Lin-Manuel Miranda and his ‘very special affinity’ with Pinoys

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
Lin-Manuel Miranda and his âvery special affinityâ with Pinoys
Lin Manuel-Miranda makes his movie directorial debut in Tick, Tick...BOOM!, now streaming on Netflix.

MANILA, Philippines — Years before his now highly-acclaimed directorial film debut in Tick, Tick...BOOM! or even before the astronomical success of his musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda came to the Philippines, having the least expectation of the awesome things about to unfold in his career.

This was in 2012. The American actor-singer, composer and playwright was the special guest at Atlantis Productions’ staging of his award-winning, semi-autobiographical Broadway debut In The Heights. It was his first visit to the country that felt like a homecoming of sorts because, as he told The STAR then, thanks to his Pinoy friends, “I know more than the average American about the Philippines culturally,” even writing a paper in college on Mt. Pinatubo.

It was also the first time we heard about his humble beginnings. How in Broadway, he shared, “there are 30-plus theaters, it’s like real estate, it’s very hard to break through to any of it. He had odd jobs, taught seventh-grade English and did a lot of teaching work to pay the rent so he could continue working on In The Heights.

The STAR went down the memory lane with the 41-year-old Lin-Manuel and brought up the old interview while chatting about Tick, Tick...BOOM!, his homage to Rent creator and theater idol, the late Jonathan Larson.

He fondly remembered his trip here like it just happened yesterday, and not almost a decade ago. “One of my best friends in college was from Subic Bay, Aileen Payumo. And I was there to go see Bobby Garcia’s wonderful production of In the Heights. It was the first international production of In the Heights ever. And then I saw my friend, Aileen, get married in Bohol. It was incredible! But because of our close relationship, we learned that the Philippines and my origins in Puerto Rico have so much in common,” he shared.

“What was crazy about seeing In The Heights there, was there was no translation required because inutil means the same thing in Tagalog that it does in Spanish. Carnaval means the same thing. You know, colonization is a hell of a thing. It’s left its mark on both of our languages. So, I do feel a very special affinity with the Philippines and Filipino culture because I have so many close friends in that community. And you guys are really good at making musicals. You have incredible talent, you know! And so yeah, I was thrilled to visit.”

He laughed when reminded that at that time, he was still planning to release a “concept album,” not even a musical, about the American statesman Alexander Hamilton.

What heights he has scaled since then!

Interestingly, Lin-Manuel revealed that all the crazy emotions he felt when he opened In The Heights came rushing back when Tick, Tick...BOOM! premiered to raves just the night before.

“I probably was more nervous last night at the premiere than I have been since the opening of In The Heights back in 2008. The feeling I had was, ‘Will they let me do this for real living (laughs)? Do I go back to teaching if this doesn’t work out?’ And last night, you know, I’m very aware that this is my first attack as a film director, and I really was like, did it work? Do people receive the spirit of love and gratefulness for Jonathan’s life in the work that we intended? Do we get to keep doing this? Will they let me make another movie musical someday? I’ve been here doing interviews all day. So, I’m very glad to hear that the response has been positive.”

He also said it felt amazing to be inside the room, watching the reception. “It was amazing to hear applause after every musical number. That was something that was sorely missing when it was just me and my editor in my house (laughs).”

With Andrew Garfield, lead star of Lin-Manuel’s film.
Photos courtesy of Netflix

Discovering Jonathan Larson

Lin-Manuel’s adaptation of Larson’s autobiographical musical Tick, Tick...BOOM! about a struggling composer Jon (played in the film by Andrew Garfield) came 25 years after Larson died of aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. The theater wunderkind never got to see the success of Tick, Tick...BOOM! and most especially, his rock opera Rent, credited to have revolutionized modern theater.

But if Larson were alive today, and Lin-Manuel would find himself in a room with him, what would their conversation be like?

“I felt like this entire movie was me asking him questions. I’m here because I saw Rent for my 17th birthday and it felt more personal than any musical I’d ever seen and was more diverse than any Broadway cast I had ever seen. And it spoke to things that I worried about as a kid. It spoke to living and dying in New York and surviving as an artist.

“And then, when I saw and heard Tick, Tick...BOOM!, it spoke to all of those things. Even more specifically, all of the things I worried about. And so the great joy of this movie was me learning more about Jonathan Larson.”

As part of his research, Lin-Manuel recalled going to the Library of Congress, reading Larson’s rejection letters as well as notes asking other folks for work, and discovering a file full of commercial jingles and things he wrote for products that never got produced. He spoke to Larson’s friends and family, and saw how they lovingly kept his memory alive.

“I believe in the multiverse. I believe there’s a timeline where Jonathan Larson is 61 years old and raising hell maybe on Twitter and Instagram and writing his 10th show. Or 15th show. I wish I could live in that timeline, but I live in this one,” Lin-Manuel said.

Tick, Tick...BOOM! moments

It isn’t hard to find some similarities between Larson and Lin-Manuel’s career trajectories — even the latter saw himself in the late composer’s struggles and Tick, Tick...BOOM! moments when he was starting out in the business. There were many things Lin-Manuel didn’t realize mirrored his own life until he showed the movie to people close to him, including his bestfriend and In The Heights collaborator, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

“I’ll never forget, the movie starts and she sees Jonathan’s bedroom. And she goes, Lin, that’s what your bedroom looked like when you were 29, the futon on the floor, the piles of food, that’s your room dude.

“You know, we were doing our best to make the most loving recreation of Jonathan’s bedroom but at the same time, my anxieties as a songwriter were shared by Jonathan in this film: Is what I’m doing worth it? Will my work connect with an audience? Does what I’m doing matter? Those are questions we all ask ourselves as artists and so there’s no shortage of Tick, Tick… BOOM! moments in my life.”

Meanwhile, Lin-Manuel continues to be surprised by the impact of his own works, including the kind of phenomenon Hamilton has become since its premiere on Broadway in 2015.

While reflecting on his career journey so far, the composer admitted it makes him doubly sad that Larson did not live to witness Rent’s impact and “the way his show can become sort of almost apart from you, like a jumping off point for people to have lots of different conversations about things that really have nothing to do with you.”

He cited his experience as now part-owner of the Drama Bookshop, a cultural institution in New York for theatrical works since 1917. “I look at the shelves and I see books about Hamilton that I didn’t know about. Hamilton and the law, Hamilton philosophy, the good, bad and everything in between. It’s its own thing. And yet, I remember when I was still just trying to get the songs out of my head and into the world just like Jonathan Larson was.”

There are definitely lessons to take away from Lin-Manuel’s success story. That is, to trust your craziest and scariest ideas, he noted, “because that’s a crazy idea (Hamilton) and it connected with people.”

“I think one of the positive legacies of Hamilton, at least what I’ve seen in my time and who knows what the ultimate legacy will be, is the cast of Hamilton is every bit as diverse as Rent as in 1996. And you don’t need this notion of historical accuracy. Like we always were going to cast incredible actors of color to play these parts and to sing this hip-hop and R&B musical.

“And I think that broke some kind of barrier in people’s heads because now, if you see a Broadway show, and it’s an all-white cast, it looks strange. It’s like: Wait, why is this like this? Hamilton showed us it was possible to have a cast as diverse as New York City and the world we actually live in. And that’s been a really positive legacy that I’m very proud of,” he ended.

(Tick, Tick...BOOM! is now streaming on Netflix.)

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