Lin-Manuel Miranda Gets Hero's Welcome at 'Hamilton' Opening in Puerto Rico

Lin-Manuel Miranda Hamilton Production still - Publicity - H 2019
Joan Marcus

The star made an emotional return to the celebrated role he created, performing through Jan. 23 in a run that will function partly as a fundraiser for the hurricane-ravaged island.

"In the eye of a hurricane
There is quiet
For just a moment
A yellow sky

When I was seventeen a hurricane
Destroyed my town
I didn't drown
I couldn't seem to die."

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote those lyrics to the song "Hurricane" from Hamilton in reference to a 1772 storm that struck the Leeward Islands, where the show's title character, Alexander Hamilton, was born. But on Friday the words had special resonance in another part of the Caribbean, blanketing a solemn hush over the musical's opening-night audience at a triumphant performance more frequently accompanied by wild cheers and applause.

Returning for the first time to the role he created, two and a half years after departing the smash Broadway production, Miranda identified that song as the most emotional moment in an evening that saw him fighting back tears more than once. He failed in that effort during a moving curtain call that culminated with the star wrapping himself in a Puerto Rican flag.

"It's very difficult to sing that song here," said Miranda at a press conference immediately after the show, acknowledging the long and painful recovery of Puerto Rico from the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, which caused close to 3,000 deaths and the extended loss of water, electricity and other fundamental utilities to much of the island. San Juan and surrounds are still dotted with blue tarps marking ongoing reconstruction.

"I feel like I'm going back to Maria every time I sing it," continued Miranda. "I'd never felt that doing the show before, so that was unexpectedly emotional. I didn't get through it the first time I did it onstage here. I was able to get through it tonight."

Miranda's father, Luis Miranda, hails from Puerto Rico and has continued to return regularly since he left for New York at 18, while his son formed a deep attachment during childhood summers spent on the island.

"I visited the first time, I think, a month after Hurricane Maria to see the island," said Miranda, shifting between English and Spanish. "I thought I'd never see winter in Puerto Rico. But Puerto Ricans are the most resilient people on the face of the earth. I mean, any other city that would survive this long without power and the resources they lost … I'm awed every time I come here."

During the press conference, Miranda acknowledged that he's been out of the loop in recent days, focusing all of his attention on the intensive rehearsal process with a remarkably tight company that opened cold Friday, without previews. But reacting to the news that Donald Trump is exploring the possibility of redirecting $13.9 billion in disaster-relief funds destined for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and California in order to finance his border wall, Miranda said, "I think that's absolutely monstrous."

If singing "Hurricane" was the emotional peak for Miranda of Friday's performance at the Centro de Bellas Artes, he identified bringing his father out onstage during the curtain call as the most joyous part.

Miranda Senior announced that fundraising pegged to the 17-day San Juan Hamilton run and carried out by the Flamboyan Arts Fund — created by the Miranda family in collaboration with the Flamboyan Foundation and dedicated to childhood education in the U.S. and Puerto Rico — is expected to raise $15 million to support arts and culture, which will boost the island's economic recovery.

"No one has worked harder," said Miranda of his father. "I really thought there were moments he was not gonna survive. My dad's worked in politics and been the most efficient guy in the room his entire career, and the whole thing was a test for this. So him getting applause was the highlight of my night."

The crowd of close to 2,000 at Bellas Artes included names like Shonda Rhimes, Questlove and Jimmy Fallon, who will broadcast a special Tonight Show episode from here on Tuesday. Also present was Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, whose book was the source material for the show; original Hamilton principals Leslie Odom Jr., Anthony Ramos and Jasmine Cephas Jones; and ensemble members from the founding company Ariana DeBose, Carleigh Bettiol and Seth Stewart.

Standing in the theater lobby or later at the afterparty, you could hear Hamilton superfans trading bragging rights about how many times they had seen the show, with many flying in from as far as California or the U.K. to catch the event. For some who had been too late to see the celebrated original cast during its Broadway run, finally getting to witness Miranda perform the role he created was the holy grail.

You also could watch the towering stacks of special-edition T-shirts rapidly shrinking — depicting the Puerto Rican flag with the show's iconic title-character silhouette forming the uppermost point of its white star.

The roar of excitement and instant standing ovation that greeted the rat-tat-tat percussive notes of the opening number went far beyond any standard response to a musical that invariably raises the temperature in the room. But the show-stopping explosion of cheers when Miranda took centerstage and sang his first words, “Alexander Hamilton,” was off the charts. He had to pause, remaining focused and in character, for almost a minute before being able to continue with, "My name is Alexander Hamilton."

This was the unmistakable sound of Puerto Rico giving a returning hero's welcome to its spiritual son.

"I've never felt anything like it," confessed Miranda later. "It's like performing to outer space. 'Alexander Hamilton'… whoosh! I didn't see anyone standing. I just felt it. I felt a cheer — that's the first time I felt a cheer — I felt my hair move from the cheer and I will never forget it."

Miranda addressed the abrupt decision to relocate the San Juan run from its originally planned home on the University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus following protest threats as strictly a matter of safety concerns given local limits on police access to college campuses. 'If there's just a slight chance that anything goes wrong, I cannot have that on my conscience," Miranda stressed. "I can't have anyone getting hurt."

Security personnel and metal detectors were much in evidence Friday night, but the evening was strictly celebratory, with only a small group of about a dozen protestors outside, advocating for statehood and happy to have the heightened visibility of the Hamilton opening. That seems likely to continue given that a delegation from Congress is expected during the run.

While Miranda's public support for the PROMESA debt restructuring plan was seen by some as controversial, notably in light of proposed cuts to college funding, he clarified that he stands fully behind debt relief: "I'll say it again, I believe that austerity on students is wrong. I believe that squeezing the generation that is going to grow up and inherit this island is wrong. And particularly in the wake of Hurricane Maria, that debt forgiveness is the only way to really get a clean slate and a fighting chance for Puerto Rico.”

Asked if the San Juan opening now ranks as the most emotional experience he's ever had performing in Hamilton, Miranda said: "I think it's tied with the first. When you start writing this thing and it takes you a year to write one song, the moment it actually gets off the page and you hand it to the audience is the most gratifying because it's the result of several years of hard work."

"Hamilton's been in the world for almost four years now," he continued. "We've been planning for Puerto Rico for two of them. So double opening night by the fact that I love this island so much I just want it to be proud of me. This was a homecoming, in a way. It felt very special."