Tommy Kail first met Lin-Manuel Miranda after a show Miranda wrote at Wesleyan University called On Borrowed Time. Kail wasn’t impressed.
Kail was running his own theatre company, Back House Productions, and though he’d heard some demos of In the Heights that he liked, he didn’t like Miranda’s time-travel romance musical (which itself has since been lost in the folds of time, and which Miranda now admits he’d like to block from his memory). Kail shook Miranda’s hand politely and said, “Enjoy this.”
But one of the first New York venues to give the pair a chance—and the place they started working with producer Jill Furman—was Ars Nova. On Monday night, the innovative Off-Broadway theatre company honored Kail, Miranda, and Furman at a celebratory fund-raising gala at the Edison Ballroom in New York.
“It feels so full circle to be here,” Miranda said from the podium. “[Ars Nova] was, in many ways, the first place that ever produced us outside of something we created ourselves…It’s this insane place of beginnings…It feels like we’re just beginning. I feel like I died looking at all of you tonight.”
Furman, Kail, and Miranda first worked with the company—whose mission is “to launch the next wave of forward-thinking, game-changing artists,” according to artistic director Jason Eagan—in 2003 with their “fully improvised freestyle rap show,” Freestyle Love Supreme.
As a reunion of sorts, the Freestyle troupe reimagined Kail and Miranda’s first meeting as a song, with Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs playing Lin’s voice and group members Chris Sullivan (Shockwave) and Anthony Veneziale playing Lin’s thoughts and Kail, respectively. Freestyle, which elsewhere uses improvisation techniques to conjure its impromptu raps and songs, opened the evening with a song about the gala based on the word “salivate,” a suggestion from an attendee.
The evening was also something of an In the Heights reunion. Original cast members Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson—also a Freestyle member and George Washington in Hamilton—performed “When You’re Home” from the show, alongside two students from LaGuardia High School for Music, Art, and the Performing Arts. One focus of the evening was on the next generation of artists, and the youngest performer honored was Iain Armitage, the young theatre critic whose video reviews go viral, who performed Usnavi’s final rap from the show in a full get-up. (Miranda could be seen videoing the performance on his phone.)
“When Ars Nova opened their doors to us, what was so clear is that they were interested in giving young people the opportunity to not just talk about work but to make work,” Kail said from the stage. “And as someone who didn’t study theatre and always thought that I was behind, I had to do it to learn.”
“We’ve grown up together in this business,” added Furman, who first saw an early production of Heights in the basement of the Drama Book Shop in 2003. “I knew I was in the presence of some pretty remarkable talent, which we all now know turned out to be the understatement of the new millennium.”
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, had grander statements to share in introducing Miranda. “There are people who claim that Shakespeare didn’t write his own words, and basically the one reason for that is that there’s a group of people who couldn’t believe that the greatest writer in English language history wasn’t an aristocrat and was actually a man of the people,” said Eustis. “If we’re lucky, in 200 years, there will be a Lin-Manuel Miranda authorship controversy.”
Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller introduced the final performance, which he called “The Hamilton Audition.” The original cast performed a medley of songs from the show, with everyone from Bridget Everett to Jonathan Groff to Laura Osnes to Joshua Henry to Steven Pasquale taking over the role of Alexander Hamilton, which Miranda plays in the show, for a moment.
Looking at Miranda at his table, he was taking Kail’s advice: He was definitely enjoying this.