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How Hamilton, The Tonight Show, and the arts are helping Puerto Rico bring in tourists

After the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, arts and culture play a key role for an island poised to rise up.

How Hamilton, The Tonight Show, and the arts are helping Puerto Rico bring in tourists
Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton say goodbye to the audience at the end of the performance during the closing night of Hamilton at Centro de Bellas Artes on January 27, 2019, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. [Photo: Gladys Vega/Getty Images]

In January of this year, Lin-Manuel Miranda returned to Puerto Rico, where his parents grew up, and brought the entire stage production of Hamilton with him. The idea was to use the Broadway smash as a fundraiser to help the island and its struggling arts scene to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. To sweeten the deal, Miranda would return to the role he created, playing Alexander Hamilton for a three-week-long fundraiser in San Juan. The ploy worked: Hamilton fans jumped at the chance to see Miranda reprise the role and were willing to fork over up to $5,000 for tickets.

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It was all to help Puerto Rico’s arts community, which had very little funding even before the hurricane. In fact, Miranda was planning on doing the fundraiser even before the hurricane struck.

“The Mirandas wanted to invest in a key, key, key fundamental piece of the island, which is its arts and culture,” says Kristin Ehrgood, the CEO and board chair of the Flamboyan Foundation, which worked with the Miranda family to launch the Flamboyan Arts Fund. Flamboyan Arts is a limited-term fund created to funnel Hamilton proceeds to support institutions, arts groups, and independent artists in Puerto Rico, particularly helping them rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Early beneficiaries of the arts fund include, among others, the Puerto Rico Art Museum, puppet theater company Y No Habia Luz, and Andanza, a dance troupe. Recipients of the fund’s grants are selected by a board, which the Miranda family sits on.

While some people may scoff that the arts are a poor investment, the arts can play an important role in building hope, restoring the heart and soul of the island’s inhabitants, and, as it turns out, dramatically stimulating the economy. “Since day one, our administration has focused on promoting the growth of Puerto Rico’s economy and identified tourism as one of the segments with the most potential for development,” Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares told Fast Company.

That’s why one of his first acts as governor was to set up Puerto Rico’s destination marketing organization, Discover Puerto Rico, which is tasked with drawing visitors to the Caribbean island. While the government’s priorities shifted a bit in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, as the island works to rebuild, tourism, particularly arts-fueled tourism, is playing a significant role. For proof that it works, look to the fact that Hamilton helped raise $14 million for the arts fund, and brought visitors to the island who stayed at hotels, ate local food, and otherwise helped bring money to the island.

“This is much, much bigger than the production onstage for three weeks,” says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “We view this as a launching pad for the repositioning of the brand of Puerto Rico as a destination for the arts. We believe that the real strength of Puerto Rico as a tourism destination is in the rich vibrant culture.”

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It was Discover Puerto Rico that told Marriott International—which owns several hotels across the island—that Hamilton with Miranda at the helm was coming to the island. “We knew we wanted to get involved,” said Diana Plazas, a Marriott International marketing executive for the Caribbean and Latin America. “We wanted to make sure we were doing our part to support the island, doing our part to support the recovery, but also the community of the island.” In addition to being a corporate sponsor, Marriott also provided hotel rooms for the show’s cast and crew.

Marriott International hotels has guaranteed a minimum donation of $300,000 to the arts fund. To help them meet that donation goal, Marriott donated $1 for every room booked at some of its properties. It’s not alone in wanting to be involved in Hamilton’s visit to the island and the goodwill it invoked. Other corporate sponsors like JetBlue, Banco Popular, Church’s Chicken, Airbnb, and Warner Bros. all donated funds of more than $200,000 to the Arts Fund.

More work to be done

It’s not just the money, though. While bringing Hamilton to Puerto Rico certainly raised plenty of that, it also drew attention the island’s ongoing struggles. “People are going to come to Puerto Rico because of Hamilton, and hopefully spend a lot of money here,” Miranda told the New York Times in an interview. “But they’re also going to see blue tarps and they’re also going to see how much work there is to be done.”

“Every show has felt like opening night,” Donald Webber Jr., who played Aaron Burr during the Hamilton run in Puerto Rico, told Fast Company. “A lot of it has to do with Lin being here, being back in this place where he spent just about every summer . . . Even though this crazy unbelievable thing happened that destroyed his town, he, just like the Puerto Rican people, persevered. He didn’t let the hurricane define him. He came out stronger and better. It is unbelievable to watch every night, seeing Lin actively fighting back those emotions to perform.”

Open for business

Miranda’s bold decision to uproot his entire Broadway show and take it to the island already inspired other performers to follow suit—specifically, Jimmy Fallon, who was inspired by Miranda to bring The Tonight Show to the island to help boost tourism, and let viewers know about other ways to help in the rebuilding process. “I gotta say, we had Lin-Manuel Miranda announce he was taking (Hamilton) to Puerto Rico,” Fallon told NBC News. “I was just inspired because that’s so hard to do. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to take a Broadway show outside of Broadway.” They went to Puerto Rico in January to tape an episode and, of course, see Hamilton.

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The resulting episode was a celebration of Puerto Rico, complete with Fallon and musicians Questlove and Bad Bunny leading a carnival parade through the streets of Old San Juan, chef Jose Andres taking Fallon on a tour of beachside food kiosks in Piñones, and musicians Jose Feliciano and Ozuna singing “En Mi Viejo San Juan” at La Fortaleza.

“It’s a love song about a Puerto Rican who has left the island but dreams about going home,” explains Jennifer Long, a consulting producer for this episode of The Tonight Show, who grew up in San Juan. “There is no song more special to Puerto Ricans and no song more appropriate for this moment in time.”

While the episode was fun to watch, it carried with it a very important message: Puerto Rico is open for business. “Without a doubt, the best thing we could hope for—and I know this is so important to Jimmy—is go visit! Puerto Rico is up and running for business and they want your business and, quite frankly, they need it.”

That echoes what Manuel Laboy, secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce for Puerto Rico, told Fast Company a year ago: “You want to help Puerto Rico? Go on vacation there.” It remains true.

While Hamilton has ended its run, the island has an ongoing rich cultural scene, spurred on by the influx of cash to the grantees of the Flamboyan Arts Fund. “Puerto Rico has the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean and has unique cultural offerings such as museums, year-round cultural festivals, theater opportunities, musical concerts, and historic zones that appeal to all types of visitors,” Governor Rosselló said. “We want the world to know that Puerto Rico is Open for Business, that as we recover and rebuild, our island stands as the most exciting place in the United States for people to come visit.”

(Disclosure: This story was reported in part from Puerto Rico; the writer’s travel and hotel costs were reimbursed by Marriott.)

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About the author

Melissa Locker is a writer and world renowned fish telepathist.

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