In his May 16 commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda weaved together personal anecdotes to make a powerful statement about the immigrant experience.
“Your stories are essential,” Miranda told a stadium packed with graduating seniors and their guests for the ceremony. “Don’t believe me? In a year when politicians traffic it in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system, a story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great, unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time, immigrants get the job done.”
He was referring to Hamilton, the runaway Broadway hit about one of America’s founding fathers. But earlier in his speech, Miranda focused on a different story: the one where he was 23, and pitching his play In the Heights to Broadway producers, eager to find one who would help him tell the story he and his director, Thomas Kail, intended to tell.
One producer they spoke with suggested that the character Nina, who comes home from Stanford afraid to tell her parents she’s lost her scholarship, would have a more “high stakes” storyline if she became pregnant, or found herself in an abusive relationship, or fell into drug addiction instead.
“That’s not the story you want to tell, and that’s not the show I want to direct,” Miranda recalled Kail telling him.
They passed up the offer, and waited five years to find the right producers. But eventually they got to tell the story they intended to tell. Even now, Miranda said, there are “young men and women who find me on the subway or on college campuses and take my hand and say, ‘You don’t understand. I was the first in my family to go to college, when I felt out of place, like I was drowning. I listened to ‘Breathe,’ Nina’s song, and it got me through.'”
“I do understand, and that sounds pretty high stakes to me,” Miranda said.
Watch the entire speech here (starting at the 2:31:00 mark).