“It’s very hard to feverishly create when you have a five-year-old and a two-year-old,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda via video call from New York. The actor, writer and composer who revitalised musical theatre with the global hit Hamilton has been going through lockdown headaches like the rest of us, it seems. Miranda has two sons, Sebastian and Francisco, with wife Vanessa Nadal, a lawyer and chemical engineer whom he met in high school.
Last year, he talked about their shared love of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels – “We read them together when we were first dating, they were the books we fell in love to.” They were the reason why he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to play the buccaneering, balloon “aëronaut” Lee Scoresby in the BBC’s big-budget adaptation of the trilogy, which returns for a second series on November 8.
It fell into “the category of: would I kick myself for ever if I said no? … because my wife and I love those books so much”. So is his Lee Scoresby the way his reading partner imagined him? “No idea,” he laughs. He pitched the idea that Scoresby should sport a “Clark Gable moustache”, he volunteers, although he suggests that he ends up looking more like the celebrated Mexican comedian Cantinflas.
His parents, Luis A Miranda Jr and Luz Towns-Miranda, are both of Puerto-Rican descent. His mother is a psychologist; his father, who arrived in New York City in the Seventies and became an influential political consultant, has just been the subject of the HBO film documentary Siempre, Luis. It proves something that 40-year-old Miranda has long claimed, he tells me: “I am the mellowest person in my family.”
He describes himself as “the token American” in the cast of His Dark Materials. Does he think that the show’s diverse casting has added to the richness of the story? “I think that it is to the benefit of any fantasy world to diversify the cast – you’re telling me we can have orcs and dwarves and daemons, but we can’t have more than one skin hue?” It’s an interesting moment to discuss it because, although the release of the film of his first musical, In the Heights, has been pushed back to next June, the trailer had already been released, and was, as is now customary, greeted by criticism on the outlet for collective hysteria that is social media.
The story focuses on Washington Heights, a mostly Latino neighbourhood in New York, close to where Miranda grew up. The criticism focused on a perceived lack of representation of people from an Afro-Dominican background in that area of the city. “I think when people see the movie, they’ll see that we really have done our best to represent everybody, Afro-Latinos included,” he responds.
And what of the Twitter-led #CancelHamilton campaign this summer, when the musical was pilloried for its depiction of an American founding father, in Alexander Hamilton, who indirectly benefited from the slave trade, without reference to the impact of slavery on the people who suffered it. The film was released at the height of worldwide protests. Would Miranda have been upset if the statue of Hamilton in Central Park had been toppled?
“I think if I were in love with statues, we wouldn’t have made Hamilton the way we made it,” he says, sounding ever so slightly exasperated by the question. “We were obviously never trying to make idols of these people. The goal was to make them as human and as flawed as possible… If there’s any thesis in the show, it’s that these guys were making it up as they went along… and their foibles and their contradictions make it into the contradictions of our founding.
“In terms of criticism, it’s all valid. I don’t believe criticism equals cancellation. I know what didn’t make it into the show, I’m the one who spent six years writing it. That’s part of what comes with taking real life and trying to smoosh it into two and a half hours of musical theatre, there’s always going to be stuff that doesn’t make it in… Everything that’s not in the show is fair game to point out.”
But what happens if the world keeps changing in such a way that even a great work of art like Hamilton – “a proto-immigrant story”, as he describes it, with diversity so fundamentally encoded in its performance – can be attacked and dismissed? Where are we heading? “The world’s always changing,” he says, as if the question is rather simplistic. “That’s one of the things Hamilton’s about, right? Hamilton was thought of as great for a while, and then he’s outlived by people who hate him. And he’s erased and the opinion changes. Reputations rise and fall. That’s one of the things the show’s about, so I don’t see why [it] would escape that. It happens to all of us.”
I can see his genial smile and laid-back hoodie, but our video connection is beset by freezes and delays that make the conversation fractured, like talking to a Sixties astronaut in space. I ask him about the “daemons” in His Dark Materials, essentially souls that exist independently outside each character’s body. Scoresby’s is an Arctic hare named Hester; Miranda wonders if his own might be a bookworm – as “left to my own devices, I’m curled up with either an analogue book or a Kindle on long trips.”
He is a big fan of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books (which to many are a less cerebral alternative to Pullman’s trilogy). I want to know whether he is conflicted about Rowling’s comments this year about sex and gender. “I am disheartened and saddened by them as a fan,” he says. “And by her continued insistence on pushing this point, when there are so many other things, so many issues. I was very moved by Daniel Radcliffe’s statement in which he says, this does not take away the world you lived in and the experience you’ve had with these books, and I’m trying to hold on to that.”
For the time being, Miranda is getting on with various writing projects. These include an animated film musical, Vivo, for which he has written original songs, and another animated film project, Encanto, for Disney, about a girl in Latin America who is the only member of her family without magical powers. Both are due to splash down in 2021. “I fell in love with musicals because The Little Mermaid blew my mind,” he tells me.
Hamilton’s huge success means Miranda “doesn’t have to take a gig to pay the rent”, he admits. “But then the question becomes: what do you want to spend your time doing? And the answer is that I’m trying to say yes to the stuff I still want to write and that is self-generated. I have my stories that I carry around like luggage, and I want to put those into the world. Hamilton was certainly not the last one of those.”
His Dark Materials returns to BBC One on Sunday November 8 at 8.10pm