At Penn’s 260th Commencement this morning, playwright, composer and self-described “painfully aware” Lin-Manuel Miranda addressed the “dear, terrified graduates,” encouraging them to tell the stories of their lives.
Miranda’s speech began with an apology. “I am the writer of ‘Hamilton: An American Musical,’ every word in the show — and there are over 22,000 words in the show — were chosen and put in a really specific order by me. So I am painfully aware that neither Philly nor the great state of Pennsylvania is mentioned in Hamilton, with the exception of one couplet in the song ‘Hurricane.’”
But what began as a good-natured joke about the exclusion of Philadelphia from his musical soon became a sermon to the graduates about the stories they would choose to tell in their lives.
“The simple truth is this: Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative,” he said. “This act of choosing the stories we tell versus the ones we leave out will reverberate across the rest of your life.”
As Miranda recounted his memories of breaking up with his long-term girlfriend in college and sticking to his original narrative when trying to find a spot for his first musical, “In the Heights,” on Broadway, he urged graduates to choose the stories they tell carefully.
“You are about the enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives,” he told the graduates. “The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children and grandchildren and therapists.”
Miranda also noted the "miracles" it took for many students to get to this point, particularly for first-generation students. He alluded to the current presidential campaign in front of a graduating class that included College senior Tiffany Trump, daughter of 1968 Wharton graduate and Republican candidate Donald Trump.
"In a year when politicians traffic it in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system," Miranda said. "A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great, unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done."
Miranda’s overall message to the graduates about choosing their path and their stories was one that reverberated with the other faculty who spoke at the ceremony as well.
In her greeting, President Amy Gutmann spoke of the lifelong friendships the graduates had fostered during their time at Penn and how they would bring them back to the school for years to come.
Miranda himself was welcomed to the stage by Provost Vincent Price, who literally rapped his introduction.
“That show is still on the rise, let me emphasize, and allow me to publicize, hello Mr. Pulitzer Prize. You know the rest, and you know our guest. He is truly blessed with what educators try to do best. They open our eyes, they catalyze, they help us realize, make us truly come alive,” he said.
In his dismissal, University Chaplain Chaz Howard urged students to cling to the happy stories of their lives. “Be joyful. Hold onto people and moments that warm your heart. That make you belly laugh. That make your cheeks hurt from smiling. That bring you happy tears,” he said.
“Be at peace; first with yourself, knowing that you’re already awesome, you’re already enough. Be at peace with others; forgive, start over, let go. Be in love. Dare to allow someone into your heart, take the risk and keep on risking. Be like Alexander Hamilton: young, scrappy and hungry,” he added.
At the end of his speech, Miranda brought his narrative back, emphasizing again how important it was for graduates not just to tell their stories, but the stories of others as well. As he fought for “In the Heights,” Miranda remembered being told his story of a college student, Nina, losing her scholarship wasn’t “high stakes enough.”
In the end, Miranda’s musical took an additional five years to make it to the stage. But when it did, it was “exactly as we intended it.”
“Nina’s story, that we fought to tell, keeps coming back around in my life. It comes around in letters, or in the countless young men and women who find me on the subway or on college campuses and take my hand and say ‘you don’t understand … it got me through,’” he said, tearing up on stage.
“And I think to myself, as this stranger’s telling me their stories, ‘I do understand.' And that sounds pretty high stakes to me,” Miranda added.
He was quick to note the stakes for the graduates as well. “I know that many of you made miracles happen to get to this day … Your stories are essential … There will be moments when you are walking down the street and someone will thank you for telling your story because it resonated with their own.”
And, as Miranda’s address began with an apology, it ended with a thank you.
“I feel so honored to be a detail, a minor character in the story of your graduation day. I feel so honored to bear witness to the beginning of your next chapter. I’m painfully aware of what’s at stake. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”
This article was last updated on May 16 at 3:42 p.m. Check back for updates.
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