Like A Sore Thumb: Why Lin-Manuel Plays the Leads

By Bryce Palmer

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the most famous Broadway composer there’s ever been, and that’s no accident. He’s earned his stripes telling diverse sets of stories on Broadway, both behind the scenes and under the bright lights. In an era where diversity was certainly lacking on Broadway, Miranda and his stories were a welcome change of pace for a mostly white medium. Many complain that Miranda’s stage talent is not exactly up to par with the rest of his cast mates in his shows, most notably so in Hamilton, but the critics fail to see one thing. Miranda, by way of his performance in the biggest role in the biggest show in Broadway history, has established his place as a household name, and, in turn, his presence as a powerful voice on The Great White Way for years to come.

Miranda got his start early, writing and staging original productions as early as middle school. His most formative work was that which he did on In The Heights as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. From there, he gained traction toward an eventual workshop and Broadway production of the show. During the workshop, Lin-Manuel’s original plan was to play Usnavi until they could hire a “real actor” (a quote from the director of In The Heights, Tommy Kail, by way of Lin-Manuel himself). After the workshop process, the show’s artistic crew had grown so fond of Miranda in the role of Usnavi that that is where he remained for the better part of a year once the show hit the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.

Miranda gained some of his experience as a composer and lyricist on the Broadway hit Bring It On!, where he was a small name on a big ticket that included Tony-winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then), among others. He starred in Heights shortly before Bring It On! officially went up, and thus began his ascent to fame. Miranda was also recruited to help with Spanish translations for the revival of West Side Story, an experience that lead him to a partner-/mentorship with famed broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (Sondheim, known through the theatre world as an expert in lyricism and composition, would later give Miranda feedback on an early draft of Hamilton).

Miranda talks often about how he grew up with West Side Story being the only real representation of his culture he could find on Broadway. Ironically enough, West Side Story was written by an entirely white creative team, with the famous Leonard Bernstein having been struck with the idea for the setting because of his fondness for Latin rhythms. Broadway has a long history of telling stories with POC at the forefront, when in reality most all of them are written by white people with little similarity in perspective to the characters they write about and even less respect for the cultures they sometimes unknowingly condemn.

Miranda cites some of his inspiration for In The Heights as having come from West Side Story’s violent portrayal of Puerto Rican people and their culture. Miranda wanted to paint a picture that depicted his people not as violent and resentful, but as the beautiful, cultured, fun-loving, complex community of individuals he knew them to be. This desire was an important part of who Miranda has become today, as the representation found in Heights and Hamilton is a voice for many. Through his work, Miranda paints a big, gorgeous, glorious picture of what it means to represent different identities through the means of a medium that has been almost shockingly stagnant in that regard for so long.

Early in his life, Miranda saw a production of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, which led him to the idea for In The Heights. Rent showed Miranda that one could write a musical about their reality, an opportunity he was more than happy to take advantage of. Through In The Heights, Miranda built his platform by telling a story about life the way he grew up seeing it: through the proverbial kaleidoscope that is Washington Heights. In the Heights went on to win 4 Tony awards, and Miranda, having starred in the show that won Best Musical, had a new claim to fame.

Miranda continues, to this day, to parlay his success into other jobs, into other opportunities to be a voice for those that have none. He was brought on board to write songs for the Disney feature animated film Moana, and his presence brought along with it a popularity for a story that would go on to make waves (pun not intended) in the world of representation. In the aftermath of In The Heights, Miranda continues to be a staple not only for helping others find representation in popular media, but also for being careful and attentive enough to capture their culture in a positive light. Miranda has become the change he wanted to see in the world: he has become the pagan of representation that he looked for in his youth, he has become a voice for the voiceless.On a vacation away from the business of In the Heights and the hustle and bustle of Broadway and all of his other projects, Miranda brought only one book with him: Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. The rest is, well… history.

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7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I love the title of your essay, it’s what drew me in. Miranda does kind of seem like a sore thumb for a lot of reasons: 1. it seems obnoxious to write yourself as the lead CONSISTENTLY and 2. its even more obnoxious to do that when its mentioned that you aren’t as talented as your co-stars (it’s giving me Glee Season 3: Troubletones vs New Directions *WITHOUT RACHEL BERRY* at Sectionals — its not realistic that ND wins without their star and you wouldn’t think it’s realistic for shows with a “fake” actor to be such critical and popular successes).

