About halfway through Tick, Tick … Boom!, the new movie directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the patrons of a diner in 90s New York all turn to the camera and sing. The movie, Miranda’s directorial debut, is based on the autobiographical stage show of the same name by Jonathan Larson (creator of Rent) and tells the story of Larson’s late 20s as a struggling writer and waiter. Andrew Garfield is extraordinary in the lead, but it’s the people around him who make this particular scene; as the number unfolds, it becomes apparent that every extra in the diner is a legend of musical theatre, desde Bernadette Peters, to Brian Stokes Mitchell (a veteran Tony award winner), a Roger Bart (original cast, Tick, Tick … Boom!), to Jim Nicola (former artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop) to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Joel Grey, chasing the waiter for the bill. “I don’t know that I’m the guy you hire to make your next Marvel movie,” Miranda says, speaking via video from his office in uptown New York, “but I am the guy you hire to make this musical about a guy who wrote musicals.” It is simultaneously funny, moving and monstrously self-indulgent – or, as Miranda puts it, “about as musical theatre nerdy as it can get.”
Imagining Miranda as the steward of an alternate Marvel universe – Comic-Con, but for musical theatre geeks – restores him to what, prior to the opening of Hamilton in 2015, was his quieter role in the cultural landscape: as the champion of a much-loved, much-mocked art form that rarely troubled mainstream popular culture. Hamilton changed all that. The show not only won 11 Tonys, a Pulitzer, y mas que $850m in box office receipts, it conferred on Miranda a singular status, variously crediting the 41-year-old with reanimating history, diversifying Broadway, and provoking children all over the world to memorise large chunks of lyrics about America’s revolutionary politics, some of them concerned with the restructuring of the national debt. (“Hey yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot” – still being hammered out at a million barmitzvahs). The most surprising thing about all this, quizás, is that Miranda, appearing today in his customary flat cap and goatee, has the boundless enthusiasm and apparent absence of cynicism of the aspiring artist still untouched by success.
If you had to find the antithesis to Hamilton, Tick, Tick … Boom! – a piece of musical theatre of outlandish obscurity – would be a good place to start. El show, written in 1990 as Larson turned 30, his fifth year as a waiter at the Moondance diner, was never produced beyond an off-Broadway read-through in 2001. It is small in scale, telling the story of Larson’s failure to find a backer for one of his earlier musicals, as well as his difficult relationship with his girlfriend and their life in the grungy downtown neighbourhood that would later provide him with the foundations for Rent. That show, which opened off-Broadway in tragic circumstances in 1996, was the project Larson began writing after Tick, Tick … Boom! failed to get off the ground. When it reached Broadway later that year, its impact was similar in scale to Hamilton’s, 20 años después. Rent ran for 12 years and made more than $270m at the box office.
Tick, Tick … Boom! is not the story of how Larson wrote Rent, or rather, not directly. If its premise sounds unpromising – I’m a big fan of musicals, and even I hesitated – to Miranda, it seemed the perfect project for his directorial debut, a way to celebrate Larson and create a broader portrait of the artist as a young man; en particular, how years of sunken cost and effort can predate an artist’s big hit. Miranda saw Rent as a teenager, when it first opened in New York, an experience so profound that he sees Larson’s biography as inextricably linked to his own. “That’s the guy who got me writing musicals," él dice. “Rent was when I changed from liking musicals and being in the school play, to thinking I could actually one day write one. It was truly the first contemporary musical I had ever seen – this story that took place in the Village, about artists trying to survive, deciding whether to stick with what they’re doing, living and dying. And it just felt like, 'Oh, anyone’s allowed to write a musical?’”
