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‘Hamilton’ Star Lin-Manuel Miranda Is Ready for His Next Coup

Lin-Manuel Miranda is standing in the graveyard behind Trinity Church, just a few feet from where Alexander Hamilton is buried.

On the 212th anniversary of Hamilton’s death, the playwright has come to this place, situated among the skyscrapers in Manhattan’s financial district, to commemorate the American founding father who inspired his Tony-winning, smash-hit, Broadway musical.

Three nights earlier, on July 9, he chopped off his signature black, shoulder- length locks minutes after the last curtain came down on his final of 375 Broadway performances. On that night, scalpers (no pun intended) asked upward of $10,000 a ticket for the last chance to see the pop-culture sensation with the man who created, composed, and starred in it.

Not since Carrie Bradshaw knocked on the window of Mr. Big’s town car in “Sex and the City” has a New York story made such a monstrous cultural splash. “Hamilton,” which opened on Broadway in August 2015, not only accomplished the seemingly impossible task of making musical theater hip again, but it also lifted Broadway into the cultural conversation of celebrities, politicians, and academics around the country — and changed the temperature on 46th Street.

jake chessum for Variety

During Miranda’s yearlong run in the show, “Hamilfans” camped on the sidewalk all night in the hopes of getting a ticket. Mosh pits formed at the stage door. Miranda gained powerhouse super-fans like the Clintons, who saw the show over the July 4 weekend, and the Obamas, who introduced the musical at the Tony Awards ceremony — which “Hamilton” dominated. For many audience members, “Hamilton” wasn’t just a Broadway show — it was the play that changed their lives. In a couple of senses, it made history. The pandemonium turned Miranda into a household name.

“I never, ever, tweet,” says composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, “but I broke my rule after ‘Hamilton.’ ” Webber, whose musicals include “Cats,” “Evita,” and “Phantom of the Opera,” caught “Hamilton” in a preview performance at the Public Theater in January 2015. “It was the most exciting thing I’ve seen in 50 years,” he says. “And it was the first time I’d seen something that was taking musical theater in a direction that’s entirely original. Lin is going to be an enormous force in theater for many decades to come.”

Today, at Trinity Church, fans are clustered on the other side of a wrought iron fence, buzzing with excitement when they see Miranda. One of them wears a “Hamilton & Washington & Jefferson & Madison & Burr” T-shirt. Another has a lyric from the show tattooed on her forearm. Miranda heads over to chat, take selfies, and sign the souvenir program that one of them happens to be carrying with her. Heads turn, and onlookers gather.

This is his life in the wake of “Hamilton.”

“When I wake up in the morning, I feel the same,” says the humble 36-year-old native New Yorker. “It’s really when I leave the house that’s the measure of how different the world is, coming out here and being a selfie magnet in the streets of New York City.”

jake chessum for Variety

Miranda’s down-to-earth quality accounts for a major part of his appeal to the fervent fan base ignited by “Hamilton.” He’s a super-fan himself — of Disney animated musicals, of “Star Wars,” of Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy novels “The King­killer Chronicle.” He’s such a “West Wing” die-hard that the musical director of “Hamilton” corralled the orchestra into playing a snippet of that TV show’s theme song during Miranda’s final curtain call.

In just one year, this super-fan has become Broadway’s most powerful star. He’s the guy who won a Tony, a Pulitzer, and a MacArthur Genius Grant, and along the way got musical theater onto the Billboard rap chart, where it has held a spot near the top all year. He and his show are the subjects of an upcoming PBS Great Performances documentary, “Hamilton’s America,” executive produced by Miranda with RadicalMedia and premiering at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1, before its Oct. 21 broadcast. And his absence at the Democratic National Convention was enough to cause a stir on Twitter.

“I was on vacation. I really needed it,” he says, half-apologetically.

The phenomenal success of “Hamilton” has positioned Miranda on a career summit from which he can do pretty much anything he wants. All his fans are watching to see what he’ll do next and wondering how he can possibly top himself.

Pondering the question, Miranda admits he has his eye on directing a movie musical someday.

“That’s one of those things that I would kick myself if I didn’t try to do,” he says. “That’s a bucket-list thing.”

Would he direct the inevitable “Hamilton” movie? Don’t ask. In fact, don’t ask him anything about a potential film adaptation, because there’s “really nothing” to say, he insists.