    I really appreciated this take on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s casting decisions. At some point this summer, probably around the time that Hamilton was released on Disney+, or at least we knew it was coming, someone tweeted that Hamilton was basically Lin-Manuel’s self-insert Alexander Hamilton fanfiction. It honestly changed the way that I viewed the musical because I realized, when he writes shows he’s often the star in the original cast and it felt weird to me. However, I think the way that you describe the power behind Lin-Manuel’s star is another side of the argument that needs to be considered no matter how you feel personally about Miranda. He has been able to provide and represent diversity on such a larger scale (even though there is still a long way to go before Broadway is truly diverse) and it is as you note “historic”. Miranda was the change that not only we needed, but the change they he envisioned on his own. He should definitely be applauded for taking a biography and being able to imagine it with a cast of people that look like him and look like the people he interacts with and/or grew up with.

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  2. Bryce, I thought your essay was great! I was immediately drawn to it because, like you, I have found myself constantly confused as to how Lin has written himself into not one, but TWO starring roles (although he was, in my opinion, not as bad in In The Heights). I love how you touched on the community of representation he created through In The Heights because, like you said, Broadway was bred by white people, but I also think, for the longest time, it was really also FOR white people which is why we see the representative problems on the stage today. Still, I think you did a great job diving into the importance of not just the show but Lin’s direct involvement with it, both onstage and off.

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  3. Hey Bryce! I absolutely love the points you brought up in your essay!! I have always thought about Lin Manuel Miranda putting himself at the forefront of the narrative he creates. He isn’t a Gavin Creel, or a Jeremy Jordan, or a Brian Darcy James, for a reason; an important one at that. Aside from West Side Story, Lin Manuel Miranda was able to create a new and familiar type of representation for himself and other under represented artist. Additionally, one of my favorite things about In the Heights is the way that it highlights the celebration of culture happening everyday in Washington Heights and other places like it. Miranda’s ability to write what he knows best- his own cultural experience- is what has led to his great success, and what I think establishes him as a “real actor.” I love this guy and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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  4. Bryce, like everyone else so eloquently said, your essay was absolutely fantastic. Beginning with your title, it was one of the best titles I’ve read, as well as being an inspiration and guide for my own titles. When I read “Like a Sore Thumb: Why Lin-Manuel Plays the Leads”, I immediately learned what your essay was attempting to argue and was more inclined to agree because of the title’s polished feel. I have certainly wondered many times why Lin Manuel Miranda feels so inclined to leading in his works, and I agree that your hypothesis of representation makes sense. It is evident that while Miranda doesn’t necessarily have the best voice or most convincing acting, his passion for the roles as well as the diversity in representation that each role he leads stands for more than make up for his shortcomings. I’d love to know what your thoughts on other, diverse actors and actresses playing leads in Lin Manuel Miranda works would be. Should Lin save those roles for himself? All in all, great work once again!

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  5. Hey Bryce!
    I clicked on your post because the title was intriguing, and the content did not disappoint. I think a lot of what we learn about in this class tends to dampen our enthusiasm of shows we know and love, but a lot of media and pop culture are inherently flawed. While these problems should be called out for the intent of progress, it is still okay to appreciate the art and artists. In my essay, I probably railed on Lin-Manuel Miranda a little too hard, which feels wrong. I should call out his mistakes and the issues that he presents to Broadway, but I love Hamilton and many of his productions. I know you’re a big fan too, so it was refreshing to see a positive point of view in the wave of negativity that I felt. In terms of the actual structure of the essay, I thought it was well organized and concise. The background you provided on Lin helped me understand the reasoning behind his decisions, and your analysis of these decisions provided me with perspective that I didn’t consider before. I’m glad that I read your piece. Can’t wait to see what you write about next!

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  6. Hey Bryce! I thought your essay provided a unique lens of Lin Manuel Miranda’s rise to fame by telling a story I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t know how he ended up playing Usnavi. After reading your essay, I wonder if there was some intentionality in the way the lead role just happened to be absent, and how hard Miranda, or anyone else for that matter, was looking for a “real” actor. Overall, I enjoyed the structure of your essay on a large scale and your syntax in particular. Your authoritative voice definitely shines. You mix creativity, formality, and colloquialisms in a perfect blend that make your work an easy, respetable read. I wonder if Miranda considers himself a “real” actor now. Ha! Anyway, best of luck on your remaining essay.

    Zoë

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  7. Hey Bryce!
    Great essay. I thought your detailing of Miranda’s career gave us just the right amount of information to not only gain a coherent concept of Miranda’s identity of an artist, but to support your specific argument as well. Your emphasis on Miranda’s awareness of representation and how it informed his original pieces makes clear the cultural import and impact of Miranda’s works. You also broach this idea of Miranda being a cultural symbol himself at this point in his career, and that his self-insertion into the leading roles he’s written in fact keeps some aspect of the audience’s attention directly on Miranda’s impact on the medium and the change he has helped bring about in the theatre and Broadway communities.

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