Inspired by Larson’s example, the musical Miranda ended up writing was In the Heights, the show that launched his career on Broadway at the age of 28, which he says has “a lot of shared DNA with Rent”. Unlike his hero, Miranda did not have an extended period of failure when it seemed foolish to go on writing, but other than that, the parallels between the two men are strong. Both lived in New York neighbourhoods concerned with “fighting gentrification”: 1980s SoHo in Larson’s case, Washington Heights in Miranda’s. Both believed that “popular music and theatre music can be friends” – Larson tipped towards rock, while Miranda incorporates the Latin, pop and hip-hop of his upbringing. Both were straight men in a genre latterly dominated by gay ones, and both were mentored, a generation apart, by Stephen Sondheim, who appears in Tick, Tick … Boom!, played with canny accuracy by Bradley Whitford. (After watching an early cut of the film, Sondheim told a nervous Miranda, “you treated me gently and royally, for which I am grateful”).
Larson’s score riffs on Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, another musical about the creative process, and if the music is less ersatz than Rent’s, one suspects it is in part thanks to this influence. The main reason for the movie’s success however, is Garfield, who is sensational as Larson, by turns maniacal, crushed, furiously hopeful and heading, as most in the audience will know, towards an early death at the age of 35, from an aortic aneurysm he had the night before Rent opened off-Broadway.
Miranda had seen Garfield on stage four years earlier in the National Theatre’s epic production of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s show set during the Aids crisis in the US in the 1980s. “He carried the hardest part of a six-hour play,” Miranda says, and it occurred to him that night that, if he ever got Tick, Tick … Boom! off the ground, this was the man to play his hero. “I remember cocking my head to one side and thinking, ‘Can I see Jonathan Larson there? Maybe with a perm?’” There is a physical resemblance – “I think they share a gangliness, which is helpful” – but it’s the power of the performance that makes the men seem in tune. “I think that Andrew can do anything.”
It’s a feature of Miranda’s post-Hamilton career, por supuesto, that for a few years he, también, has been able to do anything, and the fact that, apart from reheating In the Heights for the screen, he has largely pivoted away from Broadway towards Disney, taking on acting roles (Mary Poppins Returns) and collaborating on big Disney soundtracks (Moana, the forthcoming The Little Mermaid), has invited some sniffy commentary along the lines of: Sondheim would never have done that. It’s a tension addressed in the movie – the conflict between art and commerce; what constitutes selling out – that Miranda finds largely amusing. He has, él dice, always accepted work on the basis of what any individual project might teach him, and said yes to Poppins, por ejemplo, for the chance to work with director Rob Marshall.
But in any case, he invites those judging to put themselves in the place of the struggling young writer, braced for years of disappointment so that if success finally comes, he has perhaps earned the right to say yes to everything. En 2001, while Miranda was still at college, he saw that off-Broadway production of Tick, Tick … Boom! and it felt, él dice, “like watching a message in a bottle. It was like, 'Oye? You’re graduating with a degree in theatre? Good fucking luck!’” He bursts out laughing. “And guess what? Those people you’re sitting with, who are so talented and are also theatre majors, they’re going to grow up and get a real job and you’re going to be the only motherfucker banging your head against a wall. Are you ready for that?"
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s temperament is famously chill. He’s not a tantrum-thrower, or a diva. Él es, by reputation, a nice guy, approachable, self-deprecating and uxurious (his wife, Vanessa Nadal, was at school with him), who wrote the bulk of Hamilton while wandering around his neighbourhood or riding the subway to Brooklyn. This equanimity, which in the first flush of success contributed to Miranda’s popularity, inevitably later became a target for satire. Hamilton was so loved, so lauded and for a while so universally present across every medium, that Miranda’s affable dorkiness – his Joe Biden-levels of folksiness – started to show up as snarky TikTok memes (many riffed on Miranda’s omnipresence, pasting him, Where’s Wally?-estilo, into every conceivable background, or mocking what students of his acting divined to be his single doleful, facial expression). The show itself, Entretanto, was criticised for being insufficiently tough on the founding fathers’ involvement with slavery, and the movie version of In the Heights was slammed by some commentators for casting light-skinned over Black and Afro-Latinos. Miranda humbly accepted all charges and promised to learn from them. But the bloom had come off the rose.
