He’s Worth It

What Made Lin-Manuel Miranda the $625,000 ‘Genius’ Behind ‘Hamilton’?

The creator of the hit Broadway musical was just awarded a 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—popularly known as a ‘genius grant.’ It’s richly deserved.

09.29.15 10:00 PM ET

Anyone who has snagged a seat on Broadway for the thrillingly creative musical Hamilton has probably already tossed around the word “genius.” I used it last time I wrote about the show to describe lyricist-writer-composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Now there’s confirmation.

Miranda was just awarded a 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—popularly known as a “genius grant.” The $625,000, awarded to 24 recipients, comes with no requirements and no strings and is given as a stipend over five years. The foundation hopes the winners (two dozen of them this year) will use the money for something great.

Of the award, Miranda said: “I’m honored to have been chosen as a fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. I am hugely appreciative for the support I have had throughout my life and I look forward to using the grant to help institutions that have fed my soul and to support new work that inspires me.”

Miranda’s Hamilton, which evokes the rise of immigrant Alexander Hamilton and the early years of America, has received the kind of rave reviews that are usually reserved for the Pope. It hit #2 on the list of top-grossing shows shortly after it opened and has remained there for weeks, beating out perennials like The Book of Mormon and Wicked. (Only The Lion King roars louder.)

This week’s box office was $1.56 million, which is 117 percent of gross potential. That means the premium on tickets being sold by the venue is crazy high.

Shows are completely sold out through the end of the year, and for the few tickets left early in 2016, expect to pay in the $400 range for orchestra.

Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton was kind of an elitist, so he probably wouldn’t have cared. But In a nod to democracy, there’s a lottery every day at the theater for $10 seats in the front row—and hundreds of people show up.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, actor and creator of the of the play "Hamilton," addresses the audience after the plays opening night on Broadway in New York August 6, 2015.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson  - RTX1NE1X

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The cast album came out last week as a digital download and the rich, complicated score includes 46 tracks. For comparison, the beloved musical The King and I has 20 songs. To add to the pop culture appeal, the producers are Questlove and Black Thought from the Roots.

The audience at Hamilton regularly includes A-list celebrities and politicians. First Lady Michelle Obama came for a second time this past weekend, and other recent sightings included Supreme Court Justice Kennedy and Pharrell (not together, though it might have been interesting).

Now 35, Miranda began working on Hamilton in 2008, shortly after he read the Ron Chernow biography Alexander Hamilton. A lot of people read that same biography around then, but it’s hard to imagine that anybody else was hit by the thought—whew, this would make a great hip-hop musical with a multi-racial cast playing the Founding Fathers!

That Miranda had exactly that thought—and carried it out—could explain why “genius” seems to fit him.

On the question of whether genius is innate or requires hard work, Miranda’s history would suggest—both. He appears easygoing and good-natured but is relentlessly demanding of himself. According to director Thomas Kail, Miranda went over and over “every phrase and every word” before the show transferred to Broadway, to make sure each moment had a power and purpose. “He makes sure everybody else’s lines are exactly right before he changes anything for himself,” said Kail.

Miranda grew up in the far uptown reaches of Manhattan, a Hispanic neighborhood that he captured in his first musical In the Heights.

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He started working on that show while he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan, and six years later, it won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. Miranda was creator, composer, and star and the New York Times critic at the time described him as “a singular sensation…a sprightly new Harold Hill from the barrio.”

Despite the awards, In the Heights had a sentimental plot and weak book (not written by Miranda), and its real appeal was its unprecedented mix of Broadway charm and hip-hop rhythms. It took another six years for that synthesis to come together in the considerably more mature and polished Hamilton. (It premiered at New York’s Public Theater last year.)

His father loved musical theater and Miranda went to Broadway as a kid to see what he called the holy trinity—Les Miz, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. Cast albums were always playing at home. His dad has described a piano recital that Miranda gave at age seven where he didn’t want to get off the stage.

Miranda’s rhythms feel new, fresh, and original, but he makes magic by steeping the new sound in Broadway tradition. Stephen Sondheim, who Miranda met as a student at Hunter College High School, remains an admirer and Miranda lunches regularly with John Kander, the 88-year old composer (with Fred Ebb) of shows including Cabaret and Chicago.

Over-the-top praise has not yet changed Miranda’s down-to-earth, self-deprecating style. He tweets obsessively to his 85,000 followers and shortly after the MacArthur announcement, he posted “My sister told my nephew that his tio [uncle] is a genius. Is Tio a genius?” The little nephew shrugged in a two-second video and said, “Maybe.” Miranda followed that with “#YayMaybe.”

And shortly after, Miranda added, “Btw, slept in because we paid off my wife’s student loans YESTERDAY and we celebrated with wine and backgammon.”

Tonight, Miranda will celebrate the way he always does—by appearing onstage as “the 10 dollar Founding Father without a father.” And genius or not, he’ll give it everything he’s got.