Emotional opening for ‘Hamilton’ in Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – With Lin-Manuel Miranda once again as its star, the celebrated Broadway hit Hamilton opened for business in Puerto Rico recently – that business being the bolstering of the hopes and finances of a beleaguered US territory mired in debt and still reeling from the devastation wreaked 16 months ago by Hurricane Maria.

The first performance last Friday night of the Tony-winning musical at the Centro des 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 traumatised the island.

Miranda’s mission achieved an emotional crescendo 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 labour 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 USD4 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 USD15 million from the Hamilton run, according to Luis Miranda.

Playwright and director Roberto Ramos Perea, considered to be the father of Puerto Rican theatre, is president of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, the island’s oldest theatre and a repository for its dramatic literature
Tourists and Hamilton fans Dave and Kathy Mullen of Madison, Wisconsin, pose for a selfie in front of a mural honouring Lin Manuel Miranda in the Miranda family’s Purto Rican hometown of Vega Alta

“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 and president of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, the island’s oldest theatre and a repository for its dramatic literature through the centuries. “This guy,” Perea said of Lin-Manuel, “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 USD43 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 organisation, 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 theatre 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 des Bellas Artes. That left the university in the lurch, as the renovations to its theatre – aided by a USD1 million donation from 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 and left widespread damage, both to property and to psyches.

Last year, an estimated 100,000 residents left for the US mainland, according to Edwin Melendez, 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 USD70 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?” Melendez 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.”

If there’s one thing the Mirandas know how to do these days, it’s command attention. A half-hour 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 des 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’ 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, Wisconsin – 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 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.

You sensed time and again in talking to visitors – 90 per cent of the tourists are from the mainland – that people have indeed responded to Lin-Manuel and his family in a deeply personal way.

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

It’s hard to calculate the extent of Lin-Manuel’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 current foray into cultural diplomacy and humanitarian aid.

At the packed news conference, 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 the 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 biography of Hamilton 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-theatre 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 next week; and a congressional delegation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 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 savour, and learn from, in the story of a Caribbean-born immigrant who helps 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.” – Text and Photos by The Washington Post