The truth is that with the exception of a petulance he admits comes over him when a producer or collaborator sends him notes on his work – “my back can go up” – he is pretty even-tempered. Does he have a particularly stark example of this petulance? He does. “We were working on In the Heights and they brought in a mentor composer, Andrew Lippa, who is great. At one point he goes, ‘Are all of your songs in 4/4?’ And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, that’s a problem.’ And I went, ‘Excuse me?’ He said, ‘You need some rhythmic variety, because I felt it.’ I left that meeting cursing him out.” An hour later, Miranda says, “I was sitting under a tree going, ‘Oh god!’ And I immediately made a decision to put all of Nina’s songs in 3/4 – to make her literally, rhythmically out of step with the rest of them. It was a great note, to which I reacted with remarkable hostility.”
Miranda has no formal music training. He learned piano as a child and cobbled together enough musical expertise while at college to enable composition (his arranger, Alex Lacamoire, carries a lot of the weight for the Hamilton score). Miranda’s family, immigrants to the US from Puerto Rico, had a theatrical streak – you only have to look at the video of his wedding, during which he leads his family through a choreographed rendition of To Life, from Fiddler on the Roof, to see what a showman his father, Luis, es. (Vanessa expected her new husband to pull some theatrical number, but had no idea how far it would go. “It’s when she sees her brother – who’s in real estate – get up and start line dancing with us, that she really starts bawling,” Miranda says).
Luis Miranda spent his working life as a political consultant, and is characterised by his son as a “bit of a frustrated artist”, who thought music and writing were best left as hobbies. “He had an uncle in Puerto Rico who was a beloved theatre actor, but my dad’s just too practical to make a go of that.” Miranda smiles. “Lo and behold, he has this son who has no such practicality. I always think of my grandmother, who under her breath, every time I was drawing something or making something, would say, ‘That boy and his inventions.’”
His parents weren’t discouraging, exactamente. But both Luis, and Miranda’s mother, Luz, a psychologist, wanted him to apply to law school after college as insurance. This is where, Miranda says, the Panamanian singer Rubén Blades “messed up the curve for everyone. Because Rubén Blades, who is one of the great Latin songwriters and an incredibly accomplished actor, also went to Harvard Law School. So my dad would be like, ‘Rubén Blades! Rubén Blades!’ And I’m like: ‘I’m not as smart as Rubén Blades, it’s not going to happen.’”
The pressure was real and Miranda, a conscientious son, had to summon real courage to resist it. Al mismo tiempo, él dice, his parents never missed a show. During his first year at college, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he was emphatically not studying law, he was cast in a student production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Miranda blanches at the memory. “They had to hold the curtain," él dice, “because my dad’s bus of 40 people from New York was late. And they were like, ‘We’re holding for the Miranda bus!" mientras I’m mortified, in the wings.” Miranda assumes the wide-eyed, stricken face of a teenager wishing the floor would open up to eat him. “But they were always supportive in terms of showing up, even when they were scared for me.”
Miranda started writing In the Heights when he was 19 and still in his first year. It would, él dice, probably have gone nowhere – if things had been slightly different, Miranda might, like Larson, have had 10 or more years in the wilderness before a hit – had he not met Thomas Kail, a director several years ahead of him at college. The pair only met, through theatrical circles, after both had graduated, but something in the quality of the collaboration pushed Miranda forward. “When I met Tommy Kail, I met someone who was much smarter than me, who I enjoyed collaborating with, and made deadlines for me. And also someone who was not focused on where the end product would go. I don’t think Tommy and I said the word ‘Broadway’ for the first three years of our collaboration. We’d be like: what else do we need to do? We need to make the best show we can, and not worry about where it’s going.”
