Lin-Manuel Miranda — if you need an introduction — is the lyricist, composer, creator and star of Hamilton, Broadway’s breakout, breakthrough, break-all-the-rules, hip-hop-infused musical (the stage is a turntable!) about the life of United States of America founding father Alexander Hamilton. The show has made him a certified Genius and a friend of the Obamas. In addition to this morning’s record-breaking 16 Tony nominations, with a nod to Miranda for Best Lead Actor in a Musical, the show has been a magnet for awards, including the first uncontested Pulitzer Prize for a musical since 1996’s Rent (2010’s win for Next to Normal was, in fact, controversial). What Miranda’s masterpiece has not done is make him a great singer. In some ways he is, to use a word being tossed around a lot these days in American politics, “unqualified.”
“I can’t sing well enough to be the Man of La Mancha,” Miranda told PBS. As skilled of a writer and rapper and actor as he may be, Miranda does not have the booming, belting Broadway bluster of, say, his castmates Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson or Leslie Odom Jr. — or longtime legends including Norm Lewis, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter. But something happened when, having seen Miranda perform in the show about a dozen times, I chanced upon a Sunday performance with his alternate, Javier Muñoz, about whom The New York Times went out of its way to declare “Alexander Hamilton is sexy on Sundays.” He performed when the Obamas saw the show, and for Jay Z and Beyoncé. Expert theater-goers, including Mel Brooks, called Muñoz “better.” And he was. Sort of.
Suddenly there was a fullness to songs, including “Hurricane,” “The Story of Tonight” and “That Would Be Enough.” Miranda’s salty uptown Nuyorican accent was replaced with Muñoz’s enunciated elocution (though born and raised in Brooklyn, he has the voice of any yoga teacher in Silver Lake). The anger had been exfoliated off the role. Muñoz delivers smoothness, ironed out by the weight of fitting in. With Muñoz, you can foresee the day years from now when the role of Hamilton will be played by a Mario Lopez, Oscar Isaac or Pitbull to help flagging sales.
People see Muñoz and they see a transferable talent. He can play the Man of La Mancha. Or the Phantom. Or Jean Valjean. Miranda, not so much. Indeed, it’s a testament to his charisma that Miranda is the epicenter of musical theater as a performer despite not being able to sing or dance (there are lots of scenes where Hamilton is literally just standing there as the pop-and-lock ensemble swirls around him, and even that has him aching for arthritis-strength Tylenol).
What Miranda has accomplished is a feat worthy in equal parts of both Merlin and Magellan, not just applying a kind of alchemy to the formula of stagecraft to adapt it to a more-diverse America, but to send Broadway itself setting sail into a New World — new artistic territory — what The New York Times called “a sweet spot you would not have imagined existed, somehow managing to be hip, sentimental, irreverent and deeply patriotic all at the same time.”
Who is to say if it’s perfect? Madonna — famously and infamously, in her way — said in Madonna: Truth or Dare: “I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.” Is hitting that mark not more important than hitting the right notes in the right key?
“Singing is an expression of freedom. It’s the sound of bravery. I have this conversation with Renée [Elise Goldsberry] all the time when she’s freaking out about one bad note in Satisfied,” Sydney James Harcourt, an ensemble performer in Hamilton who also understudies with aplomb for both Aaron Burr and George Washington, tells Rolling Stone. “An imperfect vocal performance can often be the better performance. I think Lin channels this idea. Yeah, he isn’t Domingo. But he can break your heart eight shows a week, 52 weeks a year, with a poignant sob in his voice during ‘Hurricane.’ I’ll take that over a high C.”
It’s not like there isn’t a long history of this in the music business.
“OK, Lin can’t sing. So fucking what?” asked Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “John Lennon isn’t a great singer. Bob Dylan isn’t. Look at Billie Holiday; with one octave, she influenced everyone from Judy Garland to Amy Winehouse.” He continued: “Hip-hop changed the aesthetic. Chord changes and melodic movements could now be loop-based and rhythm-based, which the industry found both frightening and liberating. He’s Beyoncé, basically. She was the first time R&B got sung in the rhythmic patterns of an emcee.”
