Everywhere you look these days, Lin-Manuel Miranda is there: he’s writing music for Disney and jet-setting around the world starring in movies, speaking out on humanitarian issues, and following the diaspora of his hit musical, Hamilton. He also recently adapted a song from West Side Story — “Maria” — into a dance-y, star-studded pop track called “Almost Like Praying,” as part of his effort to raise funds for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
Although Miranda said “Maria” is his favorite song from West Side Story, it is by no means the only part of the show that has inspired him. In fact, he has a long history of experience with the Sharks and the Jets, starting with playing the role of Bernardo in his sixth-grade class’s production.
“My mother rented the movie so we could watch it together,” he said in an interview with Playbill. “When ‘America’ started and it was about whether to live in Puerto Rico, or live in the U.S. – as a kid who grew up here and was sent there every summer – I was like, “Holy sh*t! West Side Story is about Puerto Ricans?!”
Then, in his senior year of high school, he directed a production himself – and in 2009, Miranda worked on the Broadway revival, translating scenes with the Sharks into Spanish.
Miranda has quite literally grown up with West Side Story in a way that many others haven’t. It’s no small wonder, then, that he knows it better than any other score.
“Leonard Bernstein’s music is immortal,” he said, in the same Playbill interview. “It still sounds different from every other Broadway score you’ll hear. The scope and the size of it really is incredible.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Bernstein’s music is one of the most enduring influences on Miranda’s own work. In the Heights, his own show about Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City, is perhaps the clearest example of this: it takes Miranda’s moment of realization that musical theater can tell stories that matter, stories about people (“Holy sh*t! West Side Story is about Puerto Ricans?!”) and runs with it. Miranda paints the impossible question at the heart of West Side Story‘s “America” — stay or leave, assimilate or separate — in vibrant, joyful color, creating a world from a neighborhood that feels as timeless as it is fresh.
Then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous Hamilton. There is no musical that better embodies the concept of a timeless story told in the language of today. Its fusion of brilliant writing, inspired casting, stick-in-your-head melodies, and not-so-subtle political overtones made it a phenomenal success, the type of inventive, overnight smash-hit that happens only once in a blue moon.
West Side Story was that kind of hit: beloved by critics and audiences alike, it transplanted a familiar story into the world that we really live in, one that’s fraught with violence and laced with incandescent beauty all at once, and it still resonates.
The most powerful moments in each of these musicals come from the way they embrace ensemble writing. Bernstein was a genius at combining voices, as is Miranda – it sounds cheesy, but when disparate voices and musical idioms come together, the result is magic. Hearing themes interweave, layer, invert, and then produce something new altogether is an incredibly moving experience.
Music scholar Carol Oja drew a similar comparison between the two shows. In her essay “Hamilton and the theatrical legacy of Leonard Bernstein,” she writes:
“Bernstein dedicated himself to articulating issues of social justice through his Broadway shows; he established a life-long focus on hiring performers of color; and he thrived on a powerful intermingling of dance, words, and music. Bernstein also loved to deliver high-intensity conversations through intricately crafted ensemble numbers.”
Hamilton, too, thrives on the intricacy of its ensemble numbers. Oja comments on the way Miranda describes Bernstein’s work as “incredibly ambitious writing,” saying,
“Of the many affinities linking Miranda to Bernstein, perhaps the most fundamental is a capacity to think big – to devise major creative visions that tackle conundrums in the American experience and to persuade prodigiously talented collaborators to help put those ideas on stage.”
I’d like to leave you with the best examples of ensemble numbers from In the Heights, Hamilton, and West Side Story, respectively. In them, I hear Oja’s point illustrated beautifully: each of these pieces feels bigger than it is, representative of something lovelier and more important. Listening to these, I feel like I, too, am part of something more.