You might have heard the name ‘Lin-Manuel Miranda’ a lot recently. He is considered one of the biggest musical theatre legends of the early twenty-first century. For instance, his successful musicals In the Heights (2005) and Hamilton (2015) brought contemporary hip-hop and rap to Broadway. But he is also proving to be a rising star in Hollywood. He has a lot of song writing involvement in animated films such as Moana (2016) and Encanto (2021). Furthermore, he recently made his critically acclaimed directorial debut with tick, tick…BOOM! (2021).
I’ve wanted to examine the works of creators I admire for a little while now. So, when I watched Encanto and the In the Heights film adaptation late last year, I knew that Lin-Manuel Miranda would be fantastic to write about!
I watched five films that Miranda worked on and I noticed some common themes. In this post, I’ll investigate these prominent themes and how they relate to Miranda’s personal life and values. I’ve tried to keep this post as spoiler-free as I can, so I hope any newcomers to Miranda’s work will enjoy these films as much as I have!
Lin-Manuel Miranda: musicals and movies
What are Miranda’s common themes?
As a writing student, a valuable lesson I learnt was ‘write what you know’. I believe Miranda’s work reflects that notion.
Lin-Manuel Miranda was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents. He grew up in the Hispanic neighbourhood of Washington Heights.
I grew up in an immigrant neighbourhood. We just knew the rule was you’re going to have to work twice as hard.Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kennedy Prize for Drama Speech (2016)
Like Miranda himself, many of his characters begin their stories in underdog positions. They often want to fulfil a dream or greater purpose that seems unachievable given their circumstances. Miranda has expressed that he is drawn to characters that are acutely aware of their mortality, having lost a friend in kindergarten. His characters often feel rushed to achieve their dreams before their ‘ticking clock’ runs out.
While these themes are found in lots of stories, Miranda adds his own flair to them. You would assume a character so focused on achieving a goal would be resentful of their disadvantageous upbringing. But many of Miranda’s characters have a deep connection to their culture and community. They are proud of their identity, much like Miranda himself.
Many of Miranda’s characters struggle with the conflict of being proud of their roots while wanting more from life. This key theme is prominent in the films I’m about to discuss.
Miranda’s films reflect complex themes
I watched this film in cinemas when it first came out and I’m glad I did! It is one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen. Since Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), the animated Disney Princess films have become more nuanced over time. But I think Moana is one of the more compelling and impactful of the bunch.
The characters are fun and entertaining, but also realistic in their motives and interactions. As a writer, I know that this is a difficult balance to strike. However, I believe Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina’s songwriting contributed significantly to the characterisation and the film’s Polynesian setting.
We’re not just writing any old songs; we’re representing this beautiful culture with its own rich musical heritage. And so, you know, I want you to hear Moana and feel like you are on the sea, on these islands in this totally different part of the world, and yet feel at home.Lin-Manuel Miranda, They Know the Way: Making the Music of Moana (2016)
I think Miranda’s songwriting for this film really shines in ‘How Far I’ll Go’. The lyrics, coupled with the vibrant Polynesian instrumental demonstrate Moana’s internal conflict. Her parents and community demand that she stay away from the ocean. But she knows that her greater purpose belongs in voyaging it.
Miranda took on a lot of roles for Hamilton. He wrote the music, lyrics, book, and also starred in the original 2015 musical as Alexander Hamilton himself! Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the show live yet (theatre isn’t cheap). But I’ve watched the 2020 proshot of the original cast on Disney+, which was still spectacular.
Miranda was inspired by Ron Chenrow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton. Ultimately, Miranda would take a unique spin on presenting historical events. He incorporated contemporary rap into his compositions, enabling his modern audience to relate to the historical figures.
Recently, Miranda has been critiqued for using a mainly POC cast in a musical that romanticises people who owned slaves. As the 2020s began with disheartening politics, many question if the optimism of Hamilton is still relevant today. Miranda and the original Hamilton cast appear to be aware of this. They believe the musical is still a source of hope for racial justice.
It (Hamilton) was meaningful, and there was protest in it in its time. You know, the fact that it’s been so successful and it is so ubiquitous, things have been taken for granted about this show…This is the beginning of a conversation, I hope, and I can’t wait to see the show that it inspires.Lesley Odom Jr., Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes On You (2020)
I think this discussion adds to the complexity of Hamilton. Relating back to our themes, Miranda was drawn to Alexander Hamilton’s story as the ‘forgotten Founding Father’. Hamilton was a non-marital child who grew up in poverty, creating the conditions for an underdog story.
