Excerpts from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s commencement speech at Wesleyan College, where he graduated in 2002, in which he mentions the genesis of In The Heights, and quotes from Hamilton. The school awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
Graduating class of 2015, my dear, exhausted graduates, senior week is over. The people who love you are behind you taking pictures and ready to cheer for your name. The U-Haul is rented and waiting your things, because you didn’t pack. Your time here is up. If you feel like I felt on graduation day, right now your stomach is a volatile cocktail made of relief, regret, pride and coco-berry freeze.
I remember that.
Most of all, I remember the sound of two distinct clocks in my head. One is super fast, whirring. T-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t.
That’s the sound of your four years at Wesleyan. With one day to go, all the packing you still have to do, all the people with whom you are still trying to find a moment to say the right goodbye. The other clock is in the distance, but it’s slower and it’s booming: that’s the sound of the rest of your life, and what you’re going to do with it in the time you have on this earth. Some of you hear this clock constantly. You wake up in cold sweats at the thought of it. Some of you are utterly oblivious to it, God bless you. Guess what? It’s ticking whether you hear it or not.
Dramatic right? I’m a theater major, I graduated with honors. It better be dramatic. But it’s also true.
I’ve written a new musical entitled Hamilton; it’s opening on Broadway this summer. There are lots of characters in the show, but I want to talk about two of them in particular, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. On the surface, these men had a lot in common: They were both orphaned at a young age, though Burr grew up in wealth and privilege in New England, Hamilton in poverty in the Caribbean. Both prodigious students, revered commanders in the Revolutionary War, expert lawyers, respected politicians, innovative businessmen, until 1804 when one kills another in a duel. This duel is their most famous act, linking them together forever.
The engine of my new musical is the fact that Hamilton and Burr both hear that ticking clock of mortality at a very young age, and the way in which they choose to live in the FACE of that knowledge puts them in a collision course from the moment they meet. I’m going to sing a little bit, so if you made a bet that I’d be rapping during the Commencement address, your friend owes you money. Or points.
Let’s start with Hamilton. He reaches New York with the clothes on his back, a small stipend to pursue his studies, and not much else. Except for the knowledge that he is meeting an unprecedented historical moment, colonies on the brink of revolution, and he wants to be there for all of it. He marches into Fraunce’s Tavern, the hotbed of revolution, and he sings.
I’m a get a scholarship to King’s College.
I probably shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish.
The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish.
i gotta holler just to be heard
With every word, I drop knowledge!
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal
Tryin to reach my goal, my power of speech is unimpeachable
I’m nineteen but my mind is older
These New York City streets get colder, I shoulder
Every burden, every disadvantage
I have learned to manage,I don’t have a gun to brandish
I walk these streets famished
The plan is to fan this spark into a flame
But damn it’s getting dark, so let me spell out the name.
I am the A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R—we are—meant to be
A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George runs around on a spending spree
And he ain’t ever going to set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century
He said in parentheses
Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me
I will lay down my life if it sets us free
Eventually you’ll see my ascendency, and
I am not throwing away my shot.
I am not throwing away my shot.
Hey yo, I am just like my country
I am young, scrappy and hungry
And i’m not throwing away my shot
Contrast this with Aaron Burr. While Hamilton charges forward, Burr’s reaction to the ticking clock is to wait. Wait for the perfect moment to present itself, and act decisively in that moment. He is cool, collected. He sings in the first act:
My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher
But there are things that the homilies and hymns won’t teach ya
My mother was a genius
My father commanded respect
When they died they left no instructions.
Just a legacy to protect.
and the saints
we keep living
We rise and we
And if there’s a
reason I’m still
who loves me has
I’m willing to
wait for it
I’m willing to
wait for it
I am not throwing away my shot
Wait for it wait for it wait for it
Two ways of facing death. two ways of approaching life. Two ways of approaching the tiny ticking clock marking your time at Wesleyan.
I came to Wesleyan intending to double major in theater and film, but I fell in love with the instant gratification of student theater. You’re telling me I can write something in the fall, apply to Second Stage, get a budget and put it up in the spring?! I am not throwing away my shot!
By the end of freshman year, I’d been in two musicals, a play and directed my own 20-minute musical in the Westco Café. My future collaborator, Tommy Kail, is directing a series of one acts on the same weekend: He’s a senior and I’m a freshman. He graduates that year and we never meet. Wait for it wait for it wait…
Back home in New York, my father quits the not-for-profit Latino organization he founded to make money in the private sector. My mother, a psychologist, doubles down on her workload and begins seeing patients seven days a week. My education is their second mortgage. And they are killing themselves to afford it. I am keenly aware of their sacrifice and the tiny clock gets louder. Tick tick tick tick tick tick. I am not throwing away my shot….