“I haven’t had one meeting with one director. It’s something that I’m really trying to keep out of my mind until much later.”

Miranda has spent his life as a New Yorker, part of a close-knit family that includes his political-consultant father, his clinical-psychologist mother, and his sister, who is now CFO of the MirRam Group, the consulting firm their father co-founded, as well as Miranda’s own production company, 5000 Broadway Prods.

As a child, Miranda was always the ham who grabbed the spotlight, the kid whose high school math trophy was for a creative project in which he rewrote Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” as “For the Law of Sines.”

jake chessum for Variety

These days, the entire family bands together to help bolster him and his wife, attorney and scientist Vanessa Nadal, with whom Miranda has a son, Sebastian, who’s almost 2.

“It took a little while for all of this to sink in,” says Miranda’s father, Luis A. Miranda Jr. “Now we work with him every single day to take things off his shoulders, and off Vanessa’s shoulders, so he has the mental space to create.”

Miranda and his family live in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights where he was born, and which inspired “In the Heights,” the hit musical he began writing in college at Wesleyan. That show, which eventually won four 2008 Tony Awards, marked his first team-up with fellow Wesleyan alum Thomas Kail, the director who would go on to stage “Hamilton” (and just won an Emmy for “Grease Live”).

A year after Miranda graduated, in 2002, a reading of “In the Heights” in the basement of New York’s Drama Bookshop connected him to the producers who ultimately put the show on Broadway. Three of those same producers — Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, and Jill Furman — went on to back “Hamilton.”

The tale of Miranda’s “Hamilton” epiphany is a familiar one to fans. He picked up a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton” on a 2008 vacation in Mexico, and the story of Hamilton changing his life through his writing struck Miranda as the 18th-century equivalent of the contemporary rap greats who bootstrapped themselves up through the rhymes they wrote. Miranda originally imagined the project as a concept album, but as he worked on it with Kail, that changed.

Kail first saw Miranda perform the anthem “My Shot” at a 2011 benefit at the Off Broadway theater Ars Nova.

“I felt the room lean all the way forward,” he remembers.

He watched it happen again when Miranda did a batch of “Hamilton” songs as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook in 2012.

“I said to Lin, ‘Let’s get going.’ I knew there was a theatrical version of it.”

A diverse cast was always central to the idea. “I’m a Puerto Rican dude who writes musicals,” Miranda once told a theater full of New York City public school students. “If there isn’t diversity, I don’t get to go.”

With its hip-hop tunes and multi-racial take on the lily-white founding fathers, “Hamilton” was an out-there idea. It might have been a tough sell for a commercial producer if Miranda hadn’t already won a Tony with a team of devoted backers.

“If you grow up in New York City and you’re paying attention, you have a better spidey sense than anyone. It prepares you well for the rest of the world. You learn to listen to the hair on the back of your neck.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Indeed, “In the Heights” producer Seller was on board for “Hamilton” even when it was just a concept album.

“Lin’s curious mind is something I’m always attracted to,” says Seller.

Now, more than ever, Miranda has a lot on his plate. He’ll spend the first half of next year in London filming “Mary Poppins Returns,” a sequel in which he’ll play Jack, a lamplighter character similar to Dick Van Dyke’s original chimney sweep, opposite Emily Blunt, playing Mary. Then he’ll move on to casting for the West End production of “Hamilton” that’s aiming to start up before the end of 2017.

He’s also at work on two films with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes: an untitled project and “In the Heights,” which Hudes (who wrote the musical’s book) is adapting for the screen. Miranda will probably try to make it back to New York to shoot a role in “In the Heights” — produced by the Weinstein Co. (with Broadway regular Scott Sanders) and directed by Jon M. Chu — which aims to begin production in the spring. Miranda won’t play Usnavi, the central character he originated onstage, but the filmmakers are hoping to get him into another role, either pre-existing or newly written for the film.

Somewhere in all that, he co-wrote the score for “Moana,” the Disney animated movie starring Dwayne Johnson, arriving on the big screen this Thanksgiving. And he’s collaborating with composer Alan Menken on Disney’s live-action redo of animated smash “The Little Mermaid.” (Whether he’ll have an onscreen role in that is too soon to say.)

Then he’s got the big, self-generated, “Hamilton”-sized ideas — “ones I carry around with me like luggage” — that he’ll start work on.

“I think some of them might be movies, and some of them might be the germ of a TV series, and one of them might be a stage show,” he says, refusing to give specifics.

