Lin-Manuel Miranda is currently living in the past. Or maybe it’s that, at this particular moment in time, the past just seems to keep catching up with him, tapping him on the shoulder, nudging him in the ribs. The 40-year-old playwright/actor/director/producer has spent the previous week watching Hamilton — the musical about one of our nation’s founding fathers that went from off-Broadway hit to Broadway game changer to cultural phenomenon — once again become a heavily debated, must-see national obsession, courtesy of a four-year-old idea.
Back in 2016, when the Tony-winning show was selling out matinees months in advance and tickets cost somewhere between the price of a Fabergé egg and the contents of Fort Knox, Miranda and the play’s director Thomas Kail decided to film several performances with the original cast. The idea was to capture for posterity what had been a historic run and — with Miranda soon to step away from playing Alexander Hamilton — document something that was itself about to become history. It would be like a concert film, culled from three days worth of shows and a handful of musical numbers recreated, sans audience, on a soundstage. Call it Hamilton 1.0’s Last Waltz.
The idea had been to lock these recordings away in a vault and eventually find a way to let the public experience the rush of seeing the play during its first months at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Enter Disney, who purchased the project in 2019; the company planned to give what was now nicknamed Hamilfilm a theatrical run some time in 2021. Then came COVID-19 and the notion of a country on lockdown for the foreseeable future, at which point a joint decision was made to begin streaming Hamilton on Disney+ beginning July 3rd.
Suddenly, a blockbuster musical set in the late 18th Century, as seen from the vantage of what now feels like an equally bygone era, became the most talked about movie of 2020. And considering the timing of its arrival in households — i.e., in the midst of several Constitutional crises, partisan political divisions deepening culture-war chasms, and fresh rage against the racism that’s infected the nation since it’s tumultuous birth — Miranda’s exploration of the birth of the American experiment took on an entirely new resonance.
And, starting on July 17th, Hulu will begin streaming We Are Freestyle Love Supreme, Andrew Fried’s documentary on the loose collective of singers, musicians, hip-hop fanatics, and theater nerds who began performing improv-style rap shows in New York during mid-2000s. Miranda, Kail, and Hamilton‘s original George Washington, Christopher Jackson, were all part of the original line-up; each of them credit their time performing together alongside FLS co-founder Anthony Veneziale and their partners in rhyme as being foundational to what they’d do later on. (There’s a scene in which Kail jokingly tells Miranda that people may never know his name as they walk around Manhattan’s theater district in late 2007 — right before they find themselves in front of a huge sign advertising that something called In the Heights would soon be opening on Broadway.) Blending archival clips of their early days with footage of the troupe’s 2019 reunion shows in downtown NYC, it’s both a snapshot of Miranda finding his voice and a candid look at him re-experiencing his camaraderie with the group after unexpectedly becoming its single most recognizable alumni.
Calling from his house in quiet uptown Manhattan (“I’m handling everything a lot better now that Zoom kindergarten is over,” Miranda jokes), the man behind Hamilton talked about the new discourse happening around the play/film, its sense of resonance at this specific moment in our country’s story, Eliza’s gasp, what it’s like to return to his FLS days, the status of his screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s pre-Rent musical Tick, Tick…Boom!, and what comes next (he hopes) once theaters begin opening their doors again. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This feels a little like the third coming of Hamilton: You had the run at the Public, the Broadway opening, and now this.
The big knock against Hamilton, especially at the beginning, was that only a few people could see it at a time. That’s just the nature of theater. The chance to have folks engage with this en masse has been gratifying. I’m really happy that everybody has access to it now, and Tommy [Kail] did a really wonderful job of capturing something ephemeral. So to have not just a document but a movie of this thing we did that, at the time, sort of felt like we were writing in melting snow…it’s crazy.
Were you involved with the discussions with cinematographer Declan Quinn terms of the filming, and editor Jonah Moran in putting it together after? Or was it more that Thomas Kail was organizing this and consulting you as he went along?
