Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Life’s a gift, it’s not to be taken for granted”

July 8th, 2016 § 5 comments

“I knew y’all would come. It’s the rest of the world I couldn’t have anticipated.”


Lin-Manuel Miranda (all photos by Howard Sherman)

That was what Lin-Manuel Miranda admitted about his extraordinary recent success with the musical Hamilton to some 200 high school drama teachers in a session on July 7, just two days before he was to leave the cast of the show. He was speaking at the Broadway Teachers Workshop, an annual summer program for theatre teachers from around the country, in a wide-ranging discussion that took him from elementary school to the present day. While questions came to Miranda at first from the moderator Patrick Vassel, the associate director of Hamilton, the session was predominantly Miranda responding to questions directly from the teachers.

For the benefit of all of the teachers (and students) who weren’t there, here are some highlights from Miranda’s remarks, slightly condensed and edited for clarity. Among the material not included here are any topics covered in my prior interviews with Miranda, both for Dramatics magazine and this website.

On being a teacher post-college

When I was about to graduate Wesleyan in 2002, I called Dr. Herbert [Miranda’s high school mentor] and said, “I have a BA in theatre arts, can I come substitute teach at Hunter for a living?” He said, “I’ll do you one better we actually have a part time English position.” So I taught seventh grade English my first year out of school.

There’s nothing better than the people who taught you becoming your friends suddenly being on the other side of that divide So that was enormous fun. And I loved it, I loved my students. I had two seventh grade English classes and I still follow them and they’re still in touch.

They offered me a full-time position at the end of the year and I could kind of see the Mr. Holland’s Opus life ahead of me and I said, ‘I’ll kick myself forever if I don’t even try to work on this musical I’d already been working on called In The Heights.’ I’d already met Tommy [Kail, Hamilton’s director], we were workshopping In The Heights in the basement of the Drama Book Shop while I was teaching. I basically quit teaching part time to be a professional sub, which is much more precarious because you don’t know if you’ll make rent month to month. But it’s much less draining, so your time is free to write.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda

So I really was a professional sub until In The Heights opened on Broadway. Elementary school Spanish, physics, science – in the physics classes I’d be like “who wants a song”? I didn’t know what I was talking about. But it was enormously life-changing and it’s in the DNA of everything I do now.

A huge impulse from Hamilton is that impulse to teach. Because what you learn when you’re a teacher, in a lot of ways it’s different from being a performer. You go into being a performer because you get that itch that only applause can scratch. What you realize when you’re teaching is tactually the best moments when you’re a teacher is when you’re laying back and the kids are making the connections for themselves and all you do is keep the ball in the air. You watch them make the connections with each other and my best teachers always did that. You’ll know when those neurons are firing and things are happening and you just get to watch it. They’ve got the information and they’re making the connections, they are debating.

So that was enormously useful as well, because I think the best actors know how to listen. They don’t just scratch that itch that applause provides, they listen to their fellow castmates and they hold them up. They realize they’re twice as strong when they are in an ensemble than when they’re center stage and in the spotlight. Those are the lessons I’ve learned from being a teacher and a performer and they’ve been essential, really essential.

On his earliest musicals and the influence of mixtapes

I wrote four musicals in college. Only one of them was In The Heights. I wrote another one called On Borrowed Time, which was my senior thesis, which if I have my way you’ll never hear. I wrote a jukebox musical called Basket Case; I wrote the book and it was all 90s songs. It was about a school shooting and it started with “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam and it ended with the shooting to “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden. In it was “Barbie Girl” and Destiny’s Child.

It actually came as a result of listening to mixtapes of music I liked in the car. They were starting to form the spine of a story in my head which is sort of how I write scores. I’m really grateful that I was a teenager in a time when to impress a girl you made her 90 minutes of cassette music and that’s an art form unto itself, is it not? Draw the cover art, you have a rise and a fall, you can put in skits. It’s not like a CD, they have to listen to it in the order in which you have arranged it. That is a musical score. It’s usually the musical score of, ‘Why don’t you like me?’

But it’s also a way of making friends, a way of showing of your tastes, or a way of getting a friend into music that they don’t really know about, My knack for eclecticism in music is born of the mixtape era.

On student audiences at Hamilton


Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Broadway Teachers Workshop

To an insane degree, the best shows are the student shows, because they’re prepped. They know what they’re coming to see. You don’t realize how much life has beaten you up until you see a bunch of kids see a show. The things they react to wouldn’t occur to you to react to.

There’s a moment where an American spy passes another spy a letter and a redcoat comes and just twists her neck and pulls her away. It’s not on the album, it’s a physical moment, it’s just before “Right Hand Man.” Adults watch and they go, ‘oh, this is a transition, it’s a stage transition, this is information we needed to know.’ When kids see that moment they go “OH!” Honest. Life hasn’t beat them up yet, they can actually be surprised and afraid and annoyed. It’s such live ammo to have an audience of students but it’s so much more rewarding because they’re there for all of it.

They’re there for Anthony being gorgeous because he’s gorgeous, so when he says “Let’s strip down to our socks it’s like, “Aaah!” – ten kids just started puberty. Twenty girls just started puberty and ten guys just figured something out. ‘Oh. Oh this. I know this about myself now.’ The inverse is true for Jasmine. Jasmine did one of our video Ham4Hams and the overwhelming comment was from teenage girls saying, “I’m so gay, I’m SO GAY.” That’s because they’re in love with her.

All this is to say the student matinees are just thrilling because the reaction is completely unguarded. When our characters pass away there are honest to god hitching sobs. We get that from adult audiences too, but its harder to get to you. It comes unbidden from these kids.

