A shot to help an is­land reel­ing from a storm

Mi­randa brings ‘Hamil­ton’ ashore to aid his fam­ily’s home, Puerto Rico

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PETER MARKS

san juan, puerto rico — With Lin-Manuel Mi­randa once again as its star, the cel­e­brated Broad­way hit “Hamil­ton” opened for busi­ness in Puerto Rico this week­end — that busi­ness be­ing the bol­ster­ing of the hopes and fi­nances of a be­lea­guered U.S. ter­ri­tory mired in debt and still reel­ing from the dev­as­ta­tion wreaked 16 months ago by Hur­ri­cane Maria.

The first per­for­mance on Fri­day night of the Tony­win­ning mu­si­cal at the Cen­tro de Bel­las Artes in the heart of the is­land’s cap­i­tal city be­to­kened one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary events in the his­tory of the na­tion’s per­form­ing arts. Here was a show ar­riv­ing not merely to en­ter­tain, but also to serve a hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion: rais­ing money for the re­lief ef­fort. But the quest was also to draw the world’s at­ten­tion to an Amer­i­can out­post that has long felt ne­glected by the coun­try that owns it, and es­pe­cially so in the af­ter­math of a dis­as­ter that trau­ma­tized the is­land.

Mi­randa’s mis­sion achieved an emo­tional pin­na­cle as a new “Hamil­ton” tour­ing pro­duc­tion — the mu­si­cal’s sixth in­car­na­tion — cel­e­brated its of­fi­cial open­ing to the hur­rahs of an ex­u­ber­ant sell­out crowd. When the ac­tor made his en­trance, dur­ing the in­tro­duc­tory num­ber, “Alexan­der Hamil­ton,” it was the au­di­ence that stopped the show, with a pro­longed, thun­der­ous ova­tion. At the cur­tain call nearly three hours later, Mi­randa once again brought down the house, with a teary speech that ended with him pulling a large Puerto

Ri­can flag from un­der his cos­tume and hold­ing it aloft.

“I just love the is­land so much,” he said dur­ing a post-show news con­fer­ence, “and I just want it to be proud of me.”

The spe­cial 23-per­for­mance visit of “Hamil­ton” to Puerto Rico, a Caribbean is­land of 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple that’s not a nor­mal stop for Broad­way pro­duc­tions, was in­deed a la­bor of love for Mi­randa and his fa­ther, Luis Mi­randa, a Puerto Ri­can na­tive who made a name for him­self in New York City Demo­cratic pol­i­tics. They pre­vailed upon the pro­duc­ers and in­vestors of the show — which brings in as much as $4 mil­lion a week on Broad­way alone — to do­nate the en­tire pro­ceeds of the San Juan en­gage­ment, after op­er­at­ing ex­penses, to a fund for strug­gling Puerto Ri­can artists and arts in­sti­tu­tions. The fund, ad­min­is­tered by the lo­cal Flam­boyan Foun­da­tion, which also has a Wash­ing­ton arm, stands to re­ceive $15 mil­lion from the “Hamil­ton” run, ac­cord­ing to Luis Mi­randa.

“I’m so happy that he brought us this art, which means so much to us as Puerto Ri­cans, not just as Amer­i­cans,” said Roberto Ramos Perea, a well-known play­wright and di­rec­tor here who heads the theater pro­gram at Ate­neo Puer­tor­riqueño, the is­land’s old­est arts in­sti­tu­tion and a re­pos­i­tory for its dra­matic lit­er­a­ture through the cen­turies. “This guy,” Perea said of Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, “has made some­thing dif­fi­cult to do: to cap­ture the at­ten­tion of the whole world for us.”

It’s dif­fi­cult to come up with a prece­dent for a Broad­way mu­si­cal un­der­gird­ing a move­ment for dis­as­ter re­lief and po­lit­i­cal recog­ni­tion of a prob­lem in quite the way “Hamil­ton” has. As Luis Mi­randa ex­plained, his son al­ready had spear­headed the rais­ing of $43 mil­lion in dis­as­ter re­lief for the His­panic Fed­er­a­tion, a non­profit group that seeks to strengthen Latino in­sti­tu­tions. De­vot­ing an en­tire run to ad­dress­ing the cri­sis raises the stakes in a way un­heard of in com­mer­cial theater.

“He’s bring­ing to the fore­front of the po­lit­i­cal agenda the is­sues of Puerto Rico more ef­fec­tively than any­one else is do­ing,” Roberto Prats, a for­mer se­na­tor and head of the Demo­cratic Party here, said of Mi­randa.

