Behind the Scenes: Lin-Manuel Miranda

In his years at Hunter College Elementary and High School, Lin-Manuel Miranda got used to being called “Lin.” It wasn’t just a nickname; the students and faculty at Hunter, an Upper East Side magnet school, tended to butcher “Manuel,” pronouncing it like manual (as in, instruction). In a 2016 interview on Marc Maron’s podcast “WTF,” Miranda explains that he would automatically, unconsciously encourage the nickname. Quick to adapt and eager to make people feel comfortable, he had a tendency to shapeshift to the identity that was most “useful” to whomever he was talking to. It wasn’t until his college years that he began to realize “the power of bringing all of [himself] into a room.”

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Today, it’s hard to imagine a time in which the name Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t roll off the tongue. If you’ve breathed recently, you know him – or, at the very least, know his juggernaut musical, Hamilton.

So it’s strange to think of Miranda’s success as anything but a given. Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards®, a Grammy and the Pulitzer. In the Heights won 4 Tony Awards®, a Grammy and was nominated for the Pulitzer. The guy’s a genius. But 10 years ago, when In the Heights premiered Off-Broadway, Miranda’s reputation didn’t yet precede him.

Miranda was born at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan in 1980. His parents both emigrated from Puerto Rico (his mom, as a child; his dad, as a young man) and met as psychology graduate students at New York University. The family (Miranda has one older sister) lived in NYU housing briefly and then moved to a house in Inwood, a leafy neighborhood just north of Washington Heights, in 1981. Miranda loved Inwood and Washington Heights, both of which have always been neighborhoods of immigrants: first Irish, then Jewish, then Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican. Growing up, he was aware of the negative stereotypes associated with upper Manhattan (his school friends often declined to visit him at home), but they didn’t match his experience. His childhood was defined more by his parents’ Broadway cast albums than by any roughness in the neighborhood.

Miranda loves musicals. As a kid, he spent hours listening to his parents’ cast album collection (Man of La Mancha, Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof) and insisted on seeing Disney’s animated The Little Mermaid multiple times. (For proof of this childhood devotion to musicals, check out a tiny Lin-Manuel Miranda rocking out to Footloose here.) Throughout middle and high school, Miranda threw himself into acting, directing and writing. But despite his passion, he struggled to see a career for himself in the American musical theater, in which few shows reflected either his background or his daily life (West Side Story – which Miranda directed in high school – being the notable, albeit stereotype-driven, exception). And though he was writing his own work, he hadn’t yet found a way to give voice to his own experience. His one-act musicals were original (Nightmare in D Major followed the resurrection of a fetal pig slated for biology-class dissection), but not particularly personal. At least until he got to college and realized that he could write his own experience – and create his own opportunities.

Miranda headed to Wesleyan University in 1998 to pursue a double major in film and theater (by graduation, only theater had stuck). The University didn’t have a large Latino population, but when Miranda moved into La Casa de Albizu Campos, a campus house with a focus on Latino culture, his sophomore year, he met students who were also first-generation Americans. For the first time, he didn’t need to check part of his identity at the door, because the room he was walking into shared his experience. He started playing with the idea of putting this experience onstage. Growing up near Washington Heights, he’d lived, like many children of immigrant families, a uniquely split existence. He felt at home in both the US and Puerto Rico, where his grandparents still lived and where he spent every summer. Miranda reflected on this struggle of identification in the 2009 PBS documentary “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams,” explaining, “That question of finding home is not only a geographical one but really an emotional one… what does it mean to be Puerto Rican if you don’t live in Puerto Rico? Or Dominican, if you don’t live in the Dominican Republic?” The question followed him his sophomore year, as he started doodling the title In the Heights on class notes and picking out melodies in GarageBand. With only one song written, he decided to apply for the University’s Second Stage program, which would grant him a weekend of performances at the ’92 Theater, a student-run performance space on campus. He got the spot, and, deadline looming, got to work.

By Miranda’s count, only one musical phrase of that April 2000 performance of Heights remains in the show. Usnavi, the narrator and now-protagonist, only appeared in three scenes, and the plot hinged on a love triangle between Nina, Benny, and Lincoln (Nina’s closeted brother, who no longer exists in the script). But even in that early draft, Miranda captured something special: an aural portrait of a city and a celebration of a community. The show caught the attention of two soon-to-be grads who were planning to start a theater company, Back House Productions, in New York. They told Miranda they’d like to work on the show with him once he was out of school. When he graduated in 2002, they kept their word, and a series of New York readings of Heights followed.

At first, Miranda played Usnavi out of necessity – who else could master his hip-hop rhymes in a five-day workshop? But as the show developed under the direction of Thomas Kail, another Back House founder, Miranda’s casting began to feel like an integral part of the piece. When producers Jill Furman, Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Sellers started attending readings, they agreed. After several years of development (which included workshops at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center), the trio gave Miranda, Kail and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes (who came on board in 2004) a major vote of confidence: an off-Broadway run at the (since renamed) 37 Arts. The six-month run ended in July 2007 only because of good news – a confirmed Broadway transfer under the leadership of Furman, McCollum and Sellers. After a brief pause for rewrites, In the Heights opened on Broadway in February 2008, with Miranda making his debut as composer, lyricist and star. The show went on to win 4 Tony Awards® and a Grammy and was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.