how things work in the real world — the world of the USC study. As casting directors, we’re given a script where the world is laid out — usually a male-dominated, homogeneous, Caucasian one, exactly what that study reflects and what you’re used to seeing on your TV. We make suggestions — to change the race or gender of certain characters and bring in an array of choices — and hope that our voices are heard. The irony for me is that as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I devoured shows like Soap, The Jeffersons, Three’s Company, What’s Happening!!, All in the Family and Benson, comedies that offered diversity of all kinds and delivered some sort of life lesson. As a result, I felt more socially conscious than my peers who weren’t allowed to watch the likes of Jack Tripper. A man pretending to be gay?! Or, in the case of Soap, a man who is openly gay?! Because these were what the eyes of my formative years saw, they are what the adult version of me aims to bring to the screen. I haven’t lived the lives of the characters I’m given to flesh out, but that doesn’t mean I can’t cast the hell out of them and give our world a true reflection of itself through film and TV. Casting directors need brave execs, writers and directors to give us characters we can embody with all the beautiful underrepresented talent out there, waiting to be revealed. Just because the majority of creators aren’t women, minorities or members of the LGBT community doesn’t mean they can’t tell those stories well, successfully and loudly. — Jen Euston