“So, I say no to a lot of awards,” began Lin-Manuel Miranda as he accepted the statue for the 2017 Anthony Quinn Foundation Award, presented to an individual who has made an impact on the arts and benefiting the Anthony Quinn Foundation that provides artistic scholarships for high school students. “I say no all the time, and this was a very easy yes because it does all the things that I think are important. The arts when we’re young are a silver bullet—they unlock our human potential, and I know they saved my life.”
The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of In The Heights and Hamilton stood proudly on the stage of Joe’s Pub August 29 to accept this award. Established in 2015, in honor of the 100th birthday of Oscar-winning actor and artist Anthony Quinn, Miranda accepted the award from the 2016 recipient, actor Edward James Olmos.
A celebration and benefit to raise money for the scholarship foundation, the focus sat squarely on arts education—a cause the Public Theater and its artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and Miranda champion. Seven previous recipients of the Anthony Quinn Scholarship took to the stage, including horn player Joe Broom, violinist Dallas Noble, French horn player Alexander Trufanov, cellist Wick Simmons, actor Steven Rosario, and singer Sophia Drapeau. Pianist and scholarship recipient William Grear accompanied the pre-ceremony cocktail hour.
The highlight of the evening was the onstage conversation between collaborators Eustis and Miranda, focusing on their younger high school selves. “Before I found theatre, before I got into my first play at the end of eighth grade, it was mostly writing bad lyrics about songs for girls I liked. And theatre saved my life in a very real way,” Miranda declared. “I grew to experience high school not by semester but play in the fall, musical in the winter, student-written shows in the spring.”
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Miranda revealed that his eighth-grade English teacher was the person who encouraged him to write musicals for the student-written theatre club at Hunter in New York City after Miranda chose to write a musical version of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen for a school assignment. “The assignment was to teach three chapters, but I decided to write a musical number for each chapter we had to teach,” explained Miranda, “and such a control freak was I that I recorded my own voice on cassette and made the other kids in my group lip sync to my voice.”
After that, Miranda wrote a show called Bathroom Humor that was not accepted by the club. He followed that up with a play, Sam I Am, “and then my first musical got accepted when I was a junior in high school. It was called Nightmare in D Major. It was about a dream, a trip through the subconscious. My first musical that was any good I wrote my senior year, [and it] was called 7 Minutes in Heaven about my first unchaperoned party.
“They say write what you know, and I was a senior writing about seventh grade,” he laughed. Then, impromptu, Miranda sang a song from the musical that has never been performed on a professional New York stage for the audience. Watch the video above.
Despite all the laughs, Miranda brought the evening back to arts education. “By finding my tribe and finding the people who were older and younger than me and consumed by the same thing...we wanted to make stuff. We didn’t want to just hang out, there was plenty of that. I never understood that. You’re just wasting time sitting in the stairwell. What are you making? What are you doing? ‘Why do you write like you’re...’’’
Eustis seconded the life-saving power of youth theatre. “For my entire time growing up, I was too loud, I talked too much, I was way too eager, too enthusiastic, I thought too hard, I laughed too loud, and I cried too easily,” he shared. “As soon as I was in the theatre, I felt I found people who got me, and suddenly all of those things that were social negatives out in the real world were positives.”
No surprise that these two storytellers were able to convey the necessity of theatre through powerful personal stories of their childhoods, all while raising money to pass along the tradition of art to the next generation.
For more information about the Anthony Quinn Foundation and to donate to the Scholarship, click here.