“I think the hardest and most important thing we can do as artists is connect to the original impulse that got us doing this in the first place,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If you know any of Miranda’s work — and how on earth could you not? — you’re probably aware that he’s obsessed with this idea. He’s not only fascinated by making art, but in making art about the artistic process. His characters, from his Broadway riff on Alexander Hamilton to Tick, Tick …BOOM!’s Jonathan Larson, are chasing the beating heart of life, desperate to make something of their one, wild, beautiful life. It’s hard not to map that onto Miranda’s own career, not to see his eyes peeking out from behind all his work. Maybe he’s talking directly to you. Maybe he’s just talking to himself. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” Why indeed?
In the Depths
On the day of our conversation, Miranda appears relaxed although he claims to be stressed. He has good reason to be the latter. This year alone he’s released his feature film debut Tick, Tick …BOOM! — a movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical — along with handling the music for Disney’s Encanto, to say nothing of the film adaptation of his first Broadway play In the Heights, not to mention the writing he’s doing on the live action adaptation of Little Mermaid, while also juggling …you know what, just go check out his IMDb page.
“I’m not a great multitasker,” he says, impossibly. “But I found myself having to multitask a great amount because the pandemic sort of squished all my projects into the same timeframe.” He says he put together a daily schedule (Tick, Tick …BOOM! in the mornings, Encanto in the evenings, for example) and returned to the type of grind that got his career off the ground in the first place. That, obviously, is what it takes when you say “yes” to as many projects as Miranda does. But it’s one thing to get it done. It’s another to stay inspired. For a guy like Miranda, the latter is every bit as vital as the former. Fortunately, in this case, it came naturally.
“It was very easy to connect to that original impulse working on Tick, Tick …BOOM!, every day,” he says. “Because Jonathan Larson is the artist that made me want to write musicals in the first place. I don’t think it’s an accident that my Alexander Hamilton and Jonathan Larson share that same DNA. That’s his direct effect on my work and the things that seep into my work.”
Miranda isn’t speaking metaphorically here. Larson’s impact on Miranda’s life is very direct and very literal. Larson wrote Tick, Tick …BOOM! in 1989, on the cusp of turning 30. He was a young man, but he was already feeling like a failure, his first attempt at a big sci-fi musical withering on the vine for lack of investor interest. He was also reeling from the news that his friend Matt O’Grady had been diagnosed with HIV. All of this impressed upon Larson a sense of looming morality beyond his years.
So he wrote Tick, Tick …BOOM!, a small production that didn’t need many investors. It wasn’t a big hit, but it did OK and attracted the attention of some deep pockets who wanted to see what else Larson had going for him. They wanted a hit. He gave them Rent. It was, suffice to say, a hit — but Larson would never know it. His sense of morality turned out to be darkly prescient. He died suddenly at 35, the very day of Rent’s first preview.
Since then, Rent has become one of the most popular and important pieces of musical theater in American history, and that boosted the fortunes of Tick, Tick …BOOM!, which gained a cult following and a small, off-Broadway presence. In 2014, it got a revival starring a then-little known composer named Lin-Manuel Miranda.
It was a dream gig for Miranda, who had fallen head over heels for Rent when he first saw it as a teenager. Rent would be the inspiration for his own first musical. He followed Larson’s lead in setting his story in the neighborhood and among the people he’d grown up around. The result was In the Heights, the beginning of a resume now known to pretty much everyone, and what would eventually result in Miranda’s dizzying schedule.
He’s not complaining.
“As I was editing Tick, Tick …BOOM! by day, and then writing songs for Encanto by night, I couldn’t help but feel grateful,” he says now, connecting this feeling to Larson’s legacy. “Here is someone who worked so hard without the world noticing at all what he was creating. Most of us don’t get to do the thing we love for a living. We carve out time to do it so that we can feel more alive, but we don’t get paid for it. And the world doesn’t notice that we’re doing it.”
He stops. He sighs. “I feel so grateful,” he says. “I get to do that. I have lived to be able to do that. Because in a different timeline, no one sees In the Heights. I’m still a teacher at my old high school. I’m still writing songs every night, just like I was while I was making this film.”
Maybe that’s why he’s relaxed. He’s not at peace despite all his projects, but because of them.
He’s clearly still interested, artistically, in the panic of running out of time. He references the famed lyrics from Hamilton in our conversation, but also says that working on Tick, Tick …BOOM! helped him make some peace with that tension.
“The hook of the last song of this show is fear or love,” he says. “Those both get the wheel at various times on our journey.”
He talks about an idea he first heard from Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, who helped him find a context for his fear. “She has a really great response to fear, which is to acknowledge that it’s in the car, don’t let it take the wheel, don’t let it touch the radio station,” he says. “But it’s coming along for the ride and it can be a motivator just as love is a great motivator.”
Love is what ultimately won out for Miranda. Like Larson, he had a decent hit with his first real play, In the Heights. Its box office success was modest, and the critics loved it. He landed a musical adaptation of Bring It On, and then got to work on his third play — an idea so crazy it would either flop or soar — a rap musical about the Founding Fathers. Hamilton, as you know, did not flop.
Miranda’s legacy is secure, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. That’s part of why he’s so grateful. But the other part is that connection to Larson — a man who died without really knowing what his legacy would be (he won a posthumous Pulitzer, for goodness’ sake) but who knew that his time was short and had to be spent wisely. That knowledge could have motivated him to fear, and it sometimes did. But mostly, it pushed him to love.
“He would amplify those themes into his master work, Rent,” Miranda says. “But here [in Tick, Tick …BOOM!] they are. The ingredients haven’t coalesced yet. It’s still a self-portrait of the artist as a young man. But they’re there.”
Miranda’s got to get back to work, of course. We all do, if we’re being honest. But he’s going back to work deliberate about how he’s spending his life.
“Where do I want to be spending my day and my time?” he asks. “And what do I want to be putting into my work? Larson was continually finding his way back to love for what he was doing.”
Miranda’s following the same path.