This piece first appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #6 – available in print here
America…you let me make a difference…a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s works are an undeniably joyful representation of heritage and authenticity, celebrating identity and the communities you call home. Culture and legacy are also recurring themes woven throughout his projects, ranging from the award-winning musical Hamilton, to his lyrics in Disney’s animated feature film Moana, along with Sony Pictures Animation’s upcoming first-ever musical adventure Vivo.
Like Hamilton, the playwright, lyricist, actor and soon-to-be director works non-stop. His next project, In The Heights – adapted by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu – is poised to become the movie event of the Summer, opening Tribeca film festival. Miranda is also set to make his exciting directorial debut later this year with the movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical, Tick, Tick … Boom! starring Andrew Garfield, for streaming giant Netflix.
So how did the former seventh grade teacher and political jingle creator rise up to revolutionise modern musical theatre and films, writing one of the most successful musicals of all time? With an injection of much needed diversity and a unique blend of hip hop and musical theatre, finally providing a platform for under-represented communities to see themselves truly represented on stage and in films. It’s his passion and commitment to bring authenticity, more in line with modern America to the screen, which makes him one of the most exciting and important creators today.
I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot
Born to parents of Puerto Rican origin, Miranda grew up in the Upper Manhattan neighbourhood of Inwood near Washington Heights, New York City. Brought up on a steady diet of classics including Les Misérables and West Side Story, Miranda fell in love with musical theatre and film. However he painfully realised there weren’t many true representations of the Latino community, other than stereotypical characterisations, in American musical theatre. It’s only when he saw Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning show Rent, which brings the stories of those who are less represented to life with an unconventional use of contemporary rock music, that inspired him to put pen to paper.
Whilst attending college he began to write the music and lyrics for his first musical, a vibrant production combining hip-hop and salsa, set in the Hispanic-American neighbourhood close to where Miranda grew up. In The Heights went on to open at Wesleyan University’s student theatre company, Second Stage in April 2000, before debuting on Broadway in 2008. The musical ran for a total of three years and picked up 13 Tony Award nominations and won four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
But who knew the impact Miranda’s experimental hip-hop performance at the Obama’s ‘evening of poetry, music and the spoken word’ at the White House back in 2009 would have? Initially met with amusement and sniggers, no one would have thought the rough demo of a concept album about American politician and scholar Alexander Hamilton would go on to become such a cultural phenomenon. Inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s biography, Miranda began working on the hip-hop musical with the aim of bringing to life the Founding Father’s inspirational immigrant story set during the American Revolution, with a significantly diverse cast at the helm.
Six years later, Hamilton premiered on Broadway – going on to consistently sell out theatres and receive a record-breaking 16 nominations at the 70th Tony Awards. Following a number of years of political and racial upheaval in America, it’s telling to see the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” still receive rapturous applause. Miranda’s passionate celebration of the positive impact and contributions of immigrants to US society and the constitution couldn’t have had a more resonant and timely message. Five years after the musical’s Broadway debut, a filmed version was released on streaming service Disney+ in July 2020, gaining a controversial 2021 Golden Globe nomination.
In addition to his work on Hamilton, Miranda’s relationship with Disney blossomed back in 2014 as he collaborated with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina on the music and lyrics for the 2016 feature Moana. The 56th animated feature film from Disney spotlights Polynesian culture through the adventures of Moana and demigod Maui, as they aim to return the heart of goddess Te Fitti. Along with providing vocals on key tracks “We Know the Way” and “You’re Welcome” with Jordan Fisher, Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” was nominated for Best Original Song at both the Golden Globe Awards and the Academy Awards. He then went on to star as Jack, the charming lamplighter in 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns, alongside Emily Blunt, contributing to the film’s soundtrack on tracks such as “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” and “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”.
Furthermore, the House of Mouse announced yet more upcoming collaborations with Miranda at their jam-packed Investor Day back in December 2020. First up is the original animated project Encanto from Zootopia directors, Byron Howard and Jared Bush. Disney Animation’s 60th feature is set to “take you to Colombia, where a magical family live in a magical home,” telling an intergenerational family story rooted in Latin America. The musical project – which has been loosely in the works since 2016 – features a soundtrack written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s been involved with the feature since inception. Following the release of the brief teaser trailer, expect a vibrantly animated adventure featuring an authentically Latin salsa score full of percussion and brass – one of Miranda’s signature styles. Encanto is set for release on 24 November 2021.
