When LATIN MUSIC USA sat down to interview Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2008, he was starring in his first Broadway musical, In the Heights.
He’d begun developing the idea for it as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence”, he said, “that I started writing this show in about the winter of 1999-2000, which is just when the Latin pop explosion was starting. Ricky Martin had just crossed over into English. I think he’d performed on the Grammys and wowed everybody. Marc Anthony was planning an English language album . . . Carlos Santana had come back with “Smooth”.”
Lin-Manuel had studied music at Hunter College High School, a prestigious public school for intellectually gifted children in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Then, as now, he was fanatically devoted to rap and Broadway musicals. But Heights, he says, “was the first time I’d really started writing Latin music and it was like ‘oh I know how to write this.’ I’d been living with this all my life.“
Lin-Manuel’s Puerto Rican-born parents, Dr. Luz Towns, a clinical psychologist, and Luis A. Miranda, Jr., a Democratic Party consultant, filled their house with music of all kinds; they loved Latin music and shared with their son a love of the music of Broadway.
In Heights, Lin-Manuel’s fusion of Broadway musical with rap drew on decades of Latin music tradition to tell the story of the people that inhabited the neighborhood of his childhood, Washington Heights, where the streets were filled with the sounds of mambo, salsa, merengue, bomba, and plena.
As he searched for a central theme for In the Heights, Lin-Manuel looked to the example of a favorite musical. “A template we looked at a lot was Fiddler on the Roof, he says, “and one of the things they did in Fiddler on the Roof, constantly, was to say ‘what is the show about? What is about? It’s about tradition.’ It took us a long time to find what that word was for us, and that word became home.
The narrator, a young bodeguero (grocer) named Usnavi, played by Lin-Manuel himself, speaks in hip hop, the voice of Lin-Manuel’s generation. Tired of the hustle in his Washington Heights bodega, Usnavi struggles with the idea of “home” as he considers retirement in Puerto Rico, ultimately coming to the conclusion that his home is no longer Puerto Rico. Home is Washington Heights. Puerto Rico has come to represent a beginning, a reference point that with time and generations fades into the distance, its essence contained in the people and the culture transplanted to a new place.
Lin-Manuel succeeded in spinning the lives of the people in Washington Heights into a powerful narrative that grew from a school musical to a Broadway sensation in 2008. It won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The album won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
After In the Heights, he continued his work on Broadway, working on the translation of a revival of West Side Story, among other things; he also appeared in various television series and films. But a book he’d picked up while on vacation in 2008 would lead to Hamilton, the epic Broadway hit of 2016. It explored the very concept of what it means to be an American in ways that challenge conventional wisdom.
Based on a best-selling biography by historian Ron Chernow, Hamilton is a hip-hop musical about the Founding Father who wrote the lion's share of the Federalist Papers and was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr. It makes the statement that American history is everyone’s history and that the myths, values, and stories of America’s Founding Fathers belong to all.
“It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it," says Leslie Odom Jr., who first played Hamilton killer Aaron Burr. "We are saying we have the right to tell it too." (Odom stepped down from the role in July 2016.)
The New York Times Magazine estimated that the show earns $500,000 a week and could surpass $1 billion in ticket sales in New York alone, where the Broadway run will likely last for at least a decade. The Broadway production, completely sold out well into next year, is officially the toughest ticket on the planet. Hamilton earned Lin-Manuel Miranda a Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tony Awards.
Miranda married Vanessa Adriana Nadal, a high school friend, in 2010. Their son, Sebastian was born on November 10, 2014.