The Gift of Words
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A conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda on theater, creativity, and the endless regenerative powers of New York City.
IT’S POETIC THAT Lin-Manuel Miranda and I are meeting at New York’s beloved Drama Book Shop. The shop, founded in 1917, is an integral part of the city’s theatrical lifeblood, with over 8,000 plays in stock at any given time. It’s also a place of endless inspiration for Miranda, one of the most celebrated artists of his generation. Before he became a Grammy-, Emmy-, and Tony-winning composer, lyricist, and actor, as well as a MacArthur Fellow, Kennedy Center Honoree, and Pulitzer Prize winner, he was, first and foremost, a reader and theatergoer. As a high school student in New York City, he frequented the store’s original location on 47th Street. After college, he haunted the bookshop’s 40th Street incarnation, using it as a safe space to write the bulk of what would become one of his first signature pieces of theater, “In the Heights.” The Drama Book Shop, with its fabled history and inextricable ties to the city’s hallowed theater community, is exactly the kind of cultural institution that Miranda’s work might celebrate.
Miranda, indeed, was a key figure in saving the place from impending closure in 2020. Along with Thomas Kail, Jeffrey Seller, and James L. Nederlander, he purchased it from Rozanne Seelen, whose late husband Arthur Seelen bought it in 1958. Despite the fact that his career has gone supernova in recent years due to the unstoppable theatrical juggernaut known as “Hamilton,” Miranda has continued to honor his New York City roots, keeping close ties to the people, places, and influences that continue to inform his life and work.
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On the morning of our meeting, Miranda is riding the crest of a promotional wave, several high-profile projects having just come to fruition — the film version of “In the Heights,” Disney’s “Encanto” (for which he contributed original songs), and “Tick, Tick… Boom!,” a musical biopic on the late Jonathan Larson that also serves as Miranda’s directorial debut. This, as he describes it, is a refreshingly odd time for him to chat about his work, as this current run of press obligations will essentially wrap up a huge slate of projects, some of which have been years in the making. And now, other than some ongoing work composing songs alongside Alan Menken for Disney’s live-action take on “The Little Mermaid,” Miranda is contemplating a future that is essentially a blank slate for the first time in many years.
Curled up on a leather couch in a back corner of the bookshop, Miranda appears happily and comfortably in his element. “I come here as often as I can and I’m proud to now be part of this place,” he beams. “And what I’m seeing is that it’s attracting exactly who it’s meant to attract, which is students, theater makers, and theater lovers. We saw a big bump in business once people started seeing theater again. But even before that, the serious theater students were sitting on the floor reading monologues, and that’s what I did when I was young. There is nothing better.”
I have a friend — a poet and theater professor in Louisiana — who makes a pilgrimage to New York City every year basically just to come to the Drama Book Shop. It’s amazing how few drama-specific bookstores there are in the world. What’s on offer here is actually quite rare.
Yeah. I still spend more money here than I should, given that I now hang the shingle outside. And you know what? I missed this place so much during the pandemic. I really felt it keenly when everything was closed down. I remember, after Terrence McNally’s passing, really wanting to read “Corpus Christi” because that was a play of his I hadn’t read but I’d heard a lot about. I couldn’t find it on any of the digital places that you usually find plays. And I was like, Oh man, I really miss the Drama Book Shop right now. When can we open again? There really are things here that uniquely serve theater lovers — songs and scores and plays that you really can’t get anywhere else.
The impulse to go into business on this place is the same impulse that goes into anything I write, which is — this should exist.
A lot of people have written about how important bookstores and art supply stores are to the creative ecosystem of any city, but a drama-specific bookstore is even more important and rare. It’s amazing to me that even here, in New York City, there was a moment that this place could have been lost. It’s incredible that you and your friends were able to step in and rescue it.
Yeah. I never thought I’d be a small-business owner when I grew up. I only wanted to write plays and make movies, but the impulse to go into business on this place is the same impulse that goes into anything I write, which is — this should exist. That’s the same impulse for most artists when you’re staring at a blank piece of paper. The thought that this could not exist was inconceivable to us.