Or as Brad Dean, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Dis­cover Puerto Rico, the is­land’s non­profit tourism or­ga­ni­za­tion, put it: “The grand op­por­tu­nity is to turn Lin-Manuel’s gift into an im­pact that goes far be­yond the three weeks of the visit.”

Some res­i­dents re­sent lo­cal au­thor­i­ties’ bend­ing over back­ward for “Hamil­ton”: When a plan fell through at the last minute to stage the pro­duc­tion in a his­toric theater on the cam­pus of Luis Mi­randa’s alma mater, the Univer­sity of Puerto Rico, the gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately cleared a path to move “Hamil­ton” to the Cen­tro de Bel­las Artes. That left the univer­sity in the lurch, as the ren­o­va­tions to its theater — aided by a $1 mil­lion do­na­tion from the Flam­boyan Arts Fund, cre­ated with the Mi­ran­das — have not been com­pleted.

“We haven’t seen sup­port like that from any ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­cept now, for ‘ Hamil­ton,’ ” said Aida Belén Rivera-Ruiz, a UPR pro­fes­sor. “I would like to see them flour­ish with sup­port for lo­cal pro­duc­tions.”

Still, the Mi­ran­das’ ef­forts are be­ing widely hailed in the ar­du­ous cam­paign to get the is­land back on its feet. Hur­ri­cane Maria caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 Puerto Ri­cans, ac­cord­ing to the is­land gov­ern­ment, and left wide­spread dam­age, both to prop­erty and to psy­ches. Last year, an es­ti­mated 100,000 res­i­dents left for the U.S. main­land, ac­cord­ing to Ed­win Melén­dez, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Puerto Ri­can Stud­ies at Hunter Col­lege in New York. And the tal­ent drain is hit­ting hard in the artis­tic and pro­fes­sional classes.

The is­land’s en­dur­ing fis­cal dis­as­ter — a $70 bil­lion debt load that led to the im­po­si­tion by Con­gress of a board, known here as “the junta,” to put curbs on gov­ern­ment spend­ing — has only ex­ac­er­bated the sense of on­go­ing emer­gency.

“How can you have a re­cov­ery when your tax base is erod­ing by the day?” Melén­dez said. “It’s im­por­tant,” he added of the spot­light “Hamil­ton” is putting on the is­land, “be­cause re­build­ing Puerto Rico hasn’t started yet. The ma­jor re­con­struc­tion fund­ing is trick­ling down very slowly.”

A shrine to a home­town hero

If there’s one thing the Mi­ran­das know how to do these days, it’s com­mand at­ten­tion. A halfhour drive from San Juan, along the is­land’s north­ern coast, is Vega Alta, the home­town of the ex­tended Mi­randa fam­ily, which has be­come a tourist desti­na­tion for Lin-Manuel’s fans. In a sweet lit­tle plaza, or “placita,” on Luis Muñoz Rivera Street, the Mi­ran­das have es­tab­lished a kind of home­spun Lin-Manuel shrine. An out­door cafe, some small food stands, a sou­venir shop and a “Museo Mi­randa” (Mi­randa Mu­seum) host vis­i­tors who sip smooth­ies while gaz­ing at a gi­ant mo­saic por­trait of Lin-Manuel, posed like a rev­o­lu­tion­ary hero. In the mu­seum, sev­eral of his en­ter­tain­ment awards are dis­played, along with other por­traits.

“It grew out of be­ing a New Yorker and liv­ing in small spa­ces,” Luis Mi­randa said with a laugh dur­ing a morn­ing in­ter­view in the lobby of the Luis A. Ferré au­di­to­rium at the Cen­tro de Bel­las Artes in San Juan, as the “Hamil­ton” cast was re­hears­ing in­side. “We had the space in Puerto Rico, so why not store it there, in a dis­play way?”

Back in Vega Alta, while Luis’s brother Elvin and sis­ter Yamila chat­ted up vis­i­tors and talked to ven­dors, a tour group 20 or so strong sat at tables in the mu­seum, hav­ing lunch and peek­ing at the mem­o­ra­bilia. “I just adored his tal­ent — I think he’s one unique dude,” said Rox­ene Pierce, a re­tired high school Span­ish teacher from Iowa City who had bought a tour pack­age that in­cluded stops in Vega Alta and at a Bac­ardi rum dis­tillery, as well as a ticket to “Hamil­ton.”

Dave and Kathy Mullen, from Madi­son, Wis. — he’s a soft­ware ar­chi­tect and she ad­vises se­niors on how to down­size — drove out to Vega Alta on their own. They said their trip to Puerto Rico was oc­ca­sioned both by a love of “Hamil­ton” and by a de­sire to put their tourist dol­lars to work in a desti­na­tion that needed help. “It’s very dif­fi­cult not to re­spond pos­i­tively to Lin,” Dave Mullen said.