From a technical point of view, there are probably better songwriters in the world than Miranda. His real skill, beyond his originality, lies in an ability to communicate huge volumes of feeling via small, often superficially dry transitional moments in a song. In one small example from Hamilton, it remains mysterious how, exactamente, Miranda manages to invest the phrase “the Hamiltons move uptown”, from a song about the loss of Hamilton’s son, with more emotion than is managed in many entire two-hour musicals. Whenever you return to the show, it hits you afresh; the pure impact of the score, the imaginative feat not only of putting himself in the shoes of the 200-year-old architects of modern America, but of the father grieving for his child. Miranda had no template for that. It remains, as a piece of writing, a staggering achievement.
He has been helped, Miranda says, by Vanessa, whom he calls his “home field advantage”. Although the two were at the same high school in New York, they only met and started dating after college, when Vanessa was a scientist at Johnson & Johnson. She later enrolled at MIT to study chemical engineering, before eventually becoming a lawyer – she now works in cosmetics law – and more than a decade after their wedding, Miranda remains in awe of her real-world skills. She does not, él dice, “really care about musicals. She likes good ones, but she doesn’t like any old musical. They have to be good. I will watch anything; I think the worst musical is better than a good movie.” Hamilton would not, él dice, zip along with the pace and energy it does, were it not for Vanessa. “Because if it took too long she’d be like …” he drums his fingers on the desk.
The coulple have two young sons, Sebastian, seis, and Francisco, Tres, and in the early years of their marriage, Vanessa was the breadwinner. The frustration of this arrangement is one addressed in Tick, Tick … Boom! – the habit of content creators to disappear into their own heads around deadlines, and to use everything around them as grist. Whereas Larson’s girlfriend Susan understandably rails at him for never being fully mentally present, Vanessa is unusual, Miranda says. “When we started dating, I felt no self-consciousness about writing in front of her – and what I look like writing is crazy.” He makes a wild face. “It’s me putting on the character until I’m telling the truth; that looks like a person talking and singing and screaming to themselves. And she was totally not fazed by that.”
There’s one scene in the movie when Larson, mid-hug, starts absent-mindedly doing air-piano on Susan’s shoulder, writing a song in what is supposed to be a tender moment. She goes bananas. It was a direction that came from Miranda, which he calls “a bit of a dirty laundry thing for writers – the mic’s always hot if you live with us. Sondheim said it better than anyone – there’s a part of you always mapping out a sky. For any writer, in any form, there’s a part of you that’s living, and a part of you that has a tape recorder on: remember this for later.” Even that, él dice, doesn’t faze Vanessa. Miranda tries to be present for his children, which entails making sure “I can carve out writing time”. But when Vanessa saw the scene with the air piano, she told him she would never blow up as Susan did. "Ella dijo, ‘If you had an idea for a song, I’d say I’m glad you got something useful out of this fight we had’; it wouldn’t be, ‘Fuck you for writing while we’re fighting’; it would be, 'Bien, something’s come out of this’.” She sounds like a saint.
Another strand of Tick, Tick … Boom! is how hard it is for writers to spend years on a single project without seeing the thing to fruition. Miranda felt that keenly with In the Heights, he says – “the feeling of I’m-going-to-explode if this giant thing that only exists in my brain doesn’t get out of my brain on to a stage”. But it was the slow-going early stages of Hamilton that really got to him. After reading Ron Chernow’s biography, Miranda had decided to adapt it as a musical and was, in the first instance, partnered with a playwright. It was hell, él dice, “the feeling of being already too pregnant with the work” to have to wait for the busy playwright to be free. “I had done all the research and it was starting to distil and I had that impulse that I just need to get writing – I can’t worry about lining up with this playwright and figuring out how to fix this. I’ve just gotta go.”
En el final, he ditched the co-writer and wrote Hamilton singlehandedly, which in a different writer, might indicate problems with collaboration. This isn’t the case with Miranda, who is so far from the stereotype of the gruff, ornery genius that it can be tempting – unfairly, I think – to read his real talent as marketing. One of Miranda’s advantages is an ability to admit to not knowing things, and to reach out and ask for help. For Tick, Tick … Boom!, Miranda says he picked up the phone and called on every passing friend and acquaintance better qualified at directing than him, who had ever casually offered advice. “Edgar Wright, Ava Du Vernay, anyone who I’d met on my travels. I called Tommy [Kail] and Jon [Chu] a lot. I called Rob [Marshall] when I was planning and storyboarding, because Rob is the best storyboarder.”
