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.