We snagged a New York minute with this year’s GREENWICH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Changemaker Award recipient, LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, and learned that the greatest playwright of our generation is as philanthropic as he is prolific. Listen in as the indefatigable actor, director, composer, lyricist, playwright, producer, singer and activist raps poetic about Biggie, what scares him most and the causes closest to his heart.
A man sits hunched over his desk, furiously scratching pen to paper. He looks up, dark eyes in a trance. A new thought crystallizes. The chin nods, faster now, the feet tap, the seat rumbles, the brain’s circuit board ignites—yes!—as he snatches it from the ether, swerves it through his pen, ripping through sheets like sails flapping.
How do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
Every day you fight, like you’re running out of time,
Like you’re running out of time
Are you running out of time? Awwww!
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?
Every second you’re alive? Every second you’re alive?
These lyrics are from Broadway’s soul-shaking, zeitgeist-quaking, brilliant-doesn’t-even-begin-to-describe-it Hamilton, but they may as well have been written about its Pulitzer-, Emmy-, Grammy- and Tony-winning creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Twice nominated for an Oscar, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be vaulted into not just EGOT territory but the PEGOT stratosphere, where only five other luminaries in history have managed to ascend.
Meanwhile, Lin just wants his morning coffee. “I always believe the marker of success for any New Yorker is you can walk into your local store, and they just start making your order because you go there so much,” he tells me from his home in Washington Heights, the same neighborhood he’s lived in for nearly his entire life. “That’s when you know you’ve made it.” So, I ask him, has he made it? “Oh, one hundred percent,” he says excitedly, and tells me what his order is. “Egg and cheese with ketchup, and a small coffee with milk and sugar. I’m trying to cut down on the sugar, and my buddy Sinod who works at the bodega always makes fun of me. He’s like, ‘You like the sugar,’ and I say, ‘I know, just put one less in today. I’m gonna wean myself off.’”
I ask Miranda how many hours of sleep he gets a night—suddenly it seems crucial to know the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient’s circadian rhythm, as if it could somehow explain his brilliance—and he says on average, seven. “I’m not much of a night owl, and last night I fell asleep watching New Girl with my head in my wife’s lap. We should’ve just watched two but we went for the third and I knocked out.” Let it be known: Lin-Manuel Miranda is Netflix and Chilling, just like the rest of us.
“But I have to wake up at six a.m. and get my kids off to school, no matter what time I go to bed,” continues the neighborhood dad, who still loves riding the train and has been known to chat up a breakdancer or mariachi bander on occasion. “But, yeah, I’m usually about seven hours, unless I’ve got some sort of deadline and I have to do an all-nighter.” I ask if that means being mildly or heavily caffeinated.
“It’s funny, for me, caffeine is much more about the ritual than the drug; it’s about getting up to make the coffee,” he says. “I can have a cup of coffee and go right to sleep. It really doesn’t matter. If it’s time to go to sleep, it’s time. On a few rare occasions I’ll kind of hit it harder because I have to stay up late to finish some tune or another, but for me it’s much more, ‘Alright, I wrote a little bit, lemme get up and make another cup of coffee.’ The promise of it is what keeps me awake, more than the actual chemical.”
EGOTS, PEGOTS AND GOATS
Ok, I say, but can we get back to how nail-bitingly close he is to the PEGOT, because statistically speaking, this would be major. To flex another acronym, GOAT-level major. He laughs. “It’s a really cool stat, right? Like, you look at the people who have won the EGOT, and that’s a really awesome group of people, you know?” he says with an endearing voice-crack, before citing Rita Moreno and Marvin Hamlisch, two PEGOT legends. “But it is a stat. At the Australian Open, Rafa Nadal was tied for the record for the most majors, but I guar-an-tee you he was not thinking about that when another person half his age was hitting a ball at him,” he laughs exuberantly, “a hundred and fifty miles an hour. He was figuring out, how do I solve this? How do I solve this point, and this set and this match? And that’s really what I do, I’m trying to figure out this moment, I’m trying to figure out this song, I’m trying to figure out this scene, and I’m very, very lucky that it puts me in this statistical conversation. But it’s really not what you think about when it’s eleven p.m. and you want to go to bed and you’re sitting at your piano.”