Sophomore year, I move into La Casa with eight other “Latino community leaders,” and for the first time in my life, I have Latino friends my age who understand me. Whole sections of me open up to these friends, parts of me previously reserved only for my family, and I begin drawing on my Latino heritage in my writing for the first time. The result? An 80-minute one-act musical, right over there, called In the Heights. I share the weekend with the dance troupe Terp, and I am not throwing away my shot. Two seniors, John Mailer and Neil Stewart, see the production and tell me, “We love it. We’re forming a theater company when we get out of here. Will you call us in two years when you graduate?” I put In the Heights in a drawer for two years. Wait for it, wait for it, wait.
I do not study abroad my junior year. I have too many plays I have agreed to work on! I am not throwing away my shot!
On a Tuesday morning at the beginning of my senior year, I drive down to the now-defunct Colony Records in Middletown. It’s primary day in New York, and I want to buy the new Bob Dylan album, listen to it on my drive to the city, vote, and come back in time for my afternoon classes. The stoner behind the register says, “Hey, they’re sayin’ on the radio someone just tried to blow up the World Trade Center.” I say, “You’re crazy. Someone tried to do that in the ’90s.” This guy is out of his mind. He says, “Anyway, it’s a good day to buy a Bob Dylan album.”
I get back to our house on 84 Home Ave., and turn on the TV to see all of Manhattan covered in smoke. The Twin Towers have fallen, it’s not even 10 in the morning. I try to call my family but all the lines are jammed because everyone is trying to call their family. Over the course of the day, my housemates and I make drinks and food for dazed wanderers who stop in to watch the news on our TV. I meet one friend whose brother worked at the World Trade Center but called in sick that day. And another whose father went to work early and was not spared. Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. The big clock, the real clock, booms louder than the tiny, whirring one that marks your Wesleyan time. It’s impossible to drown it out, because it’s actually the sound of your own heart pounding in your ears.
Graduates, my sleepy graduates, my terrified graduates, I wish I could tell you that the key to life beyond Wesleyan was as simple as saying to yourself, I am not throwing away my shot. To be like Hamilton, to charge forward and chase what you want. But in reality, it took eight years of hard work to take that 80-minute one-act from Second Stage into the version that opened on Broadway. Eight years for the guy who fell in love with theater because of the instant gratification.
I wish I could tell you the key to life beyond Wesleyan is, Wait for it, wait for it, wait. To be like Burr, to wait for the perfect opportunity to present itself. But in reality, I wrote In the Heights my sophomore year because I NEEDED to write it. I was bursting with ideas, inspired by my housemates at La Casa, and I couldn’t set them to music fast enough. Because I was nearing the end of a four-year relationship that had begun in high school. When she left to study abroad, I found myself with all this time and angst, and I used it as rocket fuel to write that first Heights draft in about three weeks.
In reality, you’re always going to be rushing and waiting at the same time. You will pack your things to leave tomorrow while savoring every moment of today. You’ll chase down your friends to say goodbye, but know that the ones who matter the most will be in your life for the rest of your life. You picture where you’ll be in five years, but the world might change around you while you’re buying a Bob Dylan album. You take out a second mortgage and work seven days a week so four years later, you can cheer the loudest when they call your child’s name at graduation. You hold the present in your hand as tight as you can, while your other hand reaches out for more.
I’ll conclude with one more passage from Hamilton, but I want to thank you for allowing me to share this moment with you. I’m sorry I couldn’t be your freshman orientation speaker. But it has been the great honor of my life to be your real-life orientation speaker. Here’s Hamilton at age 19, on the verge of the American Revolution:
I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When it’s going to get me
In my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me?
If i see it coming, do I run or do I let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody
See, I never thought I’d live past 20
Where I come from, some get half as many
Ask anybody why we livin’ fast and we
Laugh, reach for a flask
We have to make this moment last, that’s plenty
This is not a moment, it’s the movement
Where all the hungriest brothers with something
to prove went
Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand
We roll like Moses, claiming our promised land!
And? If we win our independence?
Zat a guarantee of freedom for our descendants?
Or will the blood we shed begin an endless
Cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?
I know the action in the street is exciting/
But Jesu,s between all the bleedin’ ‘n’ fightin’ I’ve
been readin’ ‘n’ writin’
We need to handle our financial situation.
Are we a nation of states? What is the state of our nation?
I’m past patiently waitin’ I’m passionately smashin’
Every action’s an act of creation!
I’m laughin’ in the face of casualties and sorrow
For the first time I’m thinking past tomorrow, and I am
I am not throwing away my shot
I am not throwing away my shot
Hey yo I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I am not throwing away my shot
That clock you hear is the sound of your own heart. Sink your teeth into this life, and don’t get let go.