Lin-Manuel Miranda is begging you. Don’t bug him about running for office.
“Please don’t make me be in politics,” he says. “I’m asked all the time. And I say, ‘Please, no, please, don’t make me, please let me write songs.’ Listen, my dad’s in politics. If you were the butcher’s son, you’d be a little like, ‘I don’t need a steak for dinner,’ you know what I mean? I’m the butcher’s son.”
Miranda comes across as an impeccable prospect for charming the electorate: affable, knowledgeable, photogenic; devoted to family, impossibly in-demand and ridiculously amenable to interacting with his huge fan base. With his ever more aggressive use of the platform he’s been given to promote causes he believes in — like the March for Our Lives and relief for hurricane-pummeled Puerto Rico — the questions about ambitions that might take him far afield of Broadway and Hollywood don’t seem so far-fetched. As he puts it himself: “I’m a private citizen with a big megaphone.”
And with his masterstroke musical “Hamilton” to take its inaugural bow in Washington on June 12 at a Kennedy Center that almost had a nervous breakdown dealing with a capital city’s ticket-buying desperation, Miranda’s ever-expanding sphere of interests seems a reasonable topic of inquiry. Just as “Hamilton” has reawakened the potential of musical theater as a dynamic cultural and sociopolitical force, so has its composer and original Broadway star wound up cultivating a role as a galvanizing whisperer into the national ear.
You can readily envision a recording artist or television star marshaling the powers of their success as a means of inspiring public action: think of Sting and the rain forest or Oprah Winfrey and education for African schoolgirls. But to build an international following, 1,500 theatergoers at a time, night after night, through a musical? Who’s done that?
These days, when the 38-year-old Miranda speaks, the nation listens, or rather, the cross-section of Americans young and old, who might gravitate to a sunny, tolerant personality with a rare talent for lashing together two American passions: hip-hop and revolutionary history. He’s amassed 2.4 million Twitter followers — an account that makes things happen. After Hurricane Maria knocked out essential services on Puerto Rico, for example, Miranda tweeted the appeal of a person whose mother needed dialysis and got the machine to her. (He also happens to have raised $30 million for the rescue efforts, according to officials at charitable groups.)
“Lin-Manuel is probably the most prominent Puerto Rican of his generation,” says Cristóbal J. Alex, president of Latino Victory, a Washington-based organization that promotes Latino political candidates and voter registration and for which Miranda raises money. “As you’re seeing, the Mirandas have that family tradition of service and advocacy. It’s part of their identity.”
The disarming side of all of this has to do with a Twitter “addiction,” as Miranda labels it, that gives vent to his own fanboy tendencies. Last month, on the day Fox announced the cancellation of cult-hit sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Miranda tweeted an all-caps request it be renewed because “I ONLY WATCH LIKE 4 THINGS. THIS IS ONE OF THE THINGS.” The next day, NBC swooped in to pick up the show for a sixth season, and one of its stars, Terry Crews, paid tribute to the groundswell Miranda helped to muster, tweeting his thanks by saying: “We should do a musical episode of Brooklyn 99 in your honor!”
Jokes Miranda: “And that’s called using your powers for good.”
Thomas Kail, director of “Hamilton” and Miranda’s other Tony-winning musical, “In the Heights,” says he has watched over the years as the composer shared “Hamilton’’ songs-in-process on social media. He’s marveled, even teased Miranda, over the magnitude of his openness. But he’s also come to understand the method in his friend’s friendliness, and they’ve continued to take advantage of Miranda’s digital pipeline to the public, with monthly “Hamildrops” — recordings and videos inspired by “Hamilton” by everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to the indie rock group the Decemberists.
“He is saying this work doesn’t come down from the mountaintop,” Kail observes. “What Lin is making us aware of is that we are all from the same stuff, we’re all made of the same atoms. I’ve been watching someone who I’ve known for 15 years maintain who he is and, at the same time, walk out a stage door and have 600 people run down 46th Street after him. This is the same person who is using his platform to talk about what he cares about.”
“I remember early in ‘Hamilton’s’ run doing an interview with a reporter who kept asking me all these political questions,” Miranda says. “I remember stopping midway, being like, ‘Why do you care about this?’ And his answer was, ‘Well, the show is, I think, really affecting how people think about things, and people are looking to you to do that.’ And that’s not something I ever sought or ever looked at. All I wanted to do is write the best musical I could. Full stop.”