So how does it flow on those late nights, when he’s chugging coffee, trying to birth a moment, a song, a scene? He chuckles. “I’ll take the music any way it comes out, natural or C-section. Sometimes it is a lyrical idea that I really like. Sometimes it’s just writing enough of a chord progression or a beat that I can walk around with, and just improvise inside it; and when it feels true, I write it down. For Encanto, I started with just a lot of research, like what are the different forms and types of music coming out of this part of the world? What are the instruments you can play with? I’ve written in as many different ways as I have songs.”
He gives me an example that would make any Hamilton junkie nerd out: “For ‘My Shot,’ I really started lyrically. I probably worked on those verses for months before I committed to any music under them,” he says. “Mainly because I was scared of getting started, because once you’re in, you’re committed. And it was a long time before I figured out what the chord progression was for ‘My Shot.’ I had that hook, and I had those verses, and it took me awhile to settle on what the music was, because once you settle on the music, you’re settling on music for the rest of the night. Because I know I’m going to bring these themes back around. So, yeah, that’s one where I totally started with lyric, but a song like ‘Washington on Your Side,’ that one I started with the beat. I was trying to make the most interesting beat I could, what is the most non- Hamilton-sounding thing I can make? It’s really kind of creeping, and kind of in six, and I wrote to that beat once I found something I really enjoyed.”
It’s almost surreal to hear the nuts-and-bolts beginnings of Hamilton, given its prescience in illuminating such a bigger conversation over the past two elections, with immigration, with BLM … “Never thinking I would do that, just knowing this is a story worth telling,” he breaks in, “just knowing that when I read that biography being like, ‘There’s just a lot here.’ There’s a lot in telling Alexander’s story that you have to unpack because it is accidentally a country origin story, it is a story about fatherhood, it is a story about legacy, about which legacies get told and which don’t, and …” his voice catches, “the idea scared the hell out of me. I have to know so much more than I do presently to actually be able to write this. I have to learn more history than I’ve ever learned, I have to learn how to compress that into songs, which I don’t know how to do; I’ve never worked with history as a subject. There’s a lot I don’t know how to do about this that terrifies me; but it’s a good story, worth learning how to do all of those things. I always want to lean into what terrifies me.”
BEATS AND BOOM!
Growing up as a “creative little kid who loved show tunes and early hip-hop,” young Lin-Manuel leaned into stories on his local movie theater screen, courtesy of his big sister, Luz Miranda-Crespo. “My sister took me to every seminal hip-hop movie, even though I was too young to process them. I remember seeing Beat Street in the theater and The Fat Boys in Krush Groove and Disorderlies and sort of falling in love with that genre, but also loving Weird Al Yankovic and loving the way he would take words to existing pop songs and make them funnier,” he says, and as an aside tells me his kids love Weird Al, too, a point of pride.
“It showed me that that was possible, and that genre was fluid. But I’ve always just loved music that tells stories. I remember dissecting my parents’ albums and trying to figure out the plot of Man of La Mancha just from the songs on the album. I think all of that kind of adds up to me doing what I do, which is really kind of obsessing over these tunes and figuring out how they work.”
Unquestionably, Biggie was the gold standard, laying down tracks Miranda would later pick up in Hamilton. “All these years later you still hear folks quoting Biggie in their lyrics. His storytelling was so effortless, and his flow was so singular,” he says. “There’s not a song of his that doesn’t have some quote that you’ve heard in, y’know, a few other rap songs in its wake. So, yeah, that was huge for me. Another big one for me was a group called The Pharcyde, a song called ‘Passin’ Me By.’ That was an inroad for hip-hop, because I could relate to that song. I couldn’t relate to the guy being like, ‘I get all the girls and I get all the cars’ but that guy being like, ‘the letter came back three days later Return to Sender’ … now that, as a thirteen-year-old, that one hit home. So it’s also about finding the art that speaks to where you’re at.”
As Miranda’s musical repertoire grew, so did his love of theater, seeing Jonathan Larson’s massively influential Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Rent at seventeen, a year after Larson’s passing, and his semi-autobiographical musical tick, tick…BOOM! at twenty-one.
“I saw tick, tick in its posthumous off-Broadway incarnation at a really formative time in my life,” Miranda remembers. “I was a senior in college. It was shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, which I think shook everyone—it shakes you in terms of your priorities, of my city, my dad was not far from downtown when it happened … he saw the plane hit the second building from the office he was in. And so, I’m a theater major, what do I have to offer the world, and this new world we find ourselves in, and tick, tick asked all the big questions of me that night. It is Jonathan processing the loss of his twenties without much to show for it in terms of work or produced work anyway, and it asks you, Why are you doing this? Are you doing this for the success that you think it will bring? Are you ok with doing this if the world doesn’t notice while you’re alive?”
