Wearing a retro Commodore 64 video game T-shirt and sporting a fresh haircut, Lin-Manuel Miranda was in a rare moment in his monumentally successful and very busy career. After 13 years working nonstop on projects that he has either directed, produced, written or starred in, the multitalented artist who always seems to be in perpetual motion was in a restful mode.
“Last year I had four films come out, 'In the Heights' (the film adaptation of the Tony award-winning Broadway musical), 'Tick, Tick… Boom!', 'Encanto' and 'Vivo,'” he says. “What I am doing now is starting stuff, refilling my cup and hanging out with a lot of artists that inspire me.”
The actor, composer, rapper, playwright and filmmaker had just completed choosing songs for an eight-hour playlist of music from the late '90s to the early aughts for his upcoming college reunion.
Miranda’s 20-Year Reunion Mix includes an eclectic mélange of sounds – Method Man, White Stripes, Shakira, Incubus, Fat Joe, Destiny’s Child, Mos Def, Radiohead, Jennifer Lopez, Prince, Talib Kweli, Marc Anthony, Lauryn Hill, Big Pun, Notorious B.I.G., Blink-182, Wilco, DMX and A Tribe Called Quest. Enrique Iglesias and Britney Spears also made the cut.
“My college roommates and I rented an Airbnb for the weekend. It should be a lot of fun,” says the graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. “The only official thing I have to do is screen 'Tick, Tick… Boom!', which I saw three times (as the off-Broadway live musical) when I was in my senior year. Going back to share something that was life-changing, that allowed me to believe that what I dreamed of doing was possible, is coming full circle.”
The artist, 42, also was replenishing his cup by spending quality time with his family, including his wife of 12 years, lawyer and scientist Vanessa Nadal, and their two sons. Seven-year-old Sebastian was practicing for his first piano recital, and the proud dad was eager to see him perform.
“He chose to play the 'Pink Panther' theme and he’s really good,” Miranda beams. “He’s playing chords and reads music at his age way better than I did.”
Four-year-old Francisco, or 'el chiquitito,' is a wonder, he says.
“We call him El Alcalde, and he makes me look like a wallflower he is so social,” Miranda says with a laugh. “He is going to be mayor of New York someday or I don’t know what. We got to keep him on the right path. He makes friends everywhere he goes – it’s crazy.”
Even in chill mode, Miranda’s learning button is activated. This, he explains, is part of his ethos. He approaches all projects, including his free desk time, with the expansive question: What am I going to learn from this experience?
So he reached out to rappers he admires asking whether he could hang out with them as they created. On the top of his list was New York rap icon Nas and the alternative hip-hop iconoclast El-P.
“Nas called me up and said, ‘I’m going to work on something with DJ Premier; come with me,’” he says. “It’s been fun. I am not there to make a collabo; I am being inspired by other ways of writing songs.”
Miranda is also catching up on reading and has three books on his night table: "Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road", "Can you Dig It: The Phenomenon of the Warriors," and the 17th-century classic "Don Quixote." At nearly 1,000 pages, the Cervantes epic is not exactly a beach read.
“I started a book club with a few friends, one of them who read the novel twice, and we committed to reading 100 pages at a time and meeting every two weeks to keep us accountable,” he says. “It’s manageable that way.”
If you ask the multiple Tony-, Grammy-, Emmy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning artist what his Puerto Rican and Latino heritage mean to him, he will count the many ways his culture informs his life. He says it permeates all he does – from his decision to live in and contribute to his beloved New York City neighborhood, Washington Heights, to his art, including the inspiration for creating "Hamilton," the blockbuster and groundbreaking hip-hop musical that made the Boricua artist a household name.
“'Hamilton' does not seem on its face to be Latino-themed, but my identification as Latino and Puerto Rican is definitely the reason why I read a book about a guy who comes from the Caribbean and changes America but is also limited by the fact that he has this immigrant status everyone else doesn’t have. I see that this dude is just like my father who came here on a scholarship and had to learn the lay of the land.”
He says that "Hamilton," which broke records when it was nominated for 16 Tony Awards and was one of the top-grossing Broadway shows of all time, earning $650 million before the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down, doubled down on the immigrant theme of his breakout musical "In the Heights," which was nominated for 13 Tonys. In 2008, at age 28, he won best original musical score for "Heights," making him the youngest composer to win the prize. He followed up with two Tonys for "Hamilton."
“Growing up Puerto Rican in a Dominican neighborhood, I wanted to focus on what we share is so much more powerful than the differences between us – that’s the running theme of that piece. And bringing that code to other cultures: ‘What do I share in the Venn diagram with Colombia when I am writing songs for 'Encanto'?
What are the things that I come by honestly by virtue of the music I grew up in, and what do I need to learn?’” he asks. “For instance, in Colombia they don’t have a cuatro, they have a tiple, and Carlos Vives is their patron saint. It is in the rubric of things, of the music I grew up with, that allows me greater access to the world.”
Tale of two homes
Unlike many celebrities who achieve success and leave their hometowns for Hollywood or gated mansions to live gilded lives, moving from the neighborhood where he was born and raised was not something Miranda considered.