The enthusiasm during the rap battles, holy crap! Rap battles are the lingua franca of these kids. I mean there’s YouTube channels devoted to rap battles, Wilmer Valderrama telling “Your mama” jokes on MTV, so to see the founders snapping on each other, it’s revelatory to them and they’re getting the food of what they’re fighting about almost in spite of themselves. We really tried, we’re threading the needle of, “This is what the debt plan is really about.” This is what they’re for and this is what they’re against – and also ‘I’m going to put my foot up your butt.’ Oh! It is that thing of being able to fly in both directions, therefore all of it, if one thing doesn’t get them, something else will.

If we start from the point that these founders are human and what we’re trying to uncover is as much humanity [as we can] in two hours and forty-five minutes, what does that mean about the rest of your history textbook? It’s the beginning of a discussion and that’s very exciting. It’s not ‘we spoon feed you a musical and you love history.’ This musical unlocks that history is written by the victors and so what does that mean for history, what does that mean in your mind.

On failing and learning from failure


Lin-Manuel Miranda

There is so much liability for a teacher. There is so much you’re not willing to go out on a limb on, because you don’t know what’s going to come back to you. I felt very lucky that I found teachers that were willing to show up and be present so we could have a student run musical. That’s huge.

I learned how to corral a group of kids when you couldn’t hire them or fire them. If someone missed rehearsal, what could I say? “You’d better come back or…you just really need to come back!” You learned how to get everyone involved in something and do it for the sake of it, as opposed to for a grade or for cool points. It’s about making a great thing and learning to inspire your peers. I think probably half the things I did were probably artistic failures, but they were met with support and I think that’s the sort of important thing.

That’s how we figure out who we are and what we like and what we respond to. One of the great lessons I took away from film and theatre is to watch everything critically. If you’re in a show and you hate the show, don’t turn your brain off. ‘Why isn’t this show working?’ I find myself often imagining my own scenes on the ashes of a failed show that is happening in front of me in real time. ‘What about this isn’t working? Is it the performance, is the set distracting you from the performance, is the set too much for the plot?’

Continue to think critically when you’re watching any piece of art, because even if you say, “I wish I had those two hours of my life back,” you’ll know a little bit more about your taste, about who you are as an artist, about what you respond to. So it’s never really a waste of time. I think that’s a good perspective to have both when it’s creating things that don’t work or seeing things that don’t work.

On policy makers, politicians and the arts

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda

What I am finding is Hamilton has become a Rorschach test for our nation. Every candidate has been compared to every character in my show. Depending on which way you lean, either Trump or Hillary is Burr, and that’s OK, that’s fine. It’s good for us to have shared things to discuss. That is one of the places where the arts help us, to have water cooler moments in a time when everybody curates their own reality, right?

I think what we’re finding with social media is we have some shared moments but actually they allow us to go into our own windows and take our lessons from that. I’m always grateful for the way the arts can engender empathy. That’s the biggest thing that we can do that a politician, unless they’re really good, can’t do. We can let you into someone’s life and make you feel like you spent a hundred years with Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and been in her world, and that’s going to change you somehow, in a good way or a bad way. That’s what the arts can do.

Music is our secret weapon. It sneaks in past your defenses, it doesn’t matter who you vote for. If you’re not crying at the end of Hamilton or at the end of The Color Purple, you’re not a human. [The arts have] the ability to engender empathy and to see world views beyond our own. When you can’t shut out people as the other, that what the arts can do that nothing else can do.

On writing Hamilton


Lin-Manuel Miranda

I think a part of me is always trying to write the ideal school show. So much of my life, from elementary school, was “What’s going to be the school play.” So there’s a part of me that’s always trying to answer that calling in my work now. That’s my ideal for what a great show is.

The watchword, the phrase I went by is “The personal is political.” It’s not enough to have a song about the debt plan for the capitol, how does it advance our story, how does it advance our characters. If it doesn’t it goes. We get away with all of the information that’s sneaking into your kids’ brains because Burr is like, “Everyone’s in that room, why can’t I be in that room?”

If the personal is political you can get away with anything. That’s the fun of it. It’s making sure you as long as you’re moving the story along, we can feed in as much stuff as we want, they won’t even know they’re learning. They just want to know what happens. We had to be very ruthless about that.

On the big takeaway from Hamilton

What’s the proverb? “May you live in interesting times.” I don’t know that it gets more interesting than right now. I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse. To be honest, it vacillates every day. I think that your kids are going to look to you to make sense of all this. We’re all trying to make sense of it. That’s an enormous responsibility, but it’s also an enormous gift.

We get 1,360 kids to see the show a few times a year. They’re not all going to become theatre teachers, they’re not all going to write musicals or songs. But what they do have to reckon with when they see Hamilton is that Hamilton made the most of his time, he made the most of his less than 50 years on this earth.

Charge your kids with that, the notion that life’s a gift, it’s not to be taken for granted, it’s not to be taken lightly You’re born with gifts and you’re born with an honesty that can never really leave you. What are you going to do with your time? What are you going to do with your time on this earth?

I remember being a teenager and thinking, ‘We have so much time, we have time to kill.’ Man, what I would do to get that time back. I think the continuing awareness that being here is a real gift, that whatever is happening in the world, make the most of it and sink your teeth into whatever you’re doing. That’s your biggest charge and the rest flows from there.

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Disclosure: I presented four sessions on censorship in high school theatre at the Broadway Teachers Workshop in 2015, for which I received a $600 honorarium. BTW did not solicit this post, but agreed to my attendance at my request.


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