They were heavy questions for the twenty-one-year-old Wesleyan student. Miranda remembers staggering out of the theater, overwhelmed by the performance, but also enlightened. “It made me think, Yes, I’m not in this for the success or failure of it, because I can’t control that part,” he says. “You have to do it for the love of it, and that’s enormously empowering to an artist.”
We talk about the struggles young people have today, coming out of the pandemic and taking the road less traveled—and less lucrative. “So many of those forces are just like, Where am I gonna live? What am I gonna eat? How am I gonna have health insurance?” he says. “That’s what everyone comes up against when they’re pursuing their passion.” For Miranda, that meant making ends meet by teaching seventh-grade English at his alma mater, Hunter College High School, while spending his free time toiling on his musical In the Heights, which he’d begun writing at Wesleyan.
“From that first year, I was basically a professional substitute teacher and whatever else I needed to do to make the rent, in the unlikely event that this show I’d been working on actually got a production,” he says. “I felt very lucky in the jobs I chose, even though you don’t have a ton of dignity dancing at a bar mitzvah, trying to get a bunch of kids and bubbies to dance. That’s ok—it was four hundred bucks for a gig in Boston, and that’s most of the rent for a month! And it’s not a lot of time.” That’s the key, he says. “What is the time trade-off that you can do that gives you the most opportunity to be in the space you want to be in?”
The strategy paid off: In the Heights made its Broadway debut in 2008, winning a Grammy and four Tonys. Miranda cites Larson, played by Oscar-nominated Andrew Garfield in the tick, tick film adaptation he directed for Netflix last year, as his guidepost during those odd-job years. “Jonathan figured out that he could do a full day shift on Sundays at the Moondance Diner, and that freed up the rest of his time to write.”
And suddenly Miranda’s cameo in tick, tick, as the overworked, egg-slinging line cook at the Moondance Diner feels like a nod to the leaner times he and Jonathan shared as struggling artists in different eras. It also feels like an admission. As director, Miranda could’ve dropped himself, Hitchcock-style, into a shiny blue chair in the front room of the diner, alongside Broadway royalty Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Andre De Shields and Chita Rivera. After all, he’s earned it. But the more you talk to Lin, the more you realize he’s happiest behind the scenes, in the bustling back kitchen. This is the room where it happens for him.
“Directing has been an absolute joy,” he says of his debut with tick, tick. “I’ve wanted to direct movies since I was three years old, and I really enjoyed my first ‘at bat,’” he says. “It was a story I felt like I knew intimately well, and I felt uniquely suited to tell; and having been a musical songwriter, I felt like I could tell the story of this musical songwriter with some insight. You also learn a lot about your own temperament, right? You learn, ‘Oh, I’m not fazed by this pressure or this pressure, but I’m anxious about this,’ and lean into that: Why am I anxious about that? You have to make so many decisions that it ends up being personal by virtue of the volume of decisions you have to make. It’s like playing the organ”—which makes us both crack up, because now it’s hard not to envision him hunched over an organ, Phantom of the Opera-style, before he stops giggling and finishes: “It requires every part of you to play it well, so I’m really excited by it and hope I have the opportunity to do it more.”
A SYMPHONY OF FOUR
Despite having seemingly endless raw material to explore, Miranda is taking a measured approach. Well, as measured as a multihyphenate wunderkind can. “I’m not an island anymore,” he says. “I have a wife I love and kids I love,” he says of Vanessa Nadal, his wife of twelve years, and sons Sebastian, seven, and Francisco, four, “and the decisions that I make in my life are committee decisions. I’m always trying to chase what I’m passionate about, but I also know that I’m not going to say yes to a movie that takes me halfway across the world tomorrow, because I’ve got kids to tuck in, kids that need to be cared for. So they’re joint decisions when we embark on stuff. And, honestly, that balance is something you struggle with your entire life, the family life-work balance, and I’m giving it my best, like everyone else,” he says. “I want to make work that excites me and scares me and that I learn from by engaging in it, and I want my kids to be able to say, ‘Yeah, you’re around a lot.’”
