Lin-Manuel Miranda: It’s no accident my protagonists grapple with legacy

The internet's favourite Hamilton and His Dark Materials creative spoke to The Big Issue in a Letter to My Younger Self

I am 16 years old and obsessed with two things – movies and musicals. I am desperately trying to get myself into a position where I can make these things when I grow up. I am just starting to write my first musical, a 20-minute musical we put on at school, called Nightmare in D Major. I’ve already filmed a couple of two-hour-long movies with my friends with my camcorders. When I was 16 I took it all so much more seriously than I do now. I remember having a temper tantrum one day when I really wanted to film a scene for my Meat Loaf musical and my friends didn’t show up. I was like an angry big-wig Hollywood director, trashing my own room. Then I was like, well who have I hurt here except myself – I’m going to have to clear all this up now.

My parents both loved musicals – we listened to a lot of musical cast albums. Camelot, The Sound of Music, my dad’s favourite, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, with Debbie Reynolds. He was in love with Debbie Reynolds all his life. And I was always interested in hip-hop. I grew up just one neighbourhood away from where it all started in the South Bronx. Hip-hop really was in a great place in the early 1990s, with so many different genres. A Tribe Called Quest, Dr Dre, Biggie… I’m grateful I grew up in that time, when hip-hop could be anything and tell so many different stories. Some of the best storytellers I know are people like Biggie. So it was a no-brainer for me to bring hip-hop into theatre because of course it could tell stories as well as musicals could.

I was definitely an anxious kid. I don’t think it’s an accident that all the protagonists in my shows are grappling with legacy and how much time they have. I think that’s hard-wired into you as a New Yorker, but it’s also something I was painfully aware of at a very young age [his best friend in kindergarten drowned in a lake behind her home]. I thought, we might only get one go around, what am I going to get done in that time? Cut to me trashing my bedroom because my friends haven’t shown up for my video.

I was a very sensitive child, very empathetic. I could watch something bad on the news and that would be me in the foetal position all day because I’d seen something horrible that happened halfway around the world. I think that stressed my parents out a lot, that I would extend my empathy so far that it would cripple me. I mean, it would ruin me for a day. But I also think my mum worked hard to protect that in me. She saw it early and the tools she gave me for dealing with that were… you want to be a writer right? It’s all grist to the mill. Remember what this feels like. One day one of your characters will feel like this and you can pull this memory out.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

If you met the teenage Lin now, I think you’d find him pretty funny. He’s not without his charms. But he’s very self-serious. If you wanted to talk to him about film or theatre he’d talk your ear off about his theories. And probably he’d be a little insufferable with his intensity. Picture your most insufferable record-store guy – that would be me at 16. “What you really have to underSTAND is…” But when you go through making something yourself you realise how hard it is [and] become a lot kinder. Even if you don’t respond to something, you just go: well, they tried. Then you see Sweeney Todd or West Side Story and you really surrender to it, and then you’re transported back on Earth at the end of the show and you think, what the fuck just happened here? If only I could one day write something as gorgeous or as deep or as complex as that.

The younger me would be very pleasantly and happily surprised that I found someone I love and want to spend my life with, and we’d have kids. Because you’re terrified at that age. ‘Well, I’m the most hideous, unloveable thing in the world. Will anyone ever kiss me?’ And ‘Will I ever get to first base?’ So the fear that I might never find someone – younger me would be shocked to hear he found someone who is actually just two corridors away in the same high school. But I’d tell him to relax. When I had my first serious girlfriend, around sophomore year, we stayed in the relationship too long because we thought “This is it. Nobody else will ever love me, I’ve found the one person, so I’m going to hang on for dear life, all
through college.” We were terrified to let go. I’d tell the young me it’s OK to feel lost and alone for a bit. There are going to be a lot of people in your life in the future.

I’d tell my younger self to go to therapy a lot sooner. I eventually went when I broke up with my first serious girlfriend. And there were so many giant fallacies that I was holding in my head. Things I thought that only I thought. That’s the greatest thing about therapy. You finally confess this huge secret that only resides in your heart. And they go yeah, that’s perfectly normal. What else you got? And that thing that felt so huge in your head looks so tiny once you’ve laid it on the table. I’ve gone for intensive periods twice in my life, both around big life changes.

The most nervous I’ve ever been in my life was in 2009 when I sang
the opening number of Hamilton to Barack and Michelle Obama
in the White House
(as part of an evening of music and spoken word). I’d only ever sung that song before to my wife and the guy at the piano. They’d [the Obamas] asked for a song from In the Heights [his first and, at that point, only production] but they also said, “unless you have something about the American experience.” And I had 16 bars on Alexander Hamilton. The first vote of confidence I got on it was from Stan Lathan, a legend in Hollywood, who was producing that evening. I sent him the lyrics – I hadn’t even finished the music – and he wrote back: “OK, you’re closing.” I asked him beforehand, “Is it cool to sing about a son of a whore?” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” But that arrogance of youth! I’m appalled at the swagger of the 28-year-old me, to try something untested in an arena like that. I’d only written 16 bars! Me at 39, I’d never do something that risky at the White House. But 28- year-old me, with just one show under my belt, nothing to lose – off I go!

I was nervous at the White House until the moment I started singing the song. If you watch the footage [on YouTube] you can see it. When I’m explaining the set-up to the room, you can see me stutter, and when I explain [why George Washington’s Treasury Secretary Hamilton is “the embodiment of hip-hop”] you see them laugh and me scream, “You laugh but it’s true!” My voice breaks. Yeah, the intro was shaky. But as soon as it started, I knew my 16 bars cold, and you can see my confidence grow. Yeah, it turned out pretty good.

The biggest thing I’ve learned since I was a young man is patience. I started writing In the Heights when I was 19. We opened on Broadway when I was 28. I was substitute teaching at the time. I was desperate to get it on. As soon as I write a song I want it in a theatre. I love the applause. And we were offered chances of spots in theatre festivals for In the Heights. If I’d been on my own I’d have been more impatient. I’d have put it up at a festival and it would have come and gone. But my greatest stroke of luck in all of this was finding [the director] Tommy Kail as early as I did. Tommy said, we can make this better. And gradually we met all these significant people, and the show took a leap, then another. And when we got to Broadway we were ready. 

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be the week we performed the sixth-grade musical. My very ambitious music teacher, who directed the sixth graders, did a four-hour extravaganza of 20-minute versions of six musicals. That’s a lethal dose of musical theatre. I had to play a farmer in Oklahoma!, Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie, Captain Hook, back-up to Addaperle in The Wiz, a son in Fiddler on the Roof and Bernardo in West Side Story. It was hard work but ah, the joy of all of school being about putting on a musical. And then all our parents and the entire school watching. The sixth-grade show is a big deal. When you’re in fourth and fifth grade, you’re all going, what’s the sixth- grade play going to be when we’re sixth graders? So your whole life builds up to it. And the fact that we got to do six
of them! It was a wild dream for me. It was the most thrilling week of my life.

Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials,
which begins on BBC One on November 3.

This interview originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine. Pick up a copy from your local vendor or buy it from the Big Issue Shop.