In the meantime, he’s making career choices with an eye toward laying the groundwork for future projects. That’s especially true of “Mary Poppins Returns,” in which he’ll work with Rob Marshall, who specializes in directing movie musicals like the 2002 Oscar winner “Chicago” and 2014’s “Into the Woods.”

“I want to learn everything I can from him,” Miranda says.

Sean Bailey, president of production at Disney — the studio that went all-in with Miranda early on with “Moana,” “Poppins,” and “The Little Mermaid” (as well as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” for which Miranda wrote the cantina tune with J.J. Abrams) — calls him “intensely curious.”

“He perhaps not only views this platform as a way to go do other things, but as a way to learn about new things,” Bailey says.

Miranda first learned how delicate the dance of bringing a stage show to Hollywood really is when enthusiastic plans for a film adaptation of “In the Heights” fizzled at Universal Pictures Studios in 2011.

“We didn’t get the particular Latin star they wanted” — Miranda won’t say who — “and it went into turnaround,” he recalls. “It taught me that the more money something is, the more strings are attached to it. Controlling the size of the thing buys you freedom.”

jake chessum for Variety

While he may have finished his Broadway performances in “Hamilton” in early July, the stage show remains very much on the front burner as the musical expands — first to Chicago, in a production that opens Oct. 19; then on a national tour that kicks off with long stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles next year; then London in the second half of 2017.

There are no plans to have him return to the role that made him a star, and “Poppins” makes him unavailable for much of next year, when “Hamilton” hits San Francisco and L.A. But don’t rule out seeing him in the part sometime in the future; he has joked that he hopes to play Hamilton when he’s a senior citizen. You couldn’t blame the guy if he did — after all, it’s his legacy.

The subject of a legacy, in fact, comes up regularly in conversation with Miranda. The idea recurs not only for the lead character in “Hamilton” — “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” as the final song puts it — but for the writer/actor himself.

“I don’t think of a legacy in a high-falutin sense, but more in the sense of, if I have a good idea and I don’t live to see it out, then there it goes. That’s it,” he says. “And I had an early sense of mortality — I think that comes with growing up in New York City. So getting as much stuff done before you’re dead is a huge motivating factor for me. I’ve always approached my life and my work thinking, ‘How much can I get away with doing before I go?’”

Now that “Hamilton” has launched him into the pop culture firmament, Miranda’s idea of his legacy also encompasses social and political changes.

“I try to only lend my megaphone when I feel like it can actually lead to action,” he says.

For instance, he’s using his “Hamilton” popularity — and the role he’s played in helping get young people interested in American history and politics — to encourage voter turnout in November through a series of PSAs (two in English, one in Spanish) backed by the “Hamilton” production and 5000 Broadway Prods.

“I support Hillary, but my focus really is on getting out the vote,” he says. “People who support my candidate are gonna come out. People who do not support my candidate are gonna come out. But the more people vote, the more I think we all feel OK as a nation about who wins.”

On a separate issue, he wrote an op-ed in support of a bill to illegalize the use of “ticket bots” by third-party brokers.

jake chessum for Variety

Ticket bots are what helped brokers instantly snap up ultra-hot “Hamilton” tickets and jack up the prices to publicity-magnet heights.

“It f–ks up the game when one person can buy 500 tickets while we’re still typing in our fucking Captcha code,” he says, with a vehemence that points to his discomfort around the high cost of theater tickets in general, and “Hamilton” tickets in particular.

Managing skyrocketing ticket prices has been just one of the challenges that comes with stratospheric success. For Miranda, the hardest part was the frenzy toward the end of his Broadway run, when the huge crowds outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre raised serious safety concerns.

“I started to get very nervous about approaching the theater and leaving the theater,” he says. “It got to the point where I couldn’t sign at the stage door, even though I love signing at the stage door. That was painful. The secret exits in and out of the theater got to be very tough.”

Despite that experience, New York will always be home. “I love New York like you love your grandparents,” he says. “If you grow up in New York City and you’re paying attention, you have a better spidey sense than anyone else. It prepares you well for the rest of the world. You learn to listen to the hair on the back of your neck.”

He touches the back of his freshly shorn neck now, reminding himself that he’s on the other side of that frenzy.

“I’m someone who really believes fame is what you make of it,” he says. “I want to wear it lightly.”

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