As Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing what would become the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, a fallback plan lingered in the back of his mind.
“The success of a hip-hop/R&B musical about the founding fathers is not guaranteed,” he explains with a touch of sarcasm. “I worked on it for years and would tell myself, ‘This might open and close in a night, but we’ll do well with school groups because we touch on about a semester of A.P. U.S. history in two hours and 45 minutes’.”
The play debuted Off-Broadway in February 2015 and was an immediate hit both with critics and at the box office, racking up record advance ticket sales and 11 Tony Awards. But even while Hamilton’s success extended far beyond the classroom, Miranda kept his commitment to schools.
“We quickly realized that we had the thing no amount of press can pay for, which is that everyone who left the theater told five people they had to see the show,” he said. “So we went from hoping school groups would keep the show running to realizing that if we didn’t prioritize these kids, they wouldn’t get a chance to see it. And that would be a shame.”
Midway through the show’s run at the Public Theater, Miranda and his producers partnered with the Gilder Lehrman Institute to launch the Hamilton Education Program. Together, they developed a curriculum for high school history teachers to integrate Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Era into their classroom studies. The program, which is entering its firth year, culminates by bringing students to Hamilton’s Broadway home at the Richard Rogers Theater – or in theaters hosting the touring version of the show – to meet the cast, perform onstage and see the show.
“The work that comes from these kids is the true legacy of the show,” said Miranda, who spoke alongside his father, Luis Miranda, Jr., at the first-ever Coca‑Cola Community Engagement Summit on Oct. 21. The event convened nearly 250 leaders from national and community nonprofits for actionable conversation on pressing social issues.
In a fireside chat moderated by Alba Baylin, Coca‑Cola North America’s VP of community and stakeholder relations, the father-son duo shared how they use the power of their respective passions for the arts and politics to serve society. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
LMM: We were always working for the community. Even as kids, we were sort of pressed into service. That was the ethos growing up in the Miranda household, and it manifested in different ways. I remember going to see the white Santa at Macy's, then going to see the Dominican Santa at the women's shelter on 175th Street. I remember every night before Three Kings Day, on January 5th, visiting the radio station to work at the toy drive collecting toys for kids in the community. And while some of you may have had a paper route or worked at your local 7-Eleven as a teenager, I was registering voters.
LM: We wanted to make sure our kids were engaged and knew that you have to go to school and find a profession, yes. But at the end of the day, if your context is not right, then something is missing. We all need to aspire to do more.
LM: I had just lost my job. I worked for (former New York Mayor) Ed Koch, and we lost the election. The United Way approached me about the Hispanic Federation project. It was an umbrella of Latino agencies in the city, and it sounded like a cool thing to do next. That's how the Hispanic Federation started. It was a challenge because we had just done a survey that indicated that most Latinos in New York identified themselves by their country of origin: as Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, and so on. So we set out to create an ethos of being Hispanic. Now, 30 years later, the federation engages in community empowerment work and partners with over 100 organizations throughout the country.
LMM: It was very personal for us, as we have family on the island. My father’s siblings are there, and I have cousins there. We knew it was going to be bad. I was out of the country on vacation with my wife's family when the storm hit. And then there was radio silence from the island – no cell service, no Internet, no electricity. That silence was really terrifying, and the only way I know how to deal with silence is to write music. So I started writing a song the night after the storm hit. I knew we had to raise as much money as we could.
I’d never written a fundraising anthem before, but I knew the word Maria would forever have a different meaning to Puerto Ricans. So I took a sample from the song, Maria, from West Side Story, and made it the hook. For the lyrics of the body of the song, I figured out how to make the 78 municipalities that make up Puerto Rico rhyme. That was my little challenge to myself.
Then I maxed out my Latino Rolodex. I call the Latino stars I knew and tweeted the ones I didn't, asking them to sing. Everyone was so hungry to do something that within three days of getting home, we had a game plan of how to record something like 24 artists. We flew to L.A. and Miami and, within two weeks, the song was out and raising money through the Hispanic Federation, which one of the first organizations with boots on the ground.
LM: The first thing is everybody has to be involved. We have to agree on what we're doing, and everybody has to do what they’re best at within the family unit. If something is very important to a family member, we know that we all have to come and support each other. My wife has spent her life serving and working with women in the Bronx. When she joined the Planned Parenthood board, we all were there to support her on her journey. Lin Manuel’s lane is the arts. He’s passionate about increasing diversity in the arts. That’s what has allowed him to thrive and to have the megaphone he has. My lane is politics. It’s all-hands-on-deck approach. We all work together.
LMM: At a holistic level, I think of philanthropy and the artistic impulse as coming from the same place, in that they're the things that don’t leave you alone at night. There's that thing you read in the news, that story you heard and said, “That's not right… how can I help?” An idea has to survive a very long time to get from my head to something I'm actively spending years of my life working on. Musicals take a long time. The ghost of Alexander Hamilton would not leave me alone.
I think about philanthropic efforts in the same way. When I saw the leadership being exhibited by the kids from Stoneman Douglas in the wake of that tragic shooting, I was so impressed with their poise in the face of a media onslaught. And I realized they were theater kids. That's why they're so good in front of the megaphone. That's why they're so poised on TV. They’re great at speech and debate, like I was as a theater kid in high school.
We had been releasing a single each month inspired by HAMILTON, so I scrapped my plans for that month and said, “Let's write a thing for these kids and get their backs.” So I called the other biggest musical on Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen, with the idea of doing a Hamilton/Dear Evan Hansen crossover. I did a duet with Ben Platt, and we mashed up songs from our plays and earmarked all the money for these kids and their “March for Our Lives” benefit. That was something that wouldn't leave me alone at night. I thought, “I can be uniquely of service here.”
LMM: The way the day works is amazing because these kids are making their Broadway debut. They get on stage to perform their numbers from their respective schools and cheer for each other. Then they do a Q&A with the cast and we perform a matinee. It really is the best thing that we do. The work that comes out of these kids is really the true legacy of Hamilton.