SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Creating opportunities for diverse actors and audiences has been rewarded in a significant way as Vanguard Theater Company announced Jan. 18 that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s TeeRico clothing line has become the main sponsor of Vanguard’s 2018 season.
TeeRico is Miranda’s officially-licensed merchandise site, where every design benefits a cause and/or artist. Miranda is an American composer, lyricist, playwright and actor, best known for creating and starring in the hit Broadway musicals “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.”
The seeds of this new partnership were sown between Vanguard Theater Company and TeeRico when Jessica Sporn, Vanguard’s managing director, was inspired by a speech given by Miranda and wanted to make a tangible contribution to his charitable efforts.
“In addition to my role with Vanguard, I am also an illustrator, designer and mixed media artist. After the Orlando club shooting, Miranda gave a beautiful speech at the Tony Awards and I was so moved and devastated by it, and I wanted to be of help to the work he was doing,” Sporn said in a recent phone interview, referring to the June 2016 massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. “I created a graphic design using some of the words from his speech, and put it on Facebook with the disclaimer that this is my contribution and I hope that he doesn’t mind that I am using his words. I got a call from his brother-in-law, and he told me Miranda was planning to launch a clothing website that would also showcase rising artists. They asked if I would revise my graphic to be unisex and more edgy/urban so that they could use it for fundraising and awareness.”
Sporn said they were on a tight deadline to produce the clothing and, after one chaotic weekend, she finished the updated design, and Miranda wore it to various charity events, including Love is Love, Equity Fights AIDS and Broadway Cares.
Similarly, when Hurricane Maria hit, Sporn was disheartened by the lack of response from the federal government and once again wanted to assist in raising support and awareness for areas affected by the hurricane.
“I reached out to Miranda’s brother-in-law about doing graphics for TeeRico to raise money for Hispanic Federation: UNIDOS,” Sporn said about supporting UNIDOS, a hurricane relief fund managed by the Hispanic Federation to help those impacted by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. “Again, after a furious weekend, including rehearsals for Vanguard’s production of ‘The Music Man,’ it has just felt so wonderful to use my art to make a difference and raise money for people who need it. It’s very thrilling to see him wearing my work and knowing it is going to a great cause.”
Sporn also realized there was an opportunity for Vanguard Theater Company to become aligned with the work Miranda is doing, both personally and professionally.
“It seemed like there was these six degrees of separation between the two, especially since some of Vanguard’s programs and productions have also been in Miranda’s productions and I felt that it was a natural fit,” she said. “I reached out to Luis Crespo, Miranda’s brother-in-law, and said ‘We are looking for sponsors for 2018 season.’ When you think about what Lin-Manuel Miranda and what shows like ‘Hamilton’ have done for bringing diversity to the theater world and how closely his mission is aligned with Vanguard’s mission, it’s amazing how similar the two are. Miranda has used his platform to bring awareness to significant issues and the way he lives his life and uses his platform are very in tune with Vanguard.”
The sponsorship by Lin-Manuel Miranda TeeRico includes a monetary contribution that enables Vanguard to move forward with its 2018 season. Additionally, it gives Vanguard permission to use Miranda’s name, align the company with TeeRico, and put the TeeRico logo on the website and in marketing materials.
“I have to say that I have always been inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work so I definitely feel very honored that his company believes that what we are doing is worth getting behind. Our hope at Vanguard is for people from all different backgrounds and all walks of life to be able to benefit from what we are doing,” Janeece Freeman-Clark, artistic director and co-founder of Vanguard Theater Company, told the News-Record. “Some don’t have access to the kinds of training that others might, and us receiving a donation from his program helps us keep things affordable and provide scholarships. We appreciate that he sees the value.”
There are a number of connections between Miranda’s productions and the work that Vanguard is doing in community theater.
The star of Vanguard Theater Company’s recent production of “The Music Man in Concert” was Juan Drigo Ricafort, who had just finished playing Graffiti Pete in the Olney Theater production of Miranda’s “In the Heights.” Linedy Genao, who starred as Vanessa in the Olney Theater production, was one of the mentors in Vanguard’s 2017 Broadway Buddy Mentorship Cabaret; Freeman Clark’s husband, Dwayne Clark, who starred in Vanguard’s 2017 main stage production of “Memphis the Musical,” was in the Broadway production of “In The Heights”; and Gabrielle Ruiz, currently a co-star on “My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” was in the original Broadway production of “In the Heights” and was a mentor in Vanguard’s 2016 Broadway Buddy Mentorship Cabaret.
“With my husband having been a part of ‘In the Heights,’ that was one of the first times I saw one of Miranda’s pieces and I was blown away. Thinking to our production of ‘Music Man’ that we did this year, we looked far and wide for the Harold Hill character because it’s important to give people opportunities they wouldn’t normally have in the professional theater world,” Freeman-Clark said in a recent phone interview. “Prior to Miranda, nobody would ever expect George Washington or Alexander Hamilton to be played by someone of color and his creativity in casting these roles influences other producers and directors to think outside of the box and not be so literal.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda is providing opportunities for young people of color to have mentors to look up to and he creates new realities for actors of color. He is creating a platform for people from all different backgrounds to play any kind of role in a show and it makes other producers and directors think they should do that too and it’s becoming acceptable,” she continued. “If we could get more professional and community theaters to do that it would even the playing field. It’s about seeing someone who looks like you out there and realizing that there could be a space for you too.”
Photos Courtesy of Jessica Sporn