It’s really Tommy’s baby. I was still performing seven shows a week. To give you a sense of how hectic our lives were: We had the Tonys the week before shooting, we were still doing shows in and around the filming of it during those two or three days…and then I was leaving the production as a performer the week after. So it was action-packed.
Tommy and Declan really just sort of took the lead on things, and then Tommy and Jonah kept cutting and recutting for over a year. I saw a first cut in the winter of 2016, and then another cut of it in the winter of 2017. Because we had no timeline for when this would go out initially. Once we thought this would be a theatrical release, I think I saw one last cut at the beginning of this year. I mean, the play itself was set, but this was an evolving thing.
In that New York Times piece, there’s an exchange in which the prospect of this going to Disney+ is mentioned — and that the original answer was “No.” Is that accurate?
Yeah, well…the goal with the film was always: What is the widest possible reach we can get with this? How can we really get this out there so folks can see it? And the answer very quickly became: Disney. They have a global reach. You’ve seen what they have done in terms of getting their films out to audiences.
So originally, it was: We’ll do a theatrical release with Disney. That’s the answer. And then, over the course of a few weeks, everything was different…to put it mildly. [Laughs] We suddenly found ourselves with this incredible opportunity to get it into people’s homes when people couldn’t leave their homes! So, the short answer is: When the world changed, our thinking changed.
Have you been surprised by the reception? The adoration for the play has never gone away, but the rabid way the filmed version has been debated, and re-debated — it’s sparked this entirely different discussion over what you’re saying with it, and what the work means.
It was a bit of a surprise, yeah. I mean, the big difference for me over what you just termed “the third coming of Hamilton” is that I’m able to actually see and hear the discussion more. I was so busy doing the show that I was sort of insulated from the noise around it: Wake up, do two performances, take care of a newborn child, repeat. Now, it’s like I get to go back and relive that moment of 2016, only the positive and the negative reactions are now bigger and wider and louder. Which, honestly, has been incredible and informative. I’m grateful to hear all of it.
There is a real revolution going on right now, in terms of what we stand for as a country and what we won’t stand for as a country. So the language about revolution in Hamilton really pops.
But the joy for me, really, has been getting to see people really discover the physical pleasures of the show. The score has been out there for five years now. And it’s not like we haven’t worked hard to get the play out in the world while still maintaining quality control and making sure the integrity of Hamilton was intact. There were five productions running before everything shut down — six if you count the co-production in London. But there are things the cast album can’t provide. You don’t get to see the sets. You don’t get to see Ephraim Sykes’ phenomenal dancing. You don’t get to see the lightning design. You don’t get to see Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which was all about underlining the crystal clear expression of the lyric. You don’t get to experience Eliza’s gasp.
People have been arguing over Eliza’s gasp for days now.
It was a trending topic on Twitter yesterday! “What does Eliza’s gasp mean?!” I even saw a theory that it’s me, Lin-Manuel, that comes up behind her. As in, I am breaking the fourth wall and entering the story as myself, and that’s why she gasps. Which is…it’s an interesting theory. [Laughs] That was always the thing that Tommy and I talked about with Hamilton, though, is the fact that it ends on an ellipsis: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story…” It ends on a powerful moment for Eliza. She obviously sees something. You get to decide what that is.
But getting back to what we were saying: All of that stuff was in the service of the storytelling. It’s such an integral part of it. We’ve only just been able to give people the full deal now. I’ve had fun cheerleading for my collaborators for the last week. Everyone’s now seeing their work in a much larger way.
A great play is going to read differently when you revive it or re-introduce it — but the fact that Hamilton is coming back into the broader conversation at the moment when the systemic rot that’s been a part of this country since the beginning…
…and is a huge part of the play as well…yeah.
The timing is extraordinary.
What you’re talking about, in a larger sense, in one of the fascinating aspects of any show. I felt it when were adapting In the Heights and we seeing racism going from latent to blatant in this country. Suddenly, those rants and raps about systemic racism felt way too timely. Way too timely.
