‘Hamilton,’ ‘In the Heights’ and making your mark

I remember the first time I saw the musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. My high school, while I was still a middle schooler, decided to put it on, and my sister was the lead, so obviously I was super thrilled. After watching the show, I was star-struck and inspired; I watched the show probably four more times after that. 

“In the Heights” leaves you wanting more out of life, with the same goal that all of the characters in Washington Heights have: achieving success and reaching the American Dream. The show focuses around Nina and Usnavi. Nina wants to go to college but she fails out and doesn’t want to return for the fear of bankrupting her parents. Usnavi is a bodega owner who dreams of finding success in the Domincan Republic, his home country. There are also other characters such as Vanessa, Sonny and the salon ladies who dream of having a better life outside of the barrio. 

The main plot point of the story focuses around a lottery and the fact that someone, somewhere, just won 96,000 dollars. Little do the characters know that the winner is Abuela Claudia, Nina’s grandmother and Usnavi’s adopted grandmother. 

At the end of the musical, Abuela Claudia decides to split the money between herself, Usnavi and Usnavi’s friend, Sonny, allowing them to achieve their dreams. Claudia’s impromptu death drives Nina to return to college, where she becomes a first generation student.  

“In the Heights” original broadway cast with Lin-Manuel Miranda as Usnavi

The whole theme of the story is this idea of the American Dream and working your way up the ladder (ex. Nina’s dream of going to college to get out of the barrio as seen in the song “Breathe”). 

This main theme can be seen further through the musical “Hamilton”, also written by Miranda. 

“Hamilton” is a historical fiction musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton is a classic example of coming from nothing and turning into something, as he was an orphaned immigrant who became a highly successful politician. 

A common trend between both “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” is the use of one specific song that sets the entire musical in motion and highlights the main theme of the story. “In the Heights” has the song “96,000” and “Hamilton” has the song “My Shot”. 

“96,000” is about the lottery and how syked the characters would be to win that much money—they would be able to do anything they wanted to. “My Shot” is about how Hamilton won’t miss his shot to become successful. 

One important and repeated line within “My Shot” is “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwin’ away my shot.” Lines like this within these two musicals leads audience members to look deeper into the production and consider the writer/composer’s perspective: what has Miranda been through in his own life that would encourage him to write about the American Dream? Does he truly believe that this is a feasible goal? 

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton opposite Philippa Ann Soo as Eliza Hamilton

Miranda has not only adored acting, singing, writing and composing from a very early age, he has also had to work a lot harder in life because he is a part of the Latinx community. Being a person of color automatically reduces the amount of privilege that one has. One thing that he noticed from watching musical theatre is that Latinx stories, among other minority stories, are underrepresented. His goal was to change this. 

As seen in “In the Heights,” Miranda does a great job at highlighting Latinx stories and he does this further through “Hamilton,” while also promoting the representation of other minorities: there is only one white main character (King George).

Additionally, Miranda writes so much on the American Dream and finding success because he wants to be that encouragement for other people of color. Miranda wants to be seen as a role model, and he wants his musicals to leave people feeling encouraged, just like “In the Heights” made me feel after watching it for the first time. 

Kelise Gibson from Popsugar reports the following from her interview with Miranda: “Over the years, the show has introduced a whole new generation to American history. However, one thing Miranda really hopes is that the musical will inspire people to make their own mark on the world. ‘Your story will be told by those who survive you, you have no control over that,’ he said. ‘You can only control what you do and what you put into the world. Hamilton put a lot into the world in his short time and he was outlived by his enemies for a really long time. But he was also outlived by his wife who was, to me, the hero of the show. [Hamilton’s wife] leaves an incredible legacy of her own. And I think that’s what moves people, is the notion of what we do with the time we have on this planet.’”

“Hamilton” original broadway cast

Miranda’s own story of success within the theatre industry comes from hard work, and he makes a point to show this theme through his musicals- if you work hard enough, you can accomplish great things, no matter what you look like. On top of this, he also proves to show every story through his diverse characters, and accentuates the fact that we must also share our story. 

At the end of “Hamilton,” after Hamilton dies, Eliza explains how she is carrying on his legacy through the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” She wants Hamilton’s legacy to resonate through multiple generations. 

As college students, we are all doing whatever it takes to secure a successful future by being in college and stepping up to the plate every day. There is always that pit in our stomach telling us that what we are doing is wrong, and that we will fail. But we must keep hope, continue learning and fight through the bad days when we feel like the world is against us, because we know that there is light on the other side of the tunnel, no matter how long the darkness lasts. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a great example of how hard work can pay off, and he encourages us to tell our stories through his work. His example should prompt us to consider two questions: How will you strive to make your story heard today, tomorrow and the day after that? And will you choose to keep hope, work hard and make your mark?

Abby Doonan ('24) is the Arts Editor for The Anchor and was previously a staff writer. She is a theatre and communication double major from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Abby loves acting, any music that makes her dance or sing, hula hooping, romcom movies, and all things Marvel. She is passionate about arts journalism and strives to publish content that keeps you updated on all the artsy things!

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