A musical’s long route
Miranda is eating a salad out of a plastic bowl and talking about the life-changing effects of “Hamilton” while sitting in a luxuriously outfitted white bus parked on West 46th Street down from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where “Hamilton” — the prize-showered story of controversial Founding Father Alexander Hamilton — has played for almost 1,200 performances. The rolling shelter comes courtesy of a two-day shoot he’s on for an American Express commercial being partially filmed uptown in his Washington Heights neighborhood, the one he celebrated in “In the Heights.” After languishing for years with the now-teetering Weinstein Co., the movie rights to “In the Heights” have just been obtained after a studio bidding war for a reported $50 million by Warner Bros.
It’s a fitting metaphor, Miranda’s physical proximity on this day to the musical that has made him a millionaire many times over. Two years ago, the New York Times and other outlets reported his annual earnings from the Broadway production to be $6.4 million, and that was before other “Hamiltons” were grafted from the original. The show, which debuted at off-Broadway’s Public Theater in 2015, has since spawned “sit-down” sibling productions in Chicago and London, and a national tour that started in San Francisco and finally arrives in Washington, where it remains until mid-September. With tickets on the center’s website going for as much as $625, the stay in the capital represents a substantial run at the Kennedy Center, but not the longest there for a musical: That distinction belongs to “Annie,” which ran from April to September 1977.
Miranda is attending Washington’s official opening night, June 14, an indication of the significance of the stop for a musical that traces the federal government’s intellectual roots, and the rival views of a democratic system as espoused by Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
The three career motivations
Washington is a stop with personal meaning for the composer. Invited to a poetry slam at the Obama White House in 2009, Miranda publicly unveiled the first snippet of the musical there, performing the song that would become the show’s prologue. The Obamas’ relationship with Miranda would be ongoing: Miranda’s father, Luis, has long been a player in Democratic New York politics, and the composer himself became active in President Obama’s campaigns: He was the emcee of the famous 2012 fundraiser at Harlem’s Apollo Theater during which Obama first revealed his crooning skills, singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
“There’s no describing the detonation that is in that audience at that moment in history,” Miranda says. “It was one of those ‘I will tell my great grandkids I saw Obama singing Al Green at the Apollo’ kind of moments.”
Michelle Obama, who, like her husband, saw “Hamilton” on Broadway more than once, brought the cast to the White House in March 2016 for a day aimed at promoting the arts for high school students.
“I can still remember when I first met Lin-Manuel,” Michelle Obama said in a statement, about their 2009 introduction, when he revealed he was going to perform a number at the White House slam about Hamilton. “Barack and I laughed, thinking he was joking. But then he actually got up there and did a rap about Alexander Hamilton – and he absolutely blew us away. When we congratulated him afterwards, he told us he was going to do a whole musical about Alexander Hamilton. Now, a single rap was one thing, but an entire musical? We basically told him, ‘Okay, good luck with that,’ and figured that would be the last we heard of it.”
Of his ongoing contribution, she added: “He’s made history come alive and showed young people that they have a role to play in politics and public service.”
“I don’t care,” Miranda says in a wearier tone, about the current president — who’s been critical of the show on Twitter before — showing up to see his musical or not. “The audience is the audience.” With the Washington stop, he adds, “We’re going to where everybody works. So everyone is free to come. I know his daughter saw the show. And she Instagrammed something really nice about it.”
Talking to him about his role as “Hamilton’s” founding father, you get a taste of all the ways in which his life remains inextricably linked to the show. That’s the tricky part of the job of nurturing a long-running megahit: Is there a way to detach from it enough so that you can create other things as equally satisfying?
Miranda believes, of course, that he can. For Disney, he’s already finished shooting the new “Mary Poppins” sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns,” starring Emily Blunt and Miranda playing Jack, a London lamplighter. And before he tackles another musical, he says, he’s writing “several things for movies first.”
“I’ve always only wanted to do three things in my life. Make up songs, act and make movies,” he says. “And I’ve had a good deal of the first two, and I want to use what I’ve learned from the first two to do the third. So I’m going to try that for a bit. But I have lots of ideas for the next stage piece. It’s a question of which one raises its hand.
“And which one raises its hand with the relentlessness with which the ghost of Alexander Hamilton raised his hand. And wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Hamilton, Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Thomas Kail. $99-$625. June 12- Sept. 16 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.
Illustration by ilovedust for The Washington Post, based on a photo by Chris Sorensen for The Post. Animation by J.J. Alcantara/The Washington Post.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that a national tour of the show began in Los Angeles. It began in San Francisco.