Lin-Manuel Miranda Talks to Oprah About What Our History Can Teach Us
Oprah Winfrey: First of all, congratulations are in order—you became a father for the second time in February. What do you most want to pass on to your sons?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Pride in their culture, which is what my parents gave my sister and me. And the most important gift you can give your kids is empathy. It's the number one tool in an artist's toolbox. You can't create art if you can't understand what someone else has been through and then try to articulate it.
OW: What made you want to step into the shoes of Alexander Hamilton?
LM: As I was reading Ron Chernow's biography Alexander Hamilton, I said, "This is the most hip-hop shit I've ever seen." Hamilton grew up in the Caribbean and had a hellish childhood, but he transcended his circumstances by writing. That's how he got the scholarship that brought him to America—which is the same thing that happened with my father, who got a full ride to grad school at NYU after he finished college in Puerto Rico at age 18.
OW: You related to Hamilton not as the guy on the $10 bill, but as a striver like your dad.
LM: When I realized Hamilton was an immigrant, I understood everything. That's why he was so relentless. As an immigrant, you work three times as hard and are promised maybe a fraction as much. Hamilton knew those rules going in. That's why he designed a financial system and established the Coast Guard, and cowrote the Federalist Papers. He had that drive.
OW: It seems we're living in a time when people are not good at seeing the world from another person's perspective.
LM: The fights we're having now politically are the same fights we were having six months after the country was born. States' rights versus national rights, foreign intervention versus how we treat our own people. We're always going to have these struggles.
But we have also made huge strides as a country—toward LGBTQ rights, for instance—which is why I think we're living in a time of enormous moral clarity. These are things we can't go backward on. I challenge myself to think, Where can I direct my focus? What won't let me go unless I do something about it?
OW: I know you are really passionate about helping Puerto Rico rebuild after Hurricane Maria.
LM: It's impossible to talk about this without crying, so I'll just cry while I talk. There's still so much urgent need. I always knew I would take Hamilton there, and we're planning to do that in 2019. Our proceeds will go to raising money for the arts. So many have gotten on board to help. That's the silver lining to the time we live in: People are engaged as never before when it comes to the things that matter to them.
OW: I just read a quote from a 17-year-old African American girl who said that before Hamilton, she thought of U.S. history as just a bunch of white guys. But hearing this story, and seeing actors of color in these traditionally white roles, has changed her idea of what's possible for her life. How does that make you feel?
LM: It's overwhelming. We do an educational initiative called EduHam [The Hamilton Education Initiative] with high schoolers. They research their favorite historical figures and write from their perspective. One young man wrote a piece in the voice of one of the sons Thomas Jefferson may have had with his slave Sally Hemings, and the opening line was "The Founding Father didn't acknowledge he was my father." We're opening up the idea that history isn't a set of objective facts. It's a subjective story, curated by the people who lived it, and there are so many other stories that haven't been told. I can't wait to see what these kids grow up to make.
OW: In your Tony acceptance speech, you did a sonnet about Hamilton: "The show is proof that history remembers / We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger / We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer." That feels like a prayer.
LM: It is. It was a prayer that came out of a really tough day. That morning one of the worst shootings in our nation's recent history had happened at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and we were all grieving, yet it was also a time to celebrate years of hard work. So I tried to meet the moment by writing the sonnet, because that's what the show is about. Alexander Hamilton is in the history books, but the show is also about his wife, Eliza, who lived to be 97 and had an incredible American life. She opened a school in Hamilton's name and an orphanage. She was known as the last Revolutionary War widow. Their love story lives beyond the pettiness of any political duel. We may go through trying times, but if we're survived by people who love and remember us, we'll go on forever.
Lin-Manuel Miranda can next be seen in Mary Poppins Returns in December. To hear his full conversation with Oprah, download Oprah's Super Soul Conversations in iTunes.