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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hopeful Grief

*The following contains spoilers for In the Heights and Hamilton.

I’ve been listening to the In the Heights soundtrack for five days straight. I went to see the movie last week with no knowledge of the story or songs. I hadn’t been to a movie in seventeen months. I ordered popcorn and a milkshake and settled in to watch the movie I’d seen more than one reviewer call the perfect return to theaters. It was, and I commend it to you (on the big screen if you’re comfortable going), but this is not a movie review.

This is an observation of one facet of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius. I am no Miranda scholar, nor am I an ultimate fan. I came to the Hamilton soundtrack late in the craze and have never seen it on stage. I watched the filmed stageplay on Disney+ last summer and discovered things about the story I’d never known, though I’d listened through the soundtrack many times. Though I’ve watched interviews and followed Miranda on Twitter, I don’t know a whole lot about him.

But I know this: he is unique in a generation. He collaborates and invites others into what he creates. He is passionate about what he believes, and he uses art to express that passion. He appears to be full of joy. And somehow, his effervescent spirit has led to two of the most beautiful and hopeful expressions of grief I’ve ever heard.

Listening to the In the Heights soundtrack, I was struck by the haunting loveliness of the song “Alabanza.” In the film, the song comes just after Abuela Claudia, the adopted grandmother to the neighborhood, has suddenly died. As it begins, Usnavi, our narrator, says, “When she was here, the path was clear / And she was just here / She was just here…”

The desolation of those words echoes in the hearts of anyone who has ever lost someone. “She was just here.” There is a gaping whole left in the world when a life is snuffed out.

As In the Heights started playing on the theater screen, I realized that if I had (somehow) not gone in knowing this was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, I would have been able to tell from the very first lyric. His fingerprints are vivid in the phrasing, the music, the words, the raps.

“Alabanza” echoes another of Miranda’s moments of beautiful grief, “It’s Quiet Uptown” from Hamilton. Where In the Heights says, “Alabanza / Alabanza a Doña Claudia, Señor,” Hamilton says, “The Hamiltons move uptown / And learn to live with the unimaginable.” Listening to the two side by side, even the two key words are phrased the same: a-la-BAN-za and un-i-MAG-inable. The sound of the final three syllables of the latter are blended enough to almost be one, matching the count of the Spanish word.

In kindness to non-Spanish speakers (and an insightful nod to the daily experience of community he’s portraying), Miranda’s In the Heights lyrics often translate themselves. “Alabanza” is translated in the opening lyric:

Abuela Claudia had simple pleasures She sang the praises of things we ignore Glass Coke bottles, bread crumbs, a sky full of stars She cherished these things She’d say “Alabanza” Alabanza means to raise this thing to God’s face and to sing Quite literally “praise to this” —”Alabanza,” Lin-Manuel Miranda

The song is one of praise for Abuela Claudia—for her life, for the impact she had on those in the neighborhood, for the gift that she was—one who says, “We had to assert our dignity in small ways, little details that tell the world we are not invisible.”

“It’s Quiet Uptown” focuses on the small in a similar way. The Hamiltons’ son has died in a duel, and the song tells the story of the careful rebuilding of their already-shattered marriage in the midst of their grief. The chorus of onlookers sing, “If you see him in the street / Walking by her side, talking by her side, have pity… / He is trying to do the unimaginable.” The song comes toward the close in a small act of reconciliation: “They are standing in the garden / Alexander by Eliza’s side / She takes his hand / It’s quiet uptown.”

Lament engages God in the pain, but trusts God—he will renew our spirits, but that renewal is birthed out of pain. Carolyn Givens

I said earlier that Lin-Manuel Miranda seems full of joy. I’ve seen so many videos where he is laughing, or praising someone’s work, or simply delighting in life. I think perhaps, it is this very joy that enables him to write grief so beautifully. A few years ago at Hutchmoot, I was part of a session titled “Good Grief.” One element of my part was a look at the work of artist Steve Prince. I was introduced to jazz funerals and their intertwining of grief with joy by Steve. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but Steve, born and bred there, talks about the dirge and the second line, key elements of the jazz funeral. The dirge, he explains, is the first portion of the funeral—where the band leads the hearse and family from the church or funeral home to the burial site playing somber hymns and songs. After their goodbyes, the parade returns, this time with the band playing swinging spirituals and popular songs. The following grows, and the people who follow for the music are called the second line.

Prince uses the dirge and the second line as a metaphor in his art. He often finds his work engaging what is going on in our culture today and representing the voices of the oppressed. He creates works that are both full of lament and full of joy. His work weeps over and cries out against injustice while at the same time celebrating the beauty he sees around him. It’s a jazz funeral—grief and celebration in one.

Christian lament and grief are hope-filled. Lament is directional in nature—its bent is toward God. It is honest about pain, and it is a surrendering of that pain and of the tension of who God is and what we see. Lament engages God in the pain, but trusts God—he will renew our spirits, but that renewal is birthed out of pain.

Walter Bruegemann speaks on lament and notes that nearly a third of the 150 Psalms are laments, complaints, and protests. If we avoid lament, he says, we deny the church the language of disorientation. “What the psalms of disorientation do is lift up and call attention to the reality of human loss and human pain without making moral judgments about whose fault it is. It is simply a given of human life that needs to be processed theologically.” Lament is directional. And directional lament is a beautiful, hopeful thing.

I don’t know anything about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s spiritual life, but I see in his joy the kind of delight I find in God’s good world around me. I don’t know exactly what direction he points his grief, but I see direction in it—direction that he words as “grace” and “Lord.”

There are moments that the words don’t reach There’s a grace too powerful to name We push away what we can never understand We push away the unimaginable —”It’s Quiet Uptown,” Lin-Manuel Miranda
Alabanza Alabanza a Doña Claudia, Señor Alabanza, alabanza —”Alabanza,” Lin-Manuel Miranda
It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope. —Lamentations 3:26-29

Hope. Andy Gullahorn expresses it this way in “Grand Canyon”:

Oh, I can’t sleep There’s too much weighing on my mind And there’s a bird out there Still singing in the dead of night Like it knows there’s a season when the sun’s gonna set But the story isn’t over yet, The story isn’t over yet. —”Grand Canyon,” Andy Gullahorn

Or, as Lin-Manuel Miranda might put it: “Forgiveness, can you imagine?”

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