There was a sense time and again in talk­ing to vis­i­tors — 90 per­cent of the tourists are from the main­land — that peo­ple have in­deed re­sponded to Lin-Manuel Mi­randa and his fam­ily in a deeply per­sonal way.

“I had plans to come to Puerto Rico,” Pierce ex­plained, “be­cause [the Mi­ran­das] asked us to come to Puerto Rico.”

The power of art

It’s hard to cal­cu­late the ex­tent of Lin-Manuel Mi­randa’s fame: Puerto Ri­cans say that even here, his renown, as yet, is con­cen­trated in cos­mopoli­tan cir­cles, rather than across the spec­trum of is­land so­ci­ety. Still, with tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances and his role in the new Dis­ney movie “Mary Pop­pins Re­turns,” his vis­i­bil­ity con­tin­ues to rise, and his in­ten­tion seems to be to har­ness that pop­u­lar ap­peal for key causes, such as his foray into cul­tural diplo­macy and hu­man­i­tar­ian aid.

At the packed news con­fer­ence Fri­day night, Puerto Ri­can re­porters posed the kind of ques­tions asked of po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates: What did he think about the debt prob­lem? What about crime? How did he feel about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s threat to take money away from Puerto Ri­can dis­as­ter aid to pay for a bor­der wall? Mi­randa, still reel­ing from the emo­tions of per­form­ing — dur­ing a num­ber called “Hur­ri­cane,” he said, he’d had trou­ble main­tain­ing his com­po­sure — seemed a bit over­whelmed by it all.

“Lin has al­ways been ex­tremely cau­tious about choos­ing his po­lit­i­cal causes,” said Os­kar Eustis, artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Pub­lic Theater in New York, where “Hamil­ton” had its world pre­miere in Fe­bru­ary 2015. “He has taken Puerto Rico’s safety, health and so­cial pol­icy as a cen­tral po­lit­i­cal pol­icy of his own.” Ac­cord­ing to Eustis, Lin-Manuel and his po­lit­i­cally as­tute fa­ther “be­lieve it’s a cause that has no down­side.”

Like other fig­ures cen­tral to “Hamil­ton’s” de­vel­op­ment — from lead pro­ducer Jef­frey Seller to Ron Ch­er­now, on whose Hamil­ton bi­og­ra­phy Mi­randa based the mu­si­cal, to ac­tors Les­lie Odom Jr., An­thony Ramos and Jas­mine Cephas Jones from the orig­i­nal cast — Eustis came to San Juan to wit­ness this his­toric mu­si­cal-mo­ment. Quest­love and Shonda Rhimes were there, too, on Fri­day night; Oprah Win­frey will soon be on her way; Jimmy Fal­lon will broad­cast from San Juan this week; and a con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is said to be ar­riv­ing, too.

The power of Lin-Manuel Mi­randa and “Hamil­ton” to arouse cu­rios­ity and com­pel at­ten­tion, four years after the show came into be­ing, seems a phe­nom­e­non un­par­al­leled in the an­nals of Broad­way.

“If you can marry pol­i­tics, gov­ern­ment need and the arts, ‘Hamil­ton’ is the per­fect sce­nario for that to hap­pen,” said Prats, who is plan­ning a run for gover­nor in 2020. A die-hard “Hamil­ton” fan, Prats sees much to sa­vor, and learn from, in the story of a Caribbean-born im­mi­grant who helped lead colonies to fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence.

“I’m go­ing to quote a line from the show,” he said. “‘Raise a glass to the four of us; to­mor­row there’ll be more of us.’ We raise a glass to Lin-Manuel and hope that to­mor­row, there’ll be more of him.”


Lin-Manuel Mi­randa waves the Puerto Ri­can flag Fri­day after the open­ing night of “Hamil­ton” in San Juan, Puerto Rico.


Dave and Kathy Mullen of Madi­son, Wis., take a selfie in front of a mu­ral hon­or­ing Lin-Manuel Mi­randa in the Puerto Ri­can home­town of the play­wright’s fam­ily, Vega Alta. The Mul­lens said their trip was oc­ca­sioned both by a love of “Hamil­ton” and a de­sire to put their tourist dol­lars to work in a desti­na­tion that needed help.

A “Hamil­ton” fan places his Puerto Rico flag hat over a logo pro­jec­tion at the San Juan pre­miere of the Tony- and Pulitzer-win­ning mu­si­cal.

Puerto Ri­can play­wright and di­rec­tor Roberto Ramos Perea says Lin-Manuel Mi­randa “has made some­thing dif­fi­cult to do: to cap­ture the at­ten­tion of the whole world for us.”

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