Miranda is so endlessly, boundlessly sunny about everything, you start to wonder if there’s anything he hates. In the new movie, Larson takes a crack at the parlous state of Broadway as exemplified by Cats, but Miranda won’t knock Andrew Lloyd Webber. (He recently saw Phantom of the Opera, now that Broadway has reopened. “It was great!" él dice. “There were all these alums in the audience, and I talked to a gaggle of Christines who said they’ve never seen the show looking so clean or the choreography this sharp. There’s never been a better time to see theatre, because everyone had to start from scratch.”)
OK, but there must be something – anything – he really despises? He thinks, hard. “I have dislikes within the genre. Me gusta, I’m not good at meta musicals. I don’t love a musical that makes fun of the fact that it’s a musical. That’s my personal taste; I’m like, don’t apologise! You like musicals, también, otherwise you wouldn’t be writing one. I don’t like things that apologise for what they are. So when a musical’s like, ‘We’re singing a song, isn’t that crazy?!’ I’m like, 'No; I came to see a musical, it’s not crazy that you’re singing a song. Sing the fucking song’.”
This is a very satisfying rant, pero es, por supuesto, delivered with pitch perfect good humour. On the subject of Disney, Miranda says it’s “super scary” writing music that will, if it succeeds, be built in to children’s memories, where it will stay for ever. “With Moana, I was the last guy hired, and I was also working on Hamilton at the same time,” and these things are scarier than usual, él dice, “because you know you’re going on a playlist with [The Little Mermaid’s] Part of Your World, y [Frozen’s] Let it Go. That’s tricky company to be in.” How did he calm himself? “You know what I did, Realmente? I was working Tick, Tick … preproduction and Mermaid at the same time, and at the same time that Heights was shooting. And the way that I psyched myself out was to tell myself: I’m back in college; these are all just courses I’m taking.”
"Sí. I’m doing an internship with Alan Menken [who wrote songs for The Little Mermaid, and worked with Miranda on Tick, Tick … pre-production]; I’m doing my Columbia history project [with Hamilton]. If I think of it as classes, and projects, they feed each other rather than, ‘Oh god, I have so much work to do.’ I think of it as cross-curriculum; I’m getting a very well-rounded education.” During the heights of the craziness around Hamilton, he was saved by an almost polar opposite mental trick, which was intense, singular focus on the show. “Doing it every night became my meditation. For two and a half hours, I only have one job. That saved me, because I couldn’t go and party, I couldn’t go to half the things I was invited to; I was like: no, I have two shows on Saturday, which kept my head from getting off the swivel. Being in a Broadway show is like being a cook in a restaurant; they don’t care about how much people liked it last night, it’s about tonight.”
Is he relieved no longer to be the hot young thing? Miranda looks taken aback. “In terms of no longer being the hot young thing – to use your words, and I really appreciate that – I think it is very surreal to be on the other side of Hamilton, and realise that for some people my name is synonymous with musical theatre.” It seems absurd to him that the opinion of the kid from Washington Heights has so much sway, “but I try to take whatever that is in the most responsible way”. This means promoting those with less exposure than he has, as Sondheim once helped him along. In that spirit, él dice, “I went to [Douglas Lyons’ comedy] Chicken and Biscuits yesterday, it was great, and I laughed my ass off and you should go see it.” He also raves about Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Lackawanna Blues and makes a short speech about how safe, with masks and vaccine mandates, it is to visit Broadway and “get together in the dark to see a show”. Miranda looks briefly surprised. Then he smiles, and starts laughing at the sheer improbability of it all. “I’ve become an elder statesman.”