Miranda credits Nadal with maintaining their family life-work equilibrium, as well as helping him usher Hamilton into the world in 2015. “When I reconnected with Vanessa, she was a scientist and then she pivoted into law, and now she’s finding ways to marry both of those things in her career; but, also, she always made space for my work. She identified really early, ‘You know, you’re at your happiest when you’ve just written something,’ he says self-mockingly. ‘So what are the conditions that we can create to make that happen as often as possible?’ And so, you know, Hamilton exists because she said, ‘You don’t get any writing done in New York because life happens, so let’s go away. We’ll go to Puerto Rico for two weeks, we’ll go upstate for a week, and I’ll leave you alone and you can write. And I’ll have a nice vacation,’” he says with a laugh. Eleven Tonys, a Grammy, Kennedy Center honors and a Pulitzer later, it looks like she made the right call.
Worth noting: We also have Nadal to thank in part for Tony-winning Renée Elise Goldsberry’s dizzyingly complex rap performances in Hamilton. “Very early in, Vanessa pointed out to me, ‘You know in Heights, the women sing and the men rap, and that’s not even where your own discography plays out; you listen to a lot of female rappers,’” he says. “So, an observation she made about my last show directly went into Angelica having kind of the toughest bars in the show.”
THE HEIGHTS OF LOVE
Nadal and Miranda’s story began years before either of them knew it, and can be found within a song from In the Heights. “‘When You’re Home’ is very clearly written … well, it’s clear to me anyway, that this is a person who is falling in love and writing about falling in love. On our second date Vanessa and I realized we’d grown up twenty blocks from each other,” he says, softening his voice in those last three words. “We both went to the same school that was not,” he emphasizes, “in our neighborhood. We went to school on the Upper East Side. So, one of our first dates was really walking each other through our own version of this shared neighborhood, and that’s exactly what Benny and Nina are doing in that song.” Miranda remembers calling the musical’s director, Thomas Kail, after his date. “I was like, ‘Tommy, I just met this girl. We went to high school together but we reconnected,’ and as I’m talking, he was like, ‘Put the phone down and write the Benny-Nina song right now.’”
It came full circle a couple of years ago when the movie adaptation of In the Heights was being filmed, and its director, Jon M. Chu, unbeknownst to himself or Miranda, shot a scene in a park that was Miranda’s everyday walk with his son to school and featured Nadal’s grandmother’s building. “I was walking back from dropping my kid off at pre-K and I spotted some dancers, and I went, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Miranda recalls. “They go, ‘We’re rehearsing ‘When You’re Home,’ and I just called Vanessa, I was like, ‘Get down here, hurry,’” he says, “and we watched them sing this song that I wrote for us, or I wrote inspired by us, here, right in our neighborhood. It was incredibly special.”
Can a place feel like home even after gentrification, I ask, and he laughs. “Well, if I could answer that question in a sentence,” he says, “you wouldn’t have a two-and-a-half-hour musical about it, which is essentially In the Heights. It’s about home in all its incarnations; it’s about home as represented by the countries our parents and our grandparents are from, as represented by the found families we make when we move to a new place, in our case uptown New York; it’s about the people we love and finding home wherever they are, whether that’s here in your neighborhood or wherever you find yourselves, and whether it’s something to change or something to run from.
“And also with gentrification it’s kind of a part of the daily heartbreak of being a New Yorker. You grow up in a place and you watch it change, for better or for worse. Ask any New Yorker who has been here for a certain amount of time, they will lament some place they lost, and that’s part of it; that’s actually part of our conversation at any given moment, and finding your way toward what your home is.”
For Miranda, home has always been inextricably tied to helping his community, starting with the example set by his parents, Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda and Luis A. Miranda, Jr. “I remember spending nights at toy drives for Three Kings’ Day, or doing my homework at the Hispanic Women’s Business Center where my mom volunteered,” he says. “When Hamilton reached the success it did, the imperative became, how can we use our good fortune to widen the doors of access, to fund aspiring artists of color all over the country, to support artists in our neighborhood and in Puerto Rico?”
That call to action resulted in The Miranda Family Fund, the first donor-advised Fund within The Hispanic Federation Luis A. Miranda, Jr. founded thirty years ago. The Fund supports education, the arts and social justice, along with a sustained focus on relief and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria. “The guiding principle has always been to lean into the passions we already had prior to this good fortune,” Miranda says. “For my mom it’s women’s access to reproductive health; for my dad it’s making sure Latino voters have a seat at the table in elections; for me it’s how to ensure that the next generation of artists of color have greater access to their passions and chosen fields than I had coming up. And then we all help each other, all hands on deck.”