Staying in Washington Heights, Miranda says, keeps him grounded. "Neighbors see me and keep walking. I am just another local eccentric guy in the neighborhood with headphones walking his dog.”
Occasionally, he has delightful encounters with fans. On a recent morning, he was playing handball in a local park and a family of tourists were on an 'In the Heights' tour and flipped out when they saw him. “At least they waited till I finished my game to ask for an autograph and selfies,” he chuckles.
Miranda remembers another day when he bumped into a group of kids after school at his local bodega and one of them asked him: “Hey, aren’t you the guy who wrote 'Hamilton?' What are you doing still living here?”
“I get that question often,” he says. “I told the kid: ‘Are you kidding me? Go see 'In the Heights.’' Then I offered to buy all of them a round of water.”
But home is not only in New York City.
“I exhale and my shoulders drop in two places – Puerto Rico and when I see the George Washington Bridge,” he smiles, gazing toward the windows of his study and the sprawling views of the iconic bridge and Hudson River. He spent summers with his abuelos in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, the town where his father, Luis A. Miranda, was born and raised and a place he turned to for inspiration when writing the Oscar-nominated song "Dos Oruguitas," the climax of Disney’s animated hit "Encanto."
“To double down on generational trauma in the third act when so many Disney movies have action was a first,” he says. “It’s a song about displacement and the insane sacrifices our ancestors go through so that we can have a better life. And by ancestors, I am talking back as far as your parents, much less your grandparents and your great-grandparents.”
He wrote the song during the pandemic and says something magical happened. “I knew it needed to be in Spanish and I wanted it to feel like a song that always existed. And for the first time since I was a kid, I found myself dreaming in Spanish since I was a kid in Vega Alta spending my summers with my grandparents. The humidity, the coquí songs and the insane power grid that is put together with duct tape, pre- and post-Hurricane Maria – all that came back.
“It’s a place that is so beautiful – a feeling you can’t describe unless you’re in it.”
The power of philanthropy
Before he was an international star, Miranda was a philanthropist. Giving back was a family tradition.
“What is really amazing is that all our philanthropic efforts are really things we were working on when we had no money,” Miranda says. “The success of 'Hamilton' has allowed us to put greater resources to the things we cared about.”
Miranda tapped college classmate Sara Elisa Miller to run the Miranda Family Fund, which consists of a donor-advised fund that gives considerable amounts to nonprofits and personal contributions to political campaigns. One of the main organizations the fund works with is the Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit based in New York that his father helped found nearly 32 years ago.
“When we launched the fund, the thought was, ‘We don’t know how long this moment is going to last, but we want to do the best we can.’ We want to impact as many causes and people we can,” the elder Miranda says.
Since launching in 2016, the fund has raised $120 million and given $103 million to myriad causes. In June, Lin-Manuel and the Hispanic Federation announced Advance Change Together, an initiative to help empower Latino LGBTQ nonprofits, with a $1 million gift. But Puerto Rico, where his mother, Luz Towns-Miranda, was also born, is the heart of the family fund. It has helped raise $71 million for causes in the arts, farming and reproductive rights and for Hurricane Maria recovery.
Everyone in the family is involved and has their individual passion.
“Luis (works) with Latino Victory Fund, crisscrossing the land raising money for Latino candidates making sure that we have a seat at the table, and my mother gives to women’s reproductive health,” Lin-Manuel Miranda says.
He does not worry if the causes he supports are considered controversial.
“I get into politics when it's issues I care about, whether it’s LGBTQ+ rights, gun control or a woman’s right to choose,” Miranda says. “When I can’t stop thinking about something, I have to say or do something. That was me before any of the success and that continues to be me. I come by that very honestly. My sister was born the year Roe v. Wade passed, and it was very important for my mother to say, ‘I chose this; I had the right to choose her.’ You can’t live life worrying about how people are going to feel; you have to live on how to choose to live.”
Miranda’s focus is on the arts and specifically helping young artists who come from disadvantaged communities have a chance at an industry he had to hack his way into. His commitment led him to launch the Miranda Family Fellowship. In the two years since its creation, Miranda has mentored nearly 80 emerging artists.
On the horizon
Miranda’s desk won’t stay empty long. He has written and produced four songs with his childhood hero, composer and songwriter Alan Menken, for the live-action adaptation of "The Little Mermaid." It's set to open on Memorial Day 2023, starring Halle Bailey as Ariel.
He also has a project underway with another childhood hero, the legendary Broadway composer John Kander, who has an upcoming musical, "New York, New York." Kander called Miranda and invited him to write a couple of more songs. “I was lucky enough to write a song with him called "Cheering for Me Now" for the Hamilton Mixtape, and I just heard that it’s the opening number of the musical,” Miranda says, brimming with excitement.
“To get to write with one of our greats – it’s Sondheim, it’s Kander, this is Mount Rushmore for me. It is a dream come true.”
Miranda often marvels at how far he has come from that kid who jotted down plays in English class at Hunter College Elementary School.
“I feel lucky. If you don’t appreciate the gifts and luck that you have had in your life – it is not worth it.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses arts, family, philanthropy