Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Arts Education…Saved My Life”

By Stephen Raskauskas |

Lin-Manuel Miranda is seen in New York, New York on Tuesday September 2, 2015.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is seen in New York, New York on Tuesday September 2, 2015. (MacArthur Fellows Images)

Lin-Manuel Miranda has impacted many lives through his Pulitzer Prize-winning work Hamilton: An American Musical. Recently, Miranda revealed how the arts have impacted him, saying that arts education, “saved my life.”

The room where it happened was a studio at Hubbard Street Dance Center in Chicago’s West Loop, home of Hubbard Street Dance. Since Hamilton has landed in Chicago, Miranda stopped by to speak with his college friend and Hubbard Street Director of External Affairs Suzanne Appel about the musical, his career, his journey with dance, and the importance of arts education in his life.

“The impact of arts education on my career is complete, total, and it saved my life. I had the good fortune to go to a magnet school in New York called Hunter and I went there from elementary through high school. There, my life was really changed by an elementary school music teacher named Barbara Ames. She and our shop teacher, Robert Sherman, would direct the sixth grade play. It started when Barbara first arrived at Hunter and that was when I was in kindergarten; so the accident of timing could not be more perfect.

“The entire sixth grade culminates in doing a musical and the whole elementary comes to see the sixth graders perform. I saw Westside Story when I was in kindergarten. In first grade, I saw Fiddler on the Roof. In second, I saw a mash-up of the Wizard of Oz and The Wiz. By second grade, you’re already thinking, ‘What’s our play going to be when we’re the sixth graders?’ So my brain is wired to school culminating in a musical. In third grade, it was Peter Pan, fourth grade, Oklahoma, fifth grade, Bye Bye Birdie. We’re vibrating at this point with the question, ‘What is our sixth grade play going to be?’

9/26/16 5:12:52 PM Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. An Evening with Lin-Manuel Miranda © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and original star of Hamilton: An American Musical, in conversation with Suzanne Appel, Hubbard Street’s Director of External Affairs, at the Hubbard Street Dance Center in Chicago. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

“For our sixth grade play, Mr. Sherman and Ms. Ames basically ran out of age appropriate musicals for elementary school children. They ended up going to a summer intensive for teachers where they worked on writing musicals with the kids. When school started, they said, ‘You’re not performing a sixth grade play, you’re writing your own.’ So we replied, ‘No! We’ve been waiting our entire lives to do a musical that someone else wrote.’

“After about half a year of working on our own musical and crying, Mr. Sherman and Ms. Ames came up with a compromise. The compromise was that we would do the previous six years’ worth of musicals in addition to four student written musicals and the show was called Four Plus Six, By Six Grade.  It ended up being four hours long. Poor Barbra Ames, I have no idea how she is not ridden with carpal tunnel syndrome; she played piano for the whole thing. I got to write a short musical, I played Conrad Birdie, a cow hand in Oklahoma, a son in Fiddler on the Roof, Captain Hook in Peter Pan, Bernardo in Westside Story, and an Addaperle backup in the Wizard of Oz/The Wiz.

“This is a very lethal dosage of musical theater at a very young age. I got to literally play all of the parts and I realized that it was the best time of my life. I got to play Conrad Birdie when I was small and twelve and when you’re Conrad Birdie every girl in the grade has to not only pretend to fall in love with you but faint as you sing! In that moment, wearing the gold lamé jacket that my abuela made for me, I thought ‘I am doing this for the rest of my life if they will let me!’

“Then that became my identity in high school due to a student run theater group. I no longer thought of school in semesters; I thought of it as: we do a play in the fall, we do a musical in the winter, and we had a student run theater group called Brick Prison which we would do in the spring. I was a writer with a deadline because I really wanted to get a play into Brick. That was the focus of my creative efforts for as long as I can remember.”

How has arts education impacted your life? Tell us in the comments.


  • Caterina B

    Well, thanks the heavens for his school and his music teacher! Lin Manual Miranda is fabulous. If only all kids could have this kind of all encompassing experience in school. I do not necessarily mean in music and theater, but something that sets them on fire and gives them a purpose!

    • Bernadette Walsh

      Please check out our website, we try to light that fire each year – this time around it will be Fiddler On The Roof, Jr. Through careful management we make it work – we have to for without the arts there would be no fires for some.

