Lin-Manuel Miranda: The musical luvvie we love to hate

The Broadway star and composer has been in high demand since the success of his 2015 musical sensation ‘Hamilton’. As Miranda makes his directorial film debut with ‘Tick, Tick... Boom!’, Louis Chilton asks why a man of such undeniable talent still rubs so many people the wrong way

Friday 12 November 2021 13:28
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<p>Lin-Manuel Miranda rose to global prominence with the success of his Broadway musical ‘Hamilton'</p>

Lin-Manuel Miranda rose to global prominence with the success of his Broadway musical ‘Hamilton'

The rise of Lin-Manuel Miranda has been nothing short of meteoric. His Broadway play Hamilton – a hip-hop-infused musical about the founder of the US banking system – was a hit of obscene proportions, one of the biggest and most talked-about shows in the history of musical theatre. Unlike Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, Hamilton was also a showcase for its creator’s own performing talents. Miranda sung, rapped, danced and glowered his way to a Tony nomination and a Hollywood acting career. Roles in Mary Poppins Returns and His Dark Materials followed, as well as a litany of guest appearances on everything from Saturday Night Live and Curb Your Enthusiasm to the animated series BoJack Horseman.

Miranda, 41, who is from New York and of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, is a rare example of a Latino reaching the upper echelons of success and visibility in Hollywood and on Broadway. By now, he’s become one of the most enduring pop culture figures of the past decade. As a composer, he has contributed music to the Disney hit Moana, the Netflix animation Vivo and Disney’s forthcoming Encanto; he also oversaw (and appeared in) the film adaptation of his first musical In the Heights, and is currently working with Alan Menken on a film adaptation of The Little Mermaid. He’s also just released his debut directorial feature, an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s 1990 musical Tick, Tick… Boom! starring Andrew Garfield, which enjoyed a small run in cinemas before hitting Netflix. Miranda is, undeniably, a major talent in the world of musical theatre, a renaissance performer with ambition to burn. So it’s curious that, at the same time, he’s become one of those celebrities that some people love to hate.

Since Hamilton’s success, he’s become one of those figures that it’s acceptable to ridicule on social media, like James Corden or Chris Pratt. Last year, Rolling Stone ran a piece entitled “Why Gen Z Turned on Lin-Manuel Miranda”, detailing many of the grievances against him, including but not limited to: his singing voice, the selling of printed selfies and framed $79 photos of himself on his website, an old clip of him appearing in a Holocaust-themed production of Jesus Christ Superstar at university, and the cringe-worthy meme of Miranda biting his lip. The article points to a trend of youngsters roasting Miranda on TikTok, though his detractors are by no means limited to those under the age of 25.

But there are plenty of more substantive criticisms to be levelled at Miranda and his work. Hamilton was initially celebrated for its progressiveness and its explicitly pro-immigrant ethos, while the casting of non-white actors in the roles of the US forefathers was a loaded and celebrated act of historical revisionism. But as Hamilton grew bigger, its politics were scrutinised more closely. The musical elides some unsavory details of Alexander Hamilton’s life – including the fact that he was a slave owner. Writer Ishmael Reed, in one of the more elaborate and eviscerating digs at Miranda, made him the focus of his 2019 play The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, which imagined the Hamilton creator being taken to task by ghosts from American history.

Like Parks and Recreation or The Newsroom, Hamilton feels conspicuously like a product of Obama-era liberalism. The White House hosted a performance of Hamilton during Obama’s second term; Miranda had previously performed several of the songs there at a poetry jam when the musical was still in its infancy. He, in turn, has campaigned for the Democrats, and was unequivocal in his support for Hillary Clinton. As the failings of the Obama administration have been picked apart over the past half-decade, however, with many young liberal Americans increasingly gravitating towards the leftist politics of socialist figures like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hamilton can’t help but feel rather out of step.

Miranda also faced substantial criticism in Puerto Rico, in large part due to his support of Obama’s debt-relief scheme Promesa. Miranda was a vocal proponent of the legislation, which controversially imposed austerity measures on the country, leading to hugely unpopular infrastructure cuts and closures. (Miranda subsequently retracted his support of Promesa.)

Miranda (centre) onstage as Alexander Hamilton in ‘Hamilton’

Then there’s the case of In the Heights, which was at the centre of another bad publicity storm earlier this year over allegations of colourism. Set in New York’s Washington Heights district, the film stars a majority Latin-American cast – though unlike the real Heights, which is populated mostly by Afro-Latinos, In the Heights starred almost exclusively those with lighter skin. Miranda issued an apology, saying he “promises to do better in my future projects”, but the controversy dominated discussion around the film’s release.

For many people, however, the case against Miranda isn’t that deep. Ultimately, much of the social media grousing about him boils down to simply the fact that he is irritating. That his singing is too nasal. That he’s too much of a showboater. That he’s much, much too earnest. Maybe it’s some kind of vestigial schoolyard grudge against theatre kids – we can perhaps see similarities in the public haranguing of James Corden – who’s been lambasted for his ubiquity in terrible screen musicals – or Ben Platt, whose conspicuously over-aged role in Dear Evan Hansen attracted some of the most gleeful online mockery any celebrity has endured all year.

Andrew Garfield, Lin-Manuel Miranda and cinematographer Alice Brooks behind the scenes of ‘Tick, Tick... Boom!’

Tick, Tick… Boom! is probably not going to be the project that endears Miranda to sceptics. In her otherwise warm four-star review for The Independent, Clarisse Loughrey concedes that the musical will annoy some people. “They’ll find it all far too earnest, too shameless in its desire for likeability,” she writes – words that could easily apply to Miranda himself. But it is the art that counts. And Miranda has proven himself an artist that can resonate on the largest possible scale. Love him or hate him, he’s becoming very difficult to ignore.

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