I know it’s still touch and go depending on the day, but it’s heartening to see theater finally coming back to life post-pandemic. I saw my first show a couple of weeks ago, which was a rehearsal in the back room of a dive bar in the East Village. It felt very appropriately scrappy and very New York.
Yes! We talk a lot about Broadway, but the Off-Broadway ecosystem is, little by little, coming back as well. Off-Broadway shows and clubs and piano bars are so crucial. I was so glad that Marie’s Crisis — one of the oldest and most iconic piano bars in the city — is back. I’m so thrilled that that is happening. If I can say anything to your readers, it’s that I feel so safe when I go see a Broadway show now. Everyone’s masked. There’s a vaccine mandate that the theaters are taking really seriously. And everything’s had a fresh rehearsal because every show essentially had to remount from scratch. It’s a great time to see shows.
Even the classic shows feel brand-new.
Yes, so “Phantom” and “Chicago” are fresher than they’ve ever been. They’ve all remounted. That’s something your layman theatergoer wouldn’t know. I went to the reopening of “Phantom” and I saw a gaggle of former Christines in the corner of the audience — a group of actresses who have all played Christine — what would you call that? An aria of Christines? What’s the plural for that? Anyway, they would know the show better than anyone, so I went over and said, “How is it? How’s it feeling from the audience?” And they said, “It’s so clean. I don’t think the choreography has been this clean in 34 years.” Because when you maintain a long-running show, you do put-ins and change out performers here and there, but no one gets a full from-scratch rehearsal process. But last year every show basically had to do that after Broadway shut down, so now every show is shiny as a penny.
This is a fruitful period for you with all of these big projects coming to light at the same time. For someone who is a kind of a creative multihyphenate …
Just the one hyphen between Lin and Manuel.
If I can say anything to your readers, it’s that I feel so safe when I go see a Broadway show now.
I’m curious how you balance doing something like helping run a business like this, as well as just managing the ongoing creative ecosystem of your life. It must be a tricky balance.
That’s a really good question, and no one’s asked me that before. And it’s funny, because it gets into something that I thought about consciously when I was getting overwhelmed. Because, frankly, the pandemic crunched different things onto my desk at the same time that were never meant to be happening at the same time. You make plans, God laughs. And God laughed so much at my plans that he slammed four big projects into one year for me.
But something that helps me make sense of stuff — because I’m not actually a good multitasker — is that I need the space to daydream and space out on the thing that is in front of me. And something that helped me with this was something that I really think about when I’m here in the Drama Book Shop — if I think of every project as a class and I’m just back in school, it’s all much less daunting. It’s “What can I learn from this experience?” as opposed to “Oh god, I have to get this done!” It also allows me to step back, because something that I took away from my college experience was the way in which really disparate classes could sometimes inform each other. And so that was really helpful to me. If you think of it as a cross-cultural curriculum, as opposed to “Oh god, I have so much to do!” it also helps you make the shift from “Oh god, I have so much to do!” to something more generous like “Oh, I get to do this.”
That’s a very important distinction to make in your mind. Gratitude.
Yes. And it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of that. I get to do this. It’s such a difference in terms of the way you attack your work.
How are you thinking about the future? I’m always amazed when I talk to people who essentially have the next five years mapped out already.
What I’m really grateful for is that I’m looking at an empty desk for the first time in six years, because I had so much going on this year that I’ve been pretty good at saying no to anything else. Also, every movie that came out this year was many years in the making. “Heights” being the longest at 13 years in the works. “Tick, Tick” and “Encanto” were both about a five-year process each. So to have an empty desk and start from scratch is really exciting. I think I need the break because you also have to fill your cup again, you know? I want to read some of these plays that we’re surrounded by.
Do you find the prospect of an empty page to be exciting or terrifying — or both?