It’s been the same with Hamilton. There is a real revolution going on right now, in terms of what we stand for as a country and what we won’t stand for as a country. So the language about revolution in the show really pops. And it’s an origin story not just about the United States but what is and isn’t discussed regarding that origin story. So that’s all mixed in to the ways Hamilton is reflecting, and being reacted to, in 2020.
Let’s talk about the Freestyle Love Supreme documentary — what’s it like looking back on those younger versions of you and Thomas and Christopher [Jackson]?
I have to say, watching that footage from 2005 and 2007 now, and seeing us when we were starting out — I’m so glad we had a camera crew there, because I barely remember those shows! Not that I don’t remember doing them, I just have no idea what we did. It was the single most ephemeral thing you could do, really. We’d come offstage and all go, “What the hell just happened?!” [Laughs] That ability to just make up intricate raps out of thin air occupies some space in your brain between the short-term and long-term memory banks.
I’ve always referred to Freestyle Love Supreme as my core muscle group. That was how I sharpened the skills to hear a thought, respond to it and translate that back into language instantaneously. It changed everything. Not that I knew it would change everything for us professionally, mind you — none of us knew that. Look at those scenes of us in Edinburgh at the Fringe Fest, in 2005. We were just a bunch of young guys having fun. There was no plan. “People will pay us to just make stuff up? Let’s do it.” That was our only gig. It was just this incredible bond we all shared.
What’s the key to a good freestyle, in your opinion?
I’m sure if you talked to Daveed [Diggs] or UTK [FLS member Utkarsh Ambudkar], they’d give you a completely different answer. But to me, the key is really being in a heightened state of the present and putting everything through a language filter on your brain.
A language filter?
I don’t mean “filtering your thoughts” like your censoring yourself, it’s more like…it’s like how I learned Spanish. The thoughts are mine, and it’s part of who I am, but it’s all coming out through this filter that translates things into rhymes and bars and things like that. And building that filter takes time, the same way that learning any language takes time, or learning choreography and how to dance takes time. But once you start to doing that, you stop worrying about, “How am I going to make the words rhyme,” and it’s more about what the best way to express yourself, how to take in what’s happening around you in real time and then comment on it. The ability to just grab details out of thin air and fuse them together, and it’s all vibing — that’s the good shit. Maybe you only have one transcendent moment a night, but the fun is that everyone on stage with you is also building their parachutes as they jump out of the plane. [Laughs]
There’s a scene early on in the doc where you’ve all just reunited, you’re dropping in to do a show, and someone says, “Now, people are going to clap for a long time when Lin comes out, so be prepared for that.” And you can sense that the dynamic between you and the group has changed…
The dynamic between me and the world had changed! That’s the really wild thing. For me, being onstage with Freestyle Love Supreme is the only place I can go that’s feels pre-Hamilton. It’s the one place I can go where I can just go bullshit with my admittedly very talented friends [laughs]. There’s a certain irony in only feeling that safety when you’re going out on stage and risking totally falling on your face. But yeah, it’s that weird thing of, “They’re going to freak out that he’s here… and then we can just do our show. Let’s let them have that reaction, and we can go back to doing what we do.”
Has your relationship with fame, and with being “the guy who made Hamilton,” changed since that first supernova-celebrity moment? Tony Kushner once lamented that no matter what he did, his New York Times obituary would read “Tony Kushner, Angels in America author” — but that it was also the thing that guaranteed he’d get a New York Times obituary.
As usual, Tony Kushner says it best! [Laughs] To extend the metaphor, though: OK, so Hamilton is the first line in my obit. I have to think of that as a kind of freedom. Because you could think of it as a prison. My relationship with fame, and particularly the success of Hamilton, is that I have to concentrate simply on what comes next. I can’t worry about topping what I just did. That’s a trap. It’s more like, OK, now I can go make some weird conceptual musical that only five people like and closes in a night. But now I’ve got license to do that, and then go make more good stuff, because of Hamilton.
