IN THE HEIGHTS film still
A scene from the movie version of ‘In The Heights’, the musical Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote before ‘Hamilton’

Hamilton is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon by any measure, but one indicator of its impact is a list of people who came to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical when it opened on Broadway in 2015. Holders of the hottest ticket in town included the Obamas, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Eminem and Beyoncé. But one visitor in particular had Miranda star-struck, he later admitted: Steven Spielberg. “All I wanted to do was be Steven Spielberg when I was a kid,” Miranda told Good Morning America. “I just thought, ‘OK, Steven Spielberg’s watching me. I guess I’m in a Steven Spielberg movie in my own mind for the next two hours and 45 minutes!’ That was one of the best shows I ever did.”

Five years down the line, Miranda isn’t quite the new Spielberg, but he’s on his way — to the extent that he and Spielberg are potentially headed for a showdown. Hamilton’s spectacular success has made Miranda a household-name, an in-demand talent, and an entertainment-industry player. Disney swiftly recognised his potential. It recruited the 40-year-old polymath to compose scores for MoanaMary Poppins Returns (in which he also starred) and the forthcoming remake of The Little Mermaid. Disney also paid a record $75m for the rights to the filmed version of the Broadway production of Hamilton, which is due for release in July (originally intended for a cinema release, it will now debut on the Disney+ streaming service). As an actor, Miranda has also cropped up everywhere from His Dark Materials to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Next up is a lavish movie adaptation of In The Heights — the musical he wrote prior to Hamilton — due for release in 2021. 

Spielberg, meanwhile, has been working on his own musical celebration of New York Latinx culture: a remake of West Side Story, due in cinemas this Christmas. The overlap is intriguing. While Miranda dreamt of being Spielberg up on stage that night in 2016, is it possible that, down in the audience, Spielberg dreamt of being Miranda? 

© 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Ramona Rosales. Left to Right: Anybodys (Ezra Menas), Mouthpiece (Ben Cook), Action (Sean Harrison Jones); Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist); Baby John (Patrick Higgins); Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler); Maria’s brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez); and Sharks members Quique (Julius Anthony Rubio), Chago (Ricardo Zayas), Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Braulio (Sebastian Serra) and Pipo (Carlos Sánchez Falú)
Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’, due for release later this year

Either way, there can be no doubt that Hamilton has transformed the landscape. You could call it “the Hamilton Effect”. The show, which chronicles the life and death of Alexander Hamilton, one of the US’s founding fathers — has rewritten the rules of musical theatre. Its eclectic score draws on everything from hip-hop and R’n’B to Broadway show tune traditions. Furthermore, Hamilton’s casting is bracingly, brazenly, counterfactually diverse: white historical figures are played by actors of Latinx and African descent. Never has an episode of 17th-century history felt so dynamic and up to date. 

“It has everything,” says Marilyn Stasio, Variety’s theatre critic, who reviewed Hamilton in its first, off-Broadway incarnation and predicted great things for it. “It stood right out. I remember thinking how well integrated everything was: the story, the music, the lyrics, the composition, the acting, the choreography, even the costumes — it just had a seamless quality to it. And Lin-Manuel was just such an extraordinarily charismatic presence. He is one of the rare people who can do it all, has it all, and does it all well.” Hamilton’s statistics speak for themselves: more than $500m in box-office receipts, chart-topping albums, awards including Tonys, Grammys, Oliviers and a Pulitzer. But a true sign of the Hamilton effect is how the show has permeated into wider cultural and political conversation. Miranda’s story draws parallels between Hamilton, a poor, ambitious immigrant from the Caribbean, and modern-day, second-generation immigrants like himself (he is mostly of Puerto Rican descent). “I’m just like my country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” he sings. 

Actor Lin-Manuel Miranda joins protesters in New York's Union Square to call for Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello to resign after leaked controversial text messages between the governor and his closest allies and a federal probe into government corruption in New York in 2019
Actor Lin-Manuel Miranda joins protesters in New York's Union Square in 2019 © REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Hamilton’s bold historical reappraisal introduced fresh, liberal-leaning ideas into discussions of American identity and patriotism, coincidentally just as Donald Trump was entering the White House. In a viral video clip from November 2016, Hamilton’s cast addressed another notable visitor, Trump’s then vice president-elect Mike Pence. “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” they told him. An avowed Democrat, Miranda has put his celebrity to use. He performed for Obama at the White House and endorsed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign — even staging a matinee fundraiser for her. 

