Lin-Manuel Miranda talks "Hamilton" and Hip-Hop, Power and Playwriting | Summary and Q&A

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September 16, 2016
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Harvard University
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Lin-Manuel Miranda talks "Hamilton" and Hip-Hop, Power and Playwriting

TL;DR

Story is key in creating compelling and impactful theater, as it allows for exploration of themes and perspectives, regardless of the political context.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What advice does Lin-Manuel Miranda give to young artists looking to create important work in today's political climate?

Miranda advises young artists to start by finding a story that moves and changes them, rather than starting with political themes. By focusing on a compelling story, they can naturally explore important themes within it.

Q: How does Miranda suggest artists find their own unique voice?

Miranda suggests that artists read and see different works, both those they love and those they hate. By critically analyzing these works, artists can identify their own tastes and preferences, eventually leading them to discover their own artistic style.

Q: How did the casting choices in "Hamilton" contribute to its impact?

The casting of black and Latino actors in roles traditionally played by white actors helps audiences see the founding fathers through a new lens. It breaks away from traditional portrayals and allows for greater engagement and relatability.

Q: How does Miranda explain the importance of compromise in modern politics?

Miranda highlights that the art of compromise is becoming a lost skill in modern politics. In a time where we can curate our reality, it is easy to dismiss differing opinions and demand our own way. Compromise is necessary for progress, even if it may not make everyone happy.

Summary

In this video, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, shares insights and advice for young artists. He emphasizes the importance of storytelling and finding a compelling narrative that moves and changes the artist. He encourages artists to start writing early, to explore their own tastes and styles, and to chase and fall short of their heroes until they find their own voice. Miranda also discusses the process of casting black and Latino actors as the founding fathers in Hamilton, explaining how it helps to eliminate differences in perspective and allows the audience to engage with the characters in new ways. He touches on the theme of power and compromise in politics, the importance of institutions over individual leaders, and the illusion of power in the face of mortality. Ultimately, Miranda reminds artists to focus on their work and not to worry about how it will be received, as that is the job of time.

Questions & Answers

Q: What advice would you give to young artists looking to create groundbreaking work in the current political climate?

For young artists seeking to create significant work in the current political moment, I would urge them to start with storytelling rather than focusing on a specific theme. Storytelling allows for a more engaging and exciting exploration of various themes, as they emerge naturally from the narrative. By finding a story that moves and changes them, artists can tackle important political topics without approaching them directly. The personal connection to the story will make it compelling, and if the story is compelling, the audience will follow, regardless of the inherent politics within it.

Q: What advice would you give to those aspiring to do what you do?

To those who aspire to do what I do, I would advise them to start writing now. Developing one's own voice takes time and requires exposure and critical engagement with various works of art. By immersing oneself in the art they love and analyzing why it resonates or doesn't, aspiring artists can hone their own tastes and discover what kind of work they want to create. Initially, they may find themselves emulating their heroes and falling short, but through this process, they eventually stumble into their own voice and artistic style. Personally, I have been inspired by artists in the theater realm like Jonathan Larson and Sondheim, as well as hip-hop artists like Big Pun and Biggie, whose focus on storytelling and rhyme schemes within their storytelling made me strive to become a better lyricist.

Q: How did you come up with the idea to cast black and Latino actors as the founding fathers in Hamilton?

The idea to cast black and Latino actors as the founding fathers in Hamilton originated when I read Hamilton's biography by Ron Chernow. As I came across parts of the book that resonated with me, particularly the moment where Hamilton writes an essay that leads people to raise money to bring him off the island, it struck me as the most hip-hop thing I had ever heard. This idea of writing your way out of difficult circumstances, which is a common theme in hip-hop, inspired me to craft Hamilton's voice as the voice of the revolution. The decision to cast actors of different ethnic backgrounds in the roles of the founding fathers came from a desire to represent the diversity of our country in a way that challenges preconceived notions. By doing so, we allow the audience to engage with the characters in a fresh and relatable way, breaking away from the typical depiction of the literal founders.

Q: How do power and compromise play a role in your play Hamilton?

Power and compromise are significant themes in Hamilton, exemplified in songs like "The Room Where It Happens," where Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison negotiate the location of the nation's capital and the future of the financial system while Burr stands on the outside. This moment evokes sympathy for Burr as an outsider without access to power, reflecting the way many Americans feel. The last three couplets of the song capture the essence of the art of compromise, where one is not truly happy with the outcome but understands the necessity of giving something. In modern politics, the art of compromise seems to be fading, with people curating their reality to avoid differing opinions. Hamilton reveals the importance of compromise and the complexity of political decision-making. We may dream of leaders who can save the day, but often we don't have a say in what they trade away. Additionally, we dream in the dark for the most part, hoping for a fresh start but still grappling with issues of power and compromise.

Q: How did you choose what to include and what to leave out when adapting Ron Chernow's book for Hamilton?

Adapting Ron Chernow's book for Hamilton required a process of choosing and winnowing, prioritizing certain elements while compressing others. The goal was to create momentum and take the audience on a ride with Hamilton and Burr, the twin characters at the center of the story. While it is necessary to compress certain aspects, such as the relationships between Hamilton and his friends and acquaintances, the challenge lies in maintaining the essence of the characters and their journeys. One example of this compression can be seen in the songs "One Last Time" and "What Comes Next?", which speak to each other across time, exploring the themes of giving up power and having power taken away. Both songs examine the difficulties and burdens associated with power, but from different perspectives. Ultimately, the goal is to find the balance between compression and capturing the essence of the characters and their stories.

Q: In Hamilton, you touch on the themes of power, mortality, and the stories told about historical figures. Do you personally feel that power is an illusion and that you have no control over the stories told about you?

Through my seven-year journey with Hamilton and the historical figures portrayed in the musical, I have grappled with the rise and fall of characters in history and their varying reputations. The perception of figures like Jefferson and Hamilton has shifted over time, swinging between hero and villain depending on the prevailing values of society. I find it humbling to consider that I have no control over who lives, who dies, and who tells my story, as it is ultimately shaped by the opinions and interpretations of others. Accepting this reality has made me Zen-like in terms of the future of Hamilton. It is currently having a moment, but there will come a time when people may hate it. However, I believe that the work itself is what I can control, and the rest is up to time. The importance lies in creating something that sparks conversations and endures in people's memories.

Takeaways

Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda offers valuable advice for young artists in the current political and creative landscape. He emphasizes the power of storytelling, urging artists to find narratives that resonate personally and allow for exploration of various themes. Miranda encourages aspiring artists to start writing early, immersing themselves in art and critically analyzing their own tastes and preferences. Furthermore, he discusses the transformative effect of casting black and Latino actors as the founding fathers in Hamilton, helping to eliminate preconceptions and facilitating a deeper connection between the characters and the audience. Miranda also addresses the themes of power, compromise, and mortality in Hamilton, noting the significance of institutions over individual leaders and recognizing the illusion of control over one's own narrative. Ultimately, he advises artists to focus on their work and not worry about its reception, accepting that time will determine its lasting impact.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Peter Sellars emphasizes the importance of finding a compelling story that moves and changes the audience, rather than focusing solely on political themes.

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda discusses his journey as an artist and the importance of starting to write early in order to find your own voice and artistic style.

  • Miranda explains the casting choices in "Hamilton" and how it helps audiences engage with the characters on a personal level, breaking away from traditional portrayals.

  • The art of compromise is highlighted as a lost skill in modern politics, and how curating our realities can hinder the ability to consider different perspectives.

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