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Fallon's 'Hamilton' Episode Showed Late-Night TV Can Still Be Powerful

Filmed on location in Puerto Rico and featuring a heavy dose of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the special episode was layered and emotional.

by Taylor Hosking
Jan 17 2019, 12:34am

NBC / Getty Images

Tuesday night, Jimmy Fallon and Lin-Manuel Miranda joined forces for an episode of The Tonight Show filmed on the set of Hamilton’s new Puerto Rico production. The result was partly a musical, partly a sit-down chat, and partly an outdoor performance set on an island that has been largely out of the news while it scrapes its way back from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. As the two sang duets and teased out the connections between Hamilton and the island, the episode became a larger statement about Puerto Rico’s Americanness and the need to keep its recovery in the public eye. It was also straight-up good TV.

The show opened with Miranda and three men of color singing a version of “The Story of Tonight” from Hamilton before Fallon joined them in costume and a remix of The Tonight Show’s theme song kicked in. Sometimes earnest, sometimes funny, the special episode was (on the surface) part of the play’s marketing efforts to get as many mainland Americans as possible to visit the struggling island for the production, helping raise proceeds for the Flamboyan Arts Fund, an organization that supports culture in Puerto Rico. But just as the play uses Alexander Hamilton’s immigration story to refocus America's identity on immigrants and people of color, its Puerto Rican adaption refocuses national attention on the often discounted commonwealth. And there was no better vehicle for that mission than The Tonight Show.

Fallon is maybe the least politically inclined of all the major talk show hosts and maintains a relentless goofball persona. But on Tuesday he used his platform to make space for Puerto Rico's emotional story with a show that included "Feliz Navidad" singer Jose Feliciano collaborating with young reggeton artist Ozuna to sing the classic song "En Mi Viejo San Juan" in Spanish. And in a nod to all the work Miranda has done setting up the production, Fallon let him sit behind the desk during their interview.

Miranda, whose parents immigrated from Puerto Rico, grew up in New York but has become a major voice for the island and the diaspora. As he explained to Fallon in their quirky on-stage interview, he now feels the Hamilton song “Hurricane,” which opens with the lyric "in the eye of a hurricane there is quiet," perfectly captures the fear he had years later when it took five days to hear from any of his family on the island after Maria. Afterward, he became one of the most prominent charitable forces in the entertainment world, organizing a “We Are the World”–style hurricane relief song, “Almost Like Praying,” featuring stars like Fat Joe, Jennifer Lopez, and Marc Anthony.

But his status as a relative outsider on the island itself has also led to controversy. He got flack for supporting a plan to restructure Puerto Rico's debt that would be overseen by an unpopular federal review board. And the Hamilton production was also criticized for choosing a theater at the University of Puerto Rico, which is in the midst of a union dispute. Since then, Miranda has supported forgiveness for Puerto Rico's debt and the play was moved to an off-campus location.

While Miranda's attempt to help the island hasn't completely been smooth sailing, projects like last night's episode of The Tonight Show demonstrate the power of his work, and why Hamilton struck a chord for so many in the first place.

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