OFF THE CLOCK
With so much on his plate, between family life and giving back to the world artistically and philanthropically, I ask Miranda if time is his antagonist. “It’s interesting you phrase it that way; I’ve never thought of time as an antagonist,” he says. “I just sort of thought of it as the given circumstances into which we’re born when we get here.” But the more he talks, the more his inner Alexander comes out. “Somebody asked me once, ‘Why is there always a ticking clock that your characters hear?’ and I say, ‘Because there is a ticking clock.’ Unless you believe in reincarnation or you believe in a better life on the other side of this, this is the one ‘at bat’ that we’ve got.”
He says someone else phrased it better: You get put into the play with no dress rehearsal…that’s what life is. “I think just as a fan of so many artists, you can’t help but think about what they made, how much time they had to make it,” he continues. “There are the Shakespeares and Sondheims of the world who may leave behind an enormously prolific body of work, and there are the folks who leave behind one masterpiece—that’s not to say they didn’t live an incredibly fulfilling life, but the masterpiece is what we know about. I also think it’s just a function of being the heroes I was drawn to. I remember having a poster of Brandon Lee on my wall and thinking of the tragedy of that promise cut short. Brandon Lee was about to be an enormous movie star when tragedy befell him on the set of The Crow. Jonathan Larson did exactly what he wanted to do; he changed the landscape of musical theater but, tragically, he did not live to see how much he changed it. Again, I think because I’ve been drawn to artists like that, it informs my work and fuels my work.”
But today, the only kind of fueling Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing is of the decaf variety. This boy is taking a beat. “I’m in the middle of several things, which is honestly like a huge downgrade for me in a nice way. I’m just sort of enjoying the way tick, tick and Encanto have connected with folks and getting to talk about it, which is nice. I had four movies come out last year, so I’m just refilling my cup, taking my kids to school and tucking ’em in and reading books and watching movies. Like really just refilling; that’s all I’m doing this year. I think I’ve earned a little vacation.”
But I don’t believe him, not entirely. In fact, I’m tempted to remind him of what he famously did on a prior vacation: tote along an encyclopedic biography by the name of Alexander Hamilton … and look where that got him. But the day is catching up on Mr. Miranda; he has to jump on a call, and his kids will be home from school soon. Parents to check in with, perhaps the Fund, too. Who knows, he and Vanessa may even sneak in another episode of New Girl later. And it hits me, what he said earlier about not being an island. While they both wrote the impossible, time at their heels, underdogs who rose to historic heights against the backdrop of New York City, Lin has never let his family slip from his sight line; and this may be one of the biggest things that separates him from Alexander.
So, I let it go, tossing him a softball question to bring it home: What is his favorite word? Curiously, it gives him more pause than anything I’ve asked all afternoon. Perhaps for a writer never lost for words, it’s hard to pin down just one. But he finally lands on it. “You know what my favorite word is now? It’s yes. That is a conversation I’ve been having with my kids. Like, before you say you don’t like this food, just say yes, and try it. Before you shut down your brother’s offer for what you’re going to do this afternoon, just say yes and try it,” he says, brightly. “I’m in a Shonda Rhimes Land of Yes these days, both with my kids and with my life.”
The Greenwich International Film Festival is shaking up its format
Calling all CT cinephiles: GIFF is going
24-7-365. “After a year of considerable industry change, GIFF has chosen to move to a year-round programming format that will allow us to showcase film screenings, panel discussions and events throughout 2022, instead of during a dedicated Festival week,” says Ginger Stickel, Executive Director and COO of GIFF. “With GIFF: Uninterrupted, we can provide filmmakers the opportunity to screen their projects with ease, as we will now be able to accommodate premieres, press tours and simultaneous festival runs as they occur throughout the year.” GIFF also hosts an exclusive digital streaming platform when an in-person event is not possible, offering the flexibility for in-person or remote events. Become a GIFF member at greenwichfilm.org and find out about events and screenings at greenwichfilm.org/2022-events.
MEET LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA!
GIFF’S CHANGEMAKER GALA
WHEN: May 25, 2022 from 6 to 10 p.m.
WHERE: l’escale, Greenwich
HONOREE: Lin-Manuel Miranda
EMCEE: Jenna Bush-Hager
OPEN TO: Premier Membership passholders and above; become a member at greenwichfilm.org