Beyond Miranda, Hamilton’s success has also created a new pool of talent, mostly creatives and performers of Latinx and African heritage. Director Thomas Kail, musical director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler have all collaborated with Miranda since they were students in the mid-’90s, beginning with In the Heights. They are now in demand. Lacamoire has worked on the hit film musical The Greatest Showman and stage show Dear Evan Hansen. Kail is currently developing a new Fiddler on the Roof movie.

There has been a similar uptick in the screen careers of Hamilton cast members such as Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Ariana DeBose, and Leslie Odom Jr, all now fixtures of film and television. A special case is Anthony Ramos, who originated the dual role of John Laurens/Philip Hamilton. Another New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Ramos was on the verge of giving up acting before auditioning for Hamilton. Post-Hamilton, he has had roles in A Star Is BornMonsters and Men and blockbuster Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Lin-Manuel Miranda is Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odom, Jr. is Aaron Burr in HAMILTON, the filmed version of the original Broadway production
Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, left, and Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr in the filmed version of the Broadway musical

Coming almost full circle, Ramos now leads the movie version of In the Heights, Miranda’s semi-autobiographical musical set in Washington Heights, a traditionally Latinx neighbourhood of New York. Miranda began writing it in 1999, and a revised version, with story by Quiara Alegría Hudes, debuted on Broadway in 2008. Directed by John M Chu, the movie promises to be a grand, vibrant, musical, focusing on the dreams and struggles of the current generation of Latinx immigrants, and incorporating salsa as well as hip-hop. Miranda, who co-produced the movie, also takes a small role. 

Meanwhile in Lincoln Square, a few miles south, another Latinx neighbourhood is soon to be found singing and dancing in West Side Story. It is not known whether the success of Hamilton influenced Spielberg’s film getting the go-ahead, but this is not exactly the veteran’s comfort zone. He has never directed a musical before, and West Side Story’s legacy is problematic. 

The story — a Romeo and Juliet-style romance set amid the gang rivalry of the Latinx Sharks and the white Jets — was chiefly the creation of white men, from writer Arthur Laurents (whose original story was about Jews and Catholics), to composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, to Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, respectively directors of the 1957 stage and 1961 screen versions. The movie has been criticised for both its broad ethnic stereotyping and its use of white actors in “brownface” playing Puerto Ricans, such as Natalie Wood and George Chakiris. None of this prevented it from becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and winning 10 Oscars. It was the Hamilton of its day. 

The involvement of Spielberg does not improve the show’s non-Latinx history, but he has been striving to get it right. Casting notices called for Spanish-speaking actors for principal roles, which has necessitated some dipping into Hamilton’s pool of talent. Maria, the Natalie Wood part, is played by newcomer Rachel Zegler, a Colombian-American teen who rose to fame singing on YouTube. Other Hamilton alumni include Brian D’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera and Ariana DeBose, who plays the key role of Anita. In a torch-passing gesture, Spielberg has also created a new role for the original Anita, Rita Moreno, also an executive producer. Moreno, 88, is something of a Latinx icon. Miranda, a Moreno fan, is developing a documentary about her.

It is tempting to cast In The Heights and West Side Story as rivals: Miranda’s authenticity and freshness versus Spielberg’s estimable experience. The Sharks versus the Jets, perhaps. Is there appetite for both? Either way, the winner is set to be Latinx and particularly Nuyorican culture. That moment is overdue. According to the 2019 Annenberg Inclusion report, Latinx people represent about 18 per cent of the US population and contribute 24 per cent of US cinema’s box office, yet Latinx actors have had less than 5 per cent of speaking parts in the top 100 Hollywood movies of the past decade.

2018 Kennedy Center Honorees team members of the Broadway play "Hamilton" (L-R) Andy Blakenbuehler, Thomas Kail (hidden), Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire take a "selfie" at the conclusion of a gala dinner at the U.S. State Department, in Washington, U.S., December 1, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Theiler - RC1CA2A88B10
Left to right: Andy Blakenbuehler, Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire take a selfie at a US State Department gala dinner in 2018 © REUTERS/Mike Theiler

This is not simply a question of representation. At a time when the Trump administration has sought to demonise, scapegoat and deport Latinx immigrants, these stories go to the heart of the US’s identity. 

As for Miranda, he is currently preparing to direct his own movie, an adaptation of Jonathan ‘Rent’ Larson’s musical Tick, Tick . . . Boom, the story of a frustrated New York composer. Some see Miranda’s co-option by the movies as a great loss to the stage, but he has already moved beyond both categorisation and the standards set by his idols. He has nothing left to prove.

‘Hamilton’ is available to stream on Disney+ from July 3

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