Reaching the ‘Heights’: O’Neill honors Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Years before he created the phenomenon that is “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda was toiling away as a substitute teacher and trying to develop a musical called “In the Heights.”

And then in 2005, he and his “Heights” collaborators came to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford. The then 25-year-old Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes saw their musical selected for the O’Neill’s National Music Theater Conference, and it became Miranda’s first professional production.

It was an intense — and intensely gratifying — experience. All these years later, he and “Heights” director Tom Kail still quote a line to each other from when they were feverishly working on “In the Heights” at the O’Neill. They took full advantage of the chance they had to develop the piece, which meant little rest — so little, a shower that was supposed to be invigorating didn’t do the job.

“I remember getting in the shower and getting out of the shower and feeling just as tired — but wet. Now I’m just wet and tired; it didn’t work,” Miranda recalled with a laugh.

“It was a sleepless two weeks, but we worked so hard and we worked so much,” he said. And, he added, “It was life-changing. ... It holds such a special place in my heart.”

Miranda was reminiscing about his time at the O’Neill because, on Monday, he received the 18th annual Monte Cristo Award at a gala in New York City. The O’Neill gives the Monte Cristo Award to a prominent theater artist whose work has had an extraordinary impact on American theater, in memory of the theater’s namesake. Previous recipients include Meryl Streep and two actors who attended Monday’s festivities at the Edison Ballroom: Michael Douglas and Judith Light. The event supports the O’Neill’s commitment to developing new work and new artists for the stage.

The night wasn’t just about honoring Miranda. It also helped raise money for scholarships at the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute for college-aged students. There is a link between the honoree and NTI scholarships; last year, Miranda established the Miranda Family Fund Scholarship for the NTI to “further the inclusion of artists of color across all disciplines of theater.”

Being at the O’Neill, Miranda said Monday, “was a really special time in our lives. ... I just want more artists to have that opportunity, which is why my family partnered with the O’Neill to create the scholarship program.”

During the gala, singers from Miranda’s musicals performed with a band conducted by Alex Lacamoire, who was music director for “In the Heights,” “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Chris Jackson and Javier Munoz did “One Last Time” from “Hamilton.” Karen Olivo, Perry Young and Mateo Ferro, who have starred in different productions of “In the Heights,” sang “It Won’t Be Long Now” from that show.

A shout-out from Missy Elliott

And, of course, artists praised Miranda during the ceremony. Rap legend and Miranda fan Missy Elliott taped a video message honoring — and joking about — Miranda, who uses hip-hop in his musicals. Elliott said they need to work together. “I mean, you ain’t called me or nothing. I got all these phones ... I got the Blackberry, the Sidekick ...” she said.

Javier Munoz, who was in “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” spoke admiringly of Miranda’s “creative fire.”

Preston Whiteway, executive director of the O’Neill, described Miranda as an artist who operates at the highest level in every medium, moves the needle on issues, uses his philanthropy for good and pays it forward.

“You are a kind, brilliant friend and collaborator. Basically, you’re the most wonderful person on Earth,” he said.

“I am so moved by tonight, you have no idea,” Miranda said to the audience. “It’s very weird for me. I’m usually pretty good at having the words to make the moment, but this has been such an incredible journey tonight.”

He mentioned something Priscilla Lopez, who was in the original company of “In the Heights,” once said. When the “Heights” actors were gathering for a prayer circle before a performance, one actress instead spoke about what an impact seeing Lopez in “A Chorus Line” in 1975 had had on her. Lopez turned to Miranda and said, “Lin, you have no idea when you throw a rock in a pond the kind of ripples that will come back.”

Miranda said at the end of Monday’s gala, “I feel like I have been overcome by a tsunami of ripples tonight.”

Writing songs for ‘Hamilton’

During the evening, Miranda was interviewed onstage by actress Lindsay Mendez, who is currently on Broadway in “Carousel.” She asked him an array of questions, including whether he approaches writing a song for a role that he will play differently from one for a role that will be filled by someone else.

Miranda, who portrayed Alexander Hamilton in “Hamilton,” noted that he delayed writing Hamilton’s final monologue until two days before the show started previews because he didn’t want the other actors thinking they didn’t have what they needed. He compared it to a Puerto Rican mother who feeds everyone else first and says, “No, no, no, I’ll eat after, I’ll eat after.”

At the same time, while creating a song for a certain character, Miranda gets to play that character, in a way. He said that every time he wrote a song for Aaron Burr, he wanted to play Burr (Leslie Odom Jr. was Burr on Broadway). Every time he wrote a song for Hamilton, he wanted to play Hamilton.

“Cut to being backstage at the Richard Rodgers (Theatre) watching Leslie bring the house down with ‘The Room Where It Happens’ and me being like (he affected a pouty disposition), ‘I want to play Burr,’” he laughed.

Mendez also asked what everyone could do to help the situation in Puerto Rico, and Miranda encouraged people to keep Puerto Rico in the conversation and to donate to organizations that matter to them. Miranda has raised money and supported efforts to help people in Puerto Rico after the devastation from Hurricane Maria. In January, he’ll star in a production of “Hamilton” there, hoping to help spur the economy and tourism.

Miranda’s experience at the O’Neill

Monday also featured throwback images of Miranda at the O’Neill. A video pulled together clips from that summer, showing him joking with other artists there (he said he captured that 2005 footage on his Kodak EasyShare) and rehearsing “In the Heights.”

“The other thing that is so incredible at the O’Neill is we also fell in love with everyone around us,” he said. “The interns who were bringing us coffee but (were) also mounting their own show, so you then go to see their show. ... You’re surrounded by people who are all doing the same thing.”

As for working on “In the Heights” during the National Music Theater Conference, Miranda said, “I’m really a deadline writer, which is why the O’Neill was an ideal situation.” At the O’Neill, he said, you have nothing but time, and it’s a question of what you want to get done.

He wrote a number of “In the Heights” songs there, including “Blackout,” which made the final version of the show, as well as a lot of songs that didn’t.

Among the changes that the “Heights” team made during the National Music Theater Conference was eliminating the character of Lincoln, Nina’s brother.

“We realized, 'Oh, if we don't tell Lincoln’s story, if we give his problems to Nina, she suddenly becomes five times more complicated and interesting and rich.' They say you murder your darlings when you’re revising. That's what we learned to do at the O’Neill,” Miranda said.

When Lincoln was nixed, so was his song “I’m Out.” But it was briefly revived during the gala, where Anthony Ramos performed it.

One more bit of news from the night: Whiteway announced that a studio in the Jane and Jim Henson Rehearsal Hall at the O’Neill is going to be christened the Lin-Manuel Miranda Studio.

k.dorsey@theday.com

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