Music

Why Is Lin-Manuel Miranda Throwing Away His Shot?

Cast member Lin-Manuel Miranda poses for a portrait during a press junket for Mary Poppins Returns in Beverly Hills, Calif., November 28, 2018. (Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS)
He is wasting the prime years of his unmatched talent on trivialities.

Everybody needs a vacation, and after Hamilton maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda needed one more than most. At some point, though, relaxing becomes loafing. Miranda has a wonderful gift, but what he’s done with it lately is unconscionable.

This week marks four years since Miranda’s musical masterpiece Hamilton first lit up the stage at New York City’s Public Theatre. At the same time, Miranda was working on a slate of songs for Disney’s Moana, and he continued to star in the Broadway transfer of Hamilton until the summer of 2016, by which time the movie was being finished. A limitless future beckoned. Miranda had done something only a handful of people had done in the entire history of musical theater: provided stellar music and masterful lyrics for a terrific show. Miranda had earned a place in a club so exclusive it contains only about half a dozen members: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, maybe a couple of others. (Sorry, Stephen Schwartz, your application was denied.)

Since then, Miranda’s accomplishments have been spotty. He turned up as a singer-actor in Mary Poppins Returns. He had a funny guest gig on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Last year he did the voice of Gizmoduck on Disney’s Duck Tales. This week we learned he’s going to do another guest appearance, on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

It gets worse. The most recent work to bear the vaunted name of Miranda as author is an embarrassing collection of inspirational old-lady verses adapted from Twitter called Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You. The volume should have been called Glord, Ggrief. To call this book of self-help inanities doggerel would be an insult to dogs. It’s like getting locked in the Hallmark aisle at CVS. Sample:

Good morning, stunner
You’re just getting started
Your age doesn’t matter
The sun is up, the day is new
You’re just getting started

The book is illustrated with cute line drawings by Jonny Sun, and at times Miranda seems less inspired by Porter, Berlin, or Sondheim than by Seuss:

Good night!
Good night!
Let’s make some new mistakes!
Let’s stumble toward success and pack some snacks for little breaks!

Is this a book or the copy for a set of kitchen magnets? It’s alarming to watch a Pulitzer Prize–winning, MacArthur-certified genius take a turn for the Oprah.

Good morning.
Keep busy while you wait for the miracle.
Good night.
Get some rest while you wait for the miracle.

Could Miranda be the next Cole Porter? Maybe. But at the moment he seems content to be a combination of Stuart Smalley and Dick Van Dyke. It’s as if Stephen Sondheim followed up West Side Story by doing guest shots on The Flying Nun while contributing a few songs to The Aristocats. But that’s being generous. Sondheim would probably prefer to die in a fire rather than put his name to Sesame Street–style inspirational thoughts such as “Look at you! / The miracle of you, the thrill of you / becoming who you’ll be!” The exclamation point alone would make Sondheim retch.

Why is Miranda wasting his time guest-starring on sitcoms and writing vacuous you-can-do-it verse? It’s been 20 years since even fortune-cookie sayings started to contain attitude. Yet with Gmorning, Gnight! Miranda has taken such a giant step backwards, he could be writing lyrics for the Carpenters.

Miranda is earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a week from the Hamilton franchise, which has opened in London and spun off three road productions and is grossing more than $3 million a week on Broadway alone (7 percent of which Miranda pockets). The fortune he is making is well-deserved, but more important, it gives him total artistic freedom. Miranda can do whatever he wants. He need not worry about whether his next idea is commercial. He need not agree to do any paycheck jobs. He should be thinking, reading, searching for another big concept, something worthy of his potential.

That potential, someone needs to tell him after tossing a glass of ice water in his face, is in writing. True, Miranda is an okay actor. He is also a so-so singer. I offer no opinion on whether he is adequate at doing the voice of a cartoon talking duck. But the average chorus boy on Broadway is a far more talented performer than he is. What is special about Miranda is that he can write. Everything else is a hobby. Everything else is taking him away from his core as an artist.

Miranda isn’t doing justice to his gift by spending what ought to be some of his most productive years essentially killing time with one minor project after another. At his age, Sondheim was beginning the greatest string of musicals any composer-lyricist ever created: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, etc. Miranda is working on songs for a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (whose original lyrics, by Howard Ashman, will prove difficult to top) and for a Sony animated movie, Vivo, billed as “the tale of a capuchin monkey with a thirst for adventure — and a passion for music.”

So, not exactly a rival to Sweeney Todd, I guess. Miranda just turned 39. That’s a bit too young for him to be dialing down his ambitions, kicking back, and enjoying his reputation. It’s a bit too young to be the avuncular sage of Broadway. And it’s way too young to be writing self-help rubbish about how gosh-darn special everyone is. Leave the coffee-mug poetry to the coffee-mug poets. Few among us have the capacity to do something truly exceptional. Lin-Manuel Miranda has proven he does, and every day he isn’t trying to do something as brilliant as Hamilton, he does a disservice to himself and to the rest of us.

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