The Studio also went on to reveal more casting details for their live-action re-imaging of the studio’s 1989 animated classic, The Little Mermaid. Joining lead Halle Bailey is Hamilton co-star Daveed Diggs, Javier Bardem, Awkwafina, Melissa McCarthy and Jacob Tremblay in a suitably diverse lineup. Initially announced by veteran Disney composer Alan Menken back at D23 Expo in 2017, the Hamilton creator penned lyrics for four additional new songs. This project will undoubtedly mean a lot to Miranda, who named his oldest son Sebastian in homage to the classic film.
Lights up on Washington Heights
However, next up for Miranda is the Summer musical blockbuster In The Heights, Warner Bros’ big-screen adaptation of his first award-winning broadway musical. Directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu, the long-awaited flick features a largely Latino cast, starring Hamilton co-star Anthony Ramos as bodega owner and leading man Usnavi, Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, Corey Hawkins as Benny and Leslie Grace as Nina, while Miranda will be making an appearance as supporting character the Piragua Guy. The film follows the lives of a group of residents in the Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights over the course of a weekend.
Much like Hamilton, In The Heights is a cultural celebration of aspirational and hard-working immigrants and strivers dreaming of bigger things for their families. Chu aims to capture the vibrant atmosphere of the close-knit multi-generational Latin American communities, bursting with a riot of colour and energetically choreographed dance sequences and musical numbers, set to Miranda’s signature combination of hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul music. Following a year of numerous lockdowns with no live musical performances, In The Heights promises to be a joyful treat for the soul.
Miranda also excitingly confirmed earlier this year that a brand-new, original song titled “Home All Summer,” will be added to the final version. Despite the delays due to the Covid pandemic, the musical will now arrive in UK cinemas on 25 June.
What comes next?
Following the Summer release of In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda is set to make his directorial debut with the film adaptation of Pulitzer-winning Jonathan Larson’s musical, Tick, Tick … Boom! Officially announced back in 2018, Netflix released a (very!) brief first-look at one of the flick’s musical sequences, with star Andrew Garfield surrounded in a book store, in the ‘Netflix 2021 Film Preview’ trailer.
The late Rent writer brought the autobiographical show to the stage back in 1990, and is tale of an aspiring theater composer who waits tables while attempting to write Superbia, a musical which he hopes will prove his big break in the industry. The star-studded cast includes Andrew Garfield in the titular role of Jon, along with Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light, Bradley Whitford and Noah Robbins. Dear Evan Hansen bookwriter and screen adaptor Steven Levenson also penned the script. Along with his love for Larson’s hit musical Rent, Miranda also starred in the 2014 off-Broadway production of the musical at The Encores! Off-Centre, alongside Hamilton co-stars Karen Olivo and Leslie Odom Jr – so expect a faithful and heartfelt adaptation later this year.
Additionally, Miranda has written and performed all-new songs for Sony Pictures Animation’s first-ever musical adventure, Vivo. Netflix recently unveiled the colourful first trailer, which teases the musical partnership between guitar player Andrés (voiced by Juan de Marcos González) and the all singing all dancing kinkajou, (voiced by Miranda) who perform to crowds in the lively Havanna square.
Directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords, the film is set to feature Miranda’s trademark splash of latin inspired music, paired with heartfelt themes celebrating the transformative power of music and finding family in unlikely places.
This is not a moment, it’s the movement
While Lin-Manuel Miranda shot to worldwide fame thanks to the critical acclaim of record smashing Broadway hit Hamilton, upcoming Summer blockbuster In The Heights is set to become Miranda’s next hit – and for good reason. The diverse flick, which features Miranda’s hallmark themes and signature musical motifs, proves a cultural milestone – transcending the boundaries of traditional musical conventions and stereotypes. For some, this may be the first time they’ll see themselves properly represented onscreen – and it’s going to mean so much.
The pioneering actor, writer and director has sparked an exciting social movement through the unique creative expression in his influential musical and film projects, and thankfully he doesn’t seem to be slowing down yet.