There was a time when Broadway auditions didn’t sound like an episode of American Idol or Glee. “In a way he’s creating something new, but in a way celebrating something old. Back in the day — the Forties, Fifties, Sixties — there was a broader acceptance in what could be a Broadway-ready voice. Think of Roy Bolger or Carol Channing,” says Deborah Lapidus, who teaches Juilliard drama students — including Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo, an alum — how to sing. “Finding your voice is not a metaphor. You have to find what works for you. We want — we need, honestly — individuals. Not egotistical divas, because there’s nothing worse than swagger with nothing behind it. That’s just bullshit. But more about working from yourself, from what you know. Hip-hop does that well. And Hamilton does that very, very well.” For all the comparisons to Rent, Lapidus likens Hamilton more to Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s laughably unconventional musical with unorthodox vocal talent that was pulled off with such winning gusto. Miranda agrees, even go so far as transforming Hamilton’s opening number into an homage to the Demon Barber of Fleet Street for a benefit performance.
For a sense of the scale with which Hamilton is reinventing the American Dream, we need to look at the way the show is casting its expansions in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco — as well as the folks who will replace the original cast in New York. Beyond its obliteration of racial barriers, the show is looking at aspirants as young as 16, according to Bethany Knox, Hamilton‘s casting director at Telsey + Company. She noted that 188 candidates are being considered through online video submissions. They don’t have to sing canon showtunes – it turns out Adele and Bruno Mars work just as well, she says. The casting calls explicitly assure dreamers that no experience is necessary, an astounding claim for the most-coveted production in a generation. They clearly want more Mirandas.
“This is what we do. This is where we thrive,” says Knox, who noted that Telsey cast Rent as well. “There’s only so much known talent. We have to look outside of the box. There’s such a range of needs here. And, thankfully, when you have a hit on your hands, the world opens up a bit. Not just for us. For them, too.” Lapidus agrees: “Seeing yourself represented on stage, it offers a bigger way in. And that’s what education is all about.”
It can be hit or miss. “What you want is Amy Winehouse, not the 30 people they put on after her to chase that audience,” says Christina Bianco, who’s made a name for herself with her impressive impressions of top singers. “Vocal fireworks will never compare to honesty. Do what you know. Do what you love. Barbra Streisand is infamous for standing there with her eyes closed. But that’s what it takes for her to get that voice out of her.”
The point is not to set out to be the next Miranda, to write like him, to rap like him, to sing or dance like him. The point is not to imitate his talent, but rather to imitate his weirdness, his trust that weirdness will find a way. That’s how ability transcends into artistry. He has already done the same for Daveed Diggs, having written lyrics for him — in the latter’s Hamilton roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson — at 6.3 words a second, a level of rapping dexterity Miranda himself cannot achieve.
Miranda was never from an immigrant family (Puerto Rico is part of the United States, despite some high-profile blunders saying otherwise). Despite his raps about doing homework in the back of the bodega with his abuela, he was never poor — his debut work, In The Heights, was his sophomore project at Wesleyan. His idea of being classically trained is knowing his way around an original Nintendo. Before Hamilton, he led the kind of life where he could indulge in the creation of his hip-hop improv group Freestyle Love Supreme and, on a lark, have a small speaking role in The Sopranos. What he is, for sure, is weird. And a welcome reminder that the American Dream isn’t just about getting rich, but rather getting there by being different, by being yourself. It’s a get-weird-quick scheme, and it’s beautiful more often than it’s bountiful.
“It’s not about belting it out. It’s about connecting,” says Peter Cooke, head of the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, alma mater to Hamilton‘s Goldsberry and Odom. “To me, the secret — the skill, really — is the individual idiosyncratic voice. Street voices that are merely rough and edgy may be popular, but longevity that way does not lie. God gives you the voice. But not the stagecraft.”
That’s what allowed David Bowie to make a hit song out of a radio conversation with an astronaut. Or for Queen to draw upon the conventions of opera to make one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Or for Prince to start a cool anthem with a decidedly uncool pipe organ and the somber phrase, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today.”
Unqualified success is not such a bogus term.
“Tonight is a particular honor for me,” Barack Obama said when he sauntered onto the stage of the Democratic National Convention in 2004, a state senator representing 200,000 people in Illinois’ 13th district. “Because let’s face it,” he continued, “my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely.”
It’s a sentiment Miranda knows well. Both men have earned their applause.