In October 2019, a group of Welsh school kids on a trip to New York happened to bump into one of the city’s most famous sons. He treated them to an impromptu rap about Cardiff - of course he did. He’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the multi-Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, actor and rapper. That’s what he does.
Lin-Manuel is a giant in the world of musical theatre. His breakthrough hit, In the Heights, lit up Broadway. Then he wrote and starred in Hamilton, turning the biography of an obscure US founding father into a global hip-hop smash. On screen, he’s starred in Mary Poppins Returns and the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials – a production that’s based in Cardiff. Which is how Lin-Manuel came to live in Wales for a few memorable months during the summers of 2018/19.
Full disclosure: my family are big fans. My wife and daughter saw Hamilton in New York, and loved it. So much so, they dragged me to see it in London. I’m less of a musical fanboy, owing to my stolid Welsh rufty-tuftiness. But dammit, it made me cry (specifically, during a song called Satisfied). It’s as brilliant as everyone says it is.
A few months later, we go to our favourite restaurant in Cardiff. Milkwood is the kind of family-run joint that every neighbourhood wishes it had. Nothing flash, just great food and a friendly welcome. We sit at our usual table. And then…
The door opens. A couple sidle into the next table. Oh my God. It’s only Lin-Manuel Miranda and his wife. It’s only their favourite local restaurant, too. Okay, play it cool. They’re having a nice time. They don’t want a quiet dinner ruined by… well, us.
But Lin-Manuel is a friendly, gregarious guy. After a while, we get talking. He’s curious about Wales and, charmingly, us. We’ve got a million questions for him, too, about the filming of Mary Poppins, the recent Royal performance of Hamilton with Prince Harry, his favourite places in Wales. It’s a gloriously lovely way to spend an hour. As they leave, Lin asks one more question: ‘Have you guys heard of Porter’s? I’m thinking of going along tomorrow night.’
As it happens, we have heard of Porter’s. We go there quite often. It’s a bar on the fringes of the city centre, with its own small theatre and quirky musical events: live-band karaoke, open-mic nights, jazz. Tomorrow night there’s a regular slot called Jane’s Calamity, a monthly show-tune singalong run by a local music teacher called Neil.
When we arrive, it’s already in full swing. Neil is pounding away at the piano, and everyone’s belting out classics from Wicked, Grease, Book of Mormon. There’s the usual crowd of lovely young musical theatre nerds. There’s a slight misfit feel to it: gentle souls who don’t slot into the beery mainstream, but find joy and kinship here. At this moment, it feels like the happiest place on the planet. And then…
The door opens. A small huddle, led by a figure in a hoodie, slides through the singing throng and finds a place in a dark corner. It hardly registers with the crowd. They’re busy singing. They have no idea what’s about to happen.
Now bear this in mind: these are musical theatre fanatics. They know every word to every song from every show. In their universe, the single brightest star is Lin-Manuel Miranda. And he’s in the room. The room where it happens.
The hooded figure rises up. He’s got a mic in his hand. He’s singing Stars from Les Miserables. It still doesn’t click immediately with the crowd, because what’s happening is impossible. Lin-Manuel Miranda is singing with them, in their bar. Tears are streaming down faces. The night passes in blissful delirium. We sing My Shot from Hamilton back to its creator. Hilarious. We all pile around the piano to roar another Les Mis number. Lin-Manuel chats and takes selfies with anyone who wants to, which is pretty much everyone.
The following morning, we all wake up to find we’ve been part of a story that’s trending around the world. Global star sings in local bar. But as the man himself later said: ‘Let me ask you something. Wouldn’t it be weirder if there was a musical theatre karaoke going on in Wales and I wasn’t there?’
The Lin-Manuel effect has been profound. He’s tweeted about his Welsh adventures to his three million Twitter followers – that’s equivalent to the entire population of Wales. That’s three million people who might never even have heard of Wales. The number of Americans searching for holidays in Cardiff has doubled. And most endearingly, he gave a bunch of nice young people the greatest night of their lives. And for that alone, Wales thanks you. Come back soon.
On the Lin-Manuel trail
Okay, we’ve been through the Twitter feed. If you want to explore the bits of Wales that Lin-Manuel Miranda enjoyed, here’s where to go.
The Welsh capital is smaller than New York, admittedly, with a mere 1/25th of NYC’s population. It’s compact, easy to navigate, and has all the trappings of a modern capital city on top of ancient origins: the earliest parts of Cardiff Castle date back 2,000 years. The Miranda family lived in the suburb of Pontcanna, which backs onto the big green spaces of Bute Park, and has plenty of friendly local pubs and restaurants: try the Conway for a pint and Milkwood for food. And for live music, cabaret and show-tune karaoke, it has to be Porter's.
Castles. Lots of castles…
There are more castles per square mile in Wales than anywhere on Earth. They come in all shapes and sizes, from Norman whoppers to the romantic ruins left by the native Welsh princes. Lin-Manuel visited several, including Cardiff, Raglan and Caerphilly. That still leaves at least another 600 Welsh castles to explore, mind.
Brecon Beacons National Park
This 519-square-mile Brecon Beacons National Park is a paradise of mountains, moorland and waterfalls was Lin-Manuel’s ‘office’ for much of the filming of His Dark Materials. Elaborate sets were built in an old quarry near Crickhowell. The nearby ironworks at Blaenavon were used, too. When he wasn’t filming, Lin-Manuel took Wales’ highest paved road, Gospel Pass, across the Black Mountains to the town of Hay on Wye, which hosts the major international literature and arts extravaganza, Hay Festival.
The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s 186-mile coastline is arguably Britain’s best, and forms part of the 870-mile Wales Coast Path that runs around the entire length of the Welsh coast. Lin-Manuel’s tweets place him in some of Pembrokeshire’s most scenic spots, including the tiny cathedral city of St Davids, a boat trip around Ramsey Island, the 5,000-year-old burial chamber at Pentre Ifan, and the idyllic beach at Barafundle. We don’t know who suggested his itinerary, but it’s a cracker.