  • Ruth Brannigan

    We should all contribute to the Hallelujah Chorus that Lin Manuel Miranda’s creativity and incredible mind were nurtured in a rich environment. As a teacher, I do my best working with children on all levels. It is my life’s work and, in part, why I’m on this planet.
    My personal salvation was multi-tiered. I had the right parents, a great active neighborhood bursting with ragamuffins like me. My mom made sure of the everyday. My dad was in charge of the long shots. They both brought in their fair share of miracles.
    One of those miracles was sending me to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Young Peoples’ Concerts Series every year. I was privileged to hear and see close-hand the best musicians conducted by world renown giants of classical music. William Steinberg lead the charge. He had been a protégé of Otto Klemperer (father of Werner Klemperer of “Hogan’s Heroes” fame) before fleeing Hitler.
    Concurrently, he directed the Boston Symphony while conducting Pittsburgh’s symphony. Incredible. He paved the way for Leonard Bernstein to host several of our concerts. Next was Andre Previn. another great talent. He was followed by Lorin Maazel.
    You would think that I would have studied music, but no. I enjoy it along with other types of music including rap and hip-hop. Love it all. The other gifts bestowed are many. The varied cultures. The stories. The education.
    None of this would have been possible without the guidance and exasperated love from the Sisters of Mercy for walking with us to the concert hall. They made us elite concert goers. Our hair was combed. Our hands and face washed. Our attention and courtesy….whether we felt like it or not at the time. lol
    We understood what we had was unusually lofty and more than many would receive. I treasure it, as you can see and wish it for every ragamuffin.

  • Hill View

    every year i tell my republican senator that if my school did not have theatre and art and music, I would have only been a druggie . every year I remind him.

  • Armygirl35

    I was in school before they started cutting all the Arts. Now I am in college, after serving in the Military, and a Theatre Major. Upon graduation and meeting the requirements for the Alternative Licensing in my state, I will become a Theatre/Drama Lit teacher for K-12.

  • Bernadette Walsh

    Our theatre is UpStage Players, now in its 23rd year of bringing the performing arts to children ages 7 to 15 with a no cut policy. No one takes a salary we all volunteer. We know what a theatre experience means to a young performer or audience member. We take the children to the theatre to learn to be a good audience. Funding is a variety of methods but we make it work. This year we are doing Fiddler On The Roof, Jr. We started in 1995 with Camelot – the kids from Camelot are now bringing back their children to perform, it makes you smile WE LOVE THEATRE. Check out our web page

  • Julia

    I’m currently a 12th grade student in high school. To put it simply when people ask me what my career options are or what I’m gonna do post secondary my answer is usually “I’m an arts kid” that’s all they really need to know. Since we dont have much funding in the arts programs I try my damndest to make the best of what we have. Ok…. well we do get funding but 90% of it goes to the rep music program. Almost none goes to the performing arts. At my school we don’t put on musicals because we don’t have the resources to put one on. Hell, we barely have a stage. (It’s basically a few flat black boxes on the floor). This is the first year we have actually had curtains. But like I said I and everybody else make the best of it because we have such passion for it. We put on two shows a year. There always about two hour long shoes composed of a few different short plays with some dancing and singing in between. We put so much work into it. We use already existing plays and songs as well as student written ones. It’s all a work of us students with help of our schools drama teacher. I feel that doing this has really changed my life. Much like what lin said in his article I know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I liked being challanged to make the best of it. I hope I take these skills and this passion into the future.

  • lwwarfel

    Even though I’m not an arts professional, I so appreciate the loving care of my piano/organ teacher, Mrs. Walston; my creative writing teacher, Miss Dranginis; and my public speaking teacher, Mrs. Usher for instilling in me a love for the beauty of words and music. Serves my soul well every day!

  • Gloria Wisby Goodwin

    I am a theatre teacher at a small college. This article is so inspirational. It saved my life as well. Bravo!

  • Sara Pohl

    In my small home town, sports are king. Growing up I naturally joined softball, the only sport for girls in summer, and hated it. However, I thought that is what I “had” to do. In late July, I happened to stumble into the Lion, Tinman, Scarcrow, and Dorothy at the local 7-11. Dorothy was a girl from my class and I asked why she was dressed as she was. They were in a local summer theatre group I had never heard of. I couldn’t join that year, but I waited it out and joined the next summer. It was after that I found “my tribe”. We weren’t the most popular, but we were crazy and smart and free to be anything we wanted. I haven’t stopped since.

  • Jill Garland

    Robert Nation and Barbara Hall. High School. We learned about teamwork, deadlines, history, Shakespeare, math. Being in the theater and dance depts meant learning how to manage your time, take responsibility, and watch your fellow performers’ back. I’ve been lucky to enjoy a career in the arts, but even if I hadn’t I still would have walked away a better student and person. Not all of us had the talent of a Lin-Manuel Miranda, but these lessons learned so early informed our lives in the most positive ways.

  • Prilla

    Would you believe I was an arts kid and never knew it…but, the universe has a way of correcting that. Fast forward: I am in retirement from public education and all of a sudden there is an opening at the Denver School of the Arts on the academic side of things. It took some years but I found my kids and my peeps! I have such an appreciation for the creative side of things— I just didn’t know how much. Even though I retired again, I get to help ALL kids find the right college for themselves, including the right BFA or BM or BA programs for budding artists, upcoming politicians, future doctors, bankers et. al.

    And, I love Lin’s energy, brain, and of course, the universe one more time blessed me with tickets to Hamilton at a “normal” price. Next wish: to someday have a 5 minute conversation with Mr. Lin Hamilton!