It’s Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016 and I’m wearing a t-shirt my friend Cal got me that reads: “I hope Lin-Manuel Miranda is having a good day.” It’s a sentiment I feel every day, but today I wanted to display it on my chest. Lin-Manuel hosts Saturday Night Live later tonight, and I really hope he has a good day.
Some still may not know who Lin-Manuel is. At a bare minimum, he is an actor, writer, and composer. More generously, he’s a genius, luminary, inspiration, and star who shines brighter than the Broadway Marquees carrying his name. He’s the writer, composer, and lyricist of the 11-time Tony Award-winning production, Hamilton: An American Musical, the show that dominates Spotify playlists, Buzzfeed quizzes, and high-minded dinner parties alike.
Lin-Manuel, at 36 years old, has had a lot of big days. But today might be especially big: Hosting SNL is an affirmation of fame. Athletes, journalists, and politicians have hosted. Some lead the show effectively while others drag it down. Hosts share recognizability, not ability. For this reason, many thespians haven’t hosted. Nathan Lane, Bernadette Peters, and Matthew Broderick have made the trip east from Broadway to 30 Rock, NBC’s headquarters. Lin-Manuel is the latest to make the crosstown journey. As his appearance tonight shows, the spotlight has followed him off the stage for a while now. I don’t discount the fact that his talents alone qualify him for SNL, but it’s impossible to ignore that Lin is a mainstream icon now. He’ll always be Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel, but tonight, he’s America’s Lin-Manuel.
So what, though? He’s obviously famous. I don’t intend to tackle what being famous means in modern society. Rather, I’d like to offer a guide to pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel, when his future as a household name was still uncertain. In other words, this is a Broadway hipster’s guide to Lin-Manuel as I first encountered him, before Lorne Michaels and Aaron Burr. This is by no means a lament about some sort of change I see in him, but rather a way of pointing you towards the things Lin-Manuel made and did that were first meaningful to me.
In the Heights opened on Mar. 9, 2008 at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I saw the show early that summer. Lin-Manuel not only starred but wrote the music and lyrics too. In The Heights tells the story of a primarily Latino community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and their hopes, dreams, and attempts to stay cool during a July 4 heat wave. The characters don’t look like me, and their struggles have different names than my own. But the show spoke to me, as reflected in my tears and chills. Even from my mezzanine seat, I could see the twinkle in Lin’s eyes and feel the immense effort and feeling he poured into crafting the 23 songs that filled the two-and-a-half-hour masterpiece.
The New York Times wrote this in their review of the show: “It has been lamented in certain circles that they don’t make Broadway musical stars the way they used to … If you stroll down to the Richard Rodgers Theater, where the spirited musical In the Heights opened on Sunday night, you’ll discover a singular new sensation, Lin-Manuel Miranda, commanding the spotlight as if he were born in the wings.”
Lin-Manuel’s rap skills are well-known. They are perhaps best displayed in his work with Freestyle Love Supreme, an improvisational rap group he co-founded while attending Wesleyan University. Their videos online leave one’s mouth agape. The group’s other members glow too, and their collective energy and talent is amazing to behold.
Look Lin-Manuel up on YouTube and you’ll find snippets of his brilliance. There are Tony acceptance speeches presented in effusive rhyme. His original masterpiece from 2008 and another from this year that never ceases to overwhelm me. There are graduation speeches, clips of album recording sessions, and sketches made with the comedy site, CollegeHumor. Lin-Manuel maintains his own personal YouTube channel called “Usnavi” (his character’s name in Heights) where you’ll find everything from clips of him in middle school to a performance of “To Life” from Fiddler on the Roof he performed at his own wedding.
In earnest, it’s not Saturday anymore, even though I really did start writing this then. Lin came and left Studio 8H, and clips from the show join the many others online. He hosted with a lovely mix of grace, joy, and frenetic charm, and presided over a number of sketches that paid homage to the theater. I saw the same light in his eyes on Saturday that I did eight years ago, and it reminded me yet again of Lin’s uniqueness. It’s hard to find fitting words to describe a man who always has the right ones. Emotion flows from him with a chorus line’s force. His arms wave, his fingers point, his voice cracks, and his eyes beseech with a clobbering sincerity. Watch one of those videos, and let him infect you too.
Lucas Carmel PO '19 is studying politics and history. He also does improv and works with the Rooftop Garden Project.