I’m really excited by it. Even as “Hamilton” was happening, people were already asking what my follow-up was going to be. And I think I spent the past few years confusing them as to what it was by just doing so much different shit that nobody knew what to think. You can’t give them a sophomore slump if no one knows what the sophomore project actually is. There was advice I got from the book by Robert Rodriguez, “Rebel Without a Crew,” when I was 17. I’m really excited to learn what I’m going to be interested in now. I have some ideas for stuff I want to write, but I don’t know whether it’s a movie or whether it’s a stage piece. It’s sort of like the way I didn’t know what “Hamilton” was going to be. I thought that was going to be my “Jesus Christ Superstar” album, and then it turned theatrical despite itself.
I’m very grateful that “Tick, Tick... Boom!” has been well received. As a first-time director, when you start out in a new lane, I was just like, all I want is the chance to get to make a second one. And it looks like I’ll get to make a second one. And again, I’m interested in musical movies; that’s a pretty niche little corner of the world that I’m interested in exploring. And so I hope to make more small musical films. And I don’t know what that next one is, but those are kind of two lanes that I’m excited about looking into — what the next thing I write is going to be and what the next thing I direct is going to be. Who knows?
You work in what is extensively a very collaborative medium, which comes with its own complications, but do you find that you are typically deadline driven?
I’m very deadline based and I know that about myself. Some of the most joyful collaborations have been the ones where it involves a weekly meeting setup, because then I know my life is all about having new music for Friday. “Heights” was like that. I mean, given where we are now, it’s amazing. Tommy Kail was like, “We'll meet every Friday at two o’clock.” And we did that for five years. And for the meetings where you didn’t manage to bring anything, it was pretty awkward. But it was always the best meeting when you brought in new music, or you brought in some new attack on a character.
And so that was how “Heights” got better over many years. And we basically did the exact same process with “Encanto,” the new movie. It was Friday nights at 9 p.m., 6 p.m. for the West Coast. It would give me all day Friday to sort of work on stuff. I would often send the songs just before I tucked in my kids. My kids go to bed between 8 and 9, so I had to not fall asleep while tucking them in. And then I’d wake myself up and talk about what I’d written, and that was always the weekly music team meeting. I think when you do that, you set up space for inspiration to arrive. It’s like, here’s when you’re sharing it, so when is it coming? Stephen King writes about that in his book “On Writing.” It’s not that you’re going to write a masterpiece every day, but if you set the conditions for the muse to appear, you’re inviting them in. And so for me, deadlines are a really important way to do that.
But that’s also what it is to be a New Yorker, to mourn the things you loved, and to see what emerges from the cracks.
So much of your work is deeply rooted in the culture and history of New York City. The city remains this dynamic organism — always changing, always mutating, for better and, sometimes, for worse. As New York City, particularly the arts community, continues to get back on its feet after the pandemic, I’m curious to know how you feel about the city and its future.
The city is always going to show us a New York we haven’t seen yet. And that’s exciting. Listen, I’ve now seen it from every angle. I wrote “In the Heights” to mourn the loss of Dominican small businesses and Latino small businesses as it got more expensive to live in Washington Heights. And then I started writing another show where it's like, “Oh, Aaron Burr lived on 165th Street?” and then I discovered a whole other layer of New York that was below the one I had previously been writing about. And then I went from Washington Heights to the actual [George] Washington running from the British in Fort Tryon Park. And the street I grew up on is named Dyckman Street, which was the name of the original Dutch farmland. I think one of the first movies I ever saw was “The Warriors.” So I also had that nightmare image of getting from the Bronx to Coney Island living in my head too. The city always inspires.
And so I’m always excited to see what art emerges when something else ends. I’m still mourning the loss of the 5 Pointz graffiti spot in Queens. But that’s also what it is to be a New Yorker, to mourn the things you loved, and to sort of see what emerges from the cracks. As long as we continue to champion diversity — economic, social, cultural — I think we’ll be okay. I think that’s the key to what makes New York City special, that the Wall Street guy is riding the same train as the mariachi band. And that’s what makes our city unique. And that’s why I write on the train, because to be in humanity every time you go underground is what I love the most about it. And masks have only made that easier for me. I take the train more now than I have in the past five years. It’s an endless well of inspiration.
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T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.
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