I think there is something to be said about a musical that generates such a meaningful reaction. We can see this in the song ‘Yorktown’, which lyrically and musically captures the intensity and urgency of Hamilton’s motivations. I hope you enjoy this clip of the original Broadway cast performing ‘Yorktown’ at the 2016 Tony Awards (the performance begins at two minutes and thirty seconds).
In the Heights (2021)
In the Heights (2005) is Miranda’s first musical. With the help of playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, Miranda wrote the story based on his experiences living in Washington Heights. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the stage production. But there is a film adaptation directed by Jon M. Chu, which came out in 2021. I’m aware that there are some deviations between the original musical and the film. But I believe that the film still represents Miranda’s big themes, especially considering his large involvement in it.
I really think a large part of me writing musicals was trying to create the parts I’d like to see for myself. The wonderful net benefit of that is writing roles for Latinos, for people of colour, that weren’t previously available.Lin-Manuel Miranda, Game Changers (2016)
As described in a Vox article, In the Heights carries an ‘underdog energy’. The main characters wish to move on from Washington Heights to achieve a greater purpose. However, much like Moana, they still celebrate their upbringing and community. This appreciation for culture and community is demonstrated through Miranda’s integration of Spanish and English lyrics. He also combines Latin rhythms such as salsa, merengue, and samba within his compositions.
Miranda cameos in the film as the piragüero, a man who sells Puerto Rican shaved ice desserts. His storyline involves competing with ‘Mister Softee’, a generic ice cream truck. I think the charming scenes with the piragüero capture In the Heights’ underdog themes and the celebration of culture.
However, I think the best way to introduce any newcomers to In the Heights is the first song, which beautifully establishes the vibrant characters and setting.
Encanto is another Disney animated film that Miranda worked on. And, of course, the animation is absolutely gorgeous! I watched this film on my laptop and I was still blown away by the detail and beautiful colours. It really demonstrates how far animation has come.
As for Miranda’s contribution to the film, he was a part of both the song and story writing process.
I had the time of my life writing Moana with the Moana team and I really wanted to be part of a Latino-themed Disney animated musical. I just thought my whole life has been preparing me for this.Lin-Manuel Miranda, FilmIsNow Interview (2021)
Despite being a family film, Encanto explores complex themes like perfectionism and intergenerational trauma. With such interesting themes and the emphasis on Colombian culture, Encanto is a perfect project for Miranda.
This clip showcases the first song of the film, ‘The Family Madrigal’. You might notice the theme of perfectionism emerge visually and lyrically as the audience is introduced to the characters. It’s also worth noting that the connection to Colombian culture is maintained through the vallenato folk style of the instrumental.
tick, tick…BOOM! (2021)
tick, tick… BOOM! is Miranda’s directorial film debut. The film is an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical rock monologue of the same name.
Jonathan Larson’s story really resonated with me. Living in poverty and waiting tables, he had a dream to write a musical. After the failure of his Superbia musical concept, he persevered to write Rent. Tragically, he passed away from an aortic aneurysm the night before Rent’s Off-Broadway previews in 1996. He was only thirty-five-years old.
Rent went on to be a great success, winning multiple Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It impacted many people, one such person being a seventeen-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I don’t think we would have ‘In the Heights’ or ‘Hamilton’ if Lin hadn’t sat in the theatre and watched ‘Rent’ when he was seventeen years old.Julie Oh, Lin-Manuel Miranda Takes the Reins on a Love Letter to Artists (2022)
With film being his ‘first love’, Miranda jumped at the chance to direct the film adaptation of tick, tick… BOOM! when producer Julie Oh approached him in 2014. Larson’s life and works pair well Miranda’s themes relating to mortality, perfectionism, and fighting for dreams.
I think our twenties is that period of time which is archetypal; I don’t think we can control it…It’s like we’re all out wandering in a kind of no man’s land going ‘who am I?’ and ‘how do I stake my claim of my belonging here on Earth?’ And for Jonathan, of course, it’s to do with his creativity because he knows he has this deep well of songs to draw from. He knows he wants to give to the world.Andrew Garfield, Interview with Tara Hitchcock (2021)
With a strong grasp of such deep and nuanced themes, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an auteur in both theatre and film. And, with so many amazing projects under his belt, it’s guaranteed that he’ll have incredible contributions to all of his future work. In fact, Miranda is currently working on new original songs for The Little Mermaid live-action remake with legendary Disney composer Alan Menken.
I’m so excited to see what Miranda’s future projects hold! But for now, I hope you enjoy this fun video of Miranda discussing how he made tick, tick… BOOM!, with references to Hamilton and In The Heights.