How far into production on Tick, Tick…Boom were you when everything shut down?
About 10 days. We’d filmed for roughly two weeks before the call came from Netflix, and then we put the sets in storage and will wait until it’s safe to resume production. I’m sure that post-COVID and pre-vaccine, some of the ideas we had are going to be different now. We’re looking at call sheets now that may have risk levels attached to them, which is very surreal and very new in terms of making movies. I’m still in contact with the cast and crew, and they’re all excited to get back to work. But we’re waiting until it’s safe, obviously Nothing’s going to happen until then.
You were involved with the screen adaptation of In The Heights, which actually filmed in Washington Heights…
That was one of the conditions of that becoming a film, by the way. They had to film in the neighborhood. There’s no backlot that looks like that. It’s the combination of pre-war buildings and insane angles, because you’re on a mountain in upper Manhattan! [Laughs] I wanted as many members of the community in the cast. And on a purely selfish level, I wanted to hear the songs written about a specific place sung in that place.
So you’re in this unique position of seeing one of your plays make the jump from stage to screen, while also turning another playwright’s work into a movie at the same time. How did watching someone translate Heights into a movie musical affect how you went into Tick?
It was all part of what I’ve referred to as my year-long, self-imposed film grad school program. Which all really started when I accepted the part in Mary Poppins Returns, partially because I knew that would allow me to watch Rob Marshall work. He directed Chicago, and to me that’s one of the single best movie musicals ever made. It’s an incredible act of translation from the stage to the screen, something that both honors [creator] Bob Fosse and is completely its own thing.
Then I ended up producing Fosse/Verdon and am watching Tom Kail literally wrestle with the ghost of Fosse. Plus I saw Jon Chu take my work and push it as far as it could go while still keeping it grounded in reality. I knew he knew his way around a dance number; he’d made two of the Step Up movies. But it was watching him nail the human stuff where it was like, OK, this will work. If you can make two people having dinner feel compelling, then you can have those same people dancing on the side of a fire escape and make it feel believable. [Laughs] That made me feel like I had the license to do more imaginative stuff with my project, too. I saw that you could do both.
I mean, Tick, Tick…Boom is already inherently cinematic. It’s not theatrical — actually, forget that, there’s a lot of theatrical stuff in it. To see Jonathan performing those songs … thank you, the magic of VHS! [Laughs] But it takes place in New York in the ‘90s, in a very particular time and space, and with musical numbers that start the moment he places his hands on the piano. And to be able to open those numbers up, to be able to go inside his mind once the songs start — that’s the movie to me. And it was because of Rob, and Tommy, and Jon that I felt like I then had the visual vocabulary to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.
What do think Broadway and the theater world is going to be like after this?
Look, theater survived the bubonic plague — theater is going to be fine! [Laughs] One of the things I’ve been reading during this quarantine is a biography on Shakespeare, and it reminded me that when he was first coming to prominence, it was mostly traveling groups of players wandering the countryside, performing for small towns. As he was beginning to get his major works ready, that’s the exact moment when playhouses are beginning to be built in London as specific venues to show work. “Oh, we can perform these things indoors at a place like the Globe now — great!” It was a big paradigm shift that ended up being a big step forward.
Do you think this could result in a big step forward?
I think this gives us a way to institute a real change now that we have the moment in which a partial reset button can get pushed. We’ve been having all these discussions about white supremacy and systematic racism — so when theater comes back, that’s the time to start talking about a more diverse, inclusive theater. Not later. Now. Let’s make our backstages look as diverse as our casts. Let’s make our audiences look as diverse as our casts. Since it’s not to business as usual on Broadway right now, let’s change the usual business when it’s time to reopen these stages. There’s a chance for us to have a much more equitable American theater when we emerge on the other side of this. So let’s take this opportunity to make it happen.