My American Adventure
Taking a show on the road can be crazy. But sometimes it leads you home.
It always starts with one spark. For all of us at The Tonight Show, that spark was Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Lin was on the show back in December to announce that he would be leading the cast of Hamilton in three weeks' worth of shows in Puerto Rico, with all of the proceeds going to the Flamboyan Arts Fund.
The arts are a huge part of the culture and economy of Puerto Rico. Lin — who was born in New York City, but as a kid spent one month every year on the island with his grandparents — created the fund to make sure the arts continue to flourish in tough times, like the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
So, after his announcement, I added the kicker: The Tonight Show would be going, too!
I am so inspired by Lin. I know how many moving parts are involved in taking a show on the road — and in bringing a hit Broadway show anywhere other than Broadway. Good luck! But he was doing it — and for a great cause. I wanted to do it, too.
I had figured that if we could bring The Tonight Show to Puerto Rico, we could raise more awareness and encourage more tourism than any tourist-board commercial ever could. So, before his December 17 appearance, I took the idea to our showrunner, Jim Bell. He immediately said, "I'm in. Let's do it. Let me talk to NBC."
NBC immediately said, "We're in. Let's do it."
Then I asked, "Can we afford it?" NBC said, "No way." So we partnered with American Express, which helped us make it happen.
The weeks leading up to the trip were crazy. Fifty members of our production team traveled down from New York to scout locations; they helped pull everything together in coordination with the 20 people we'd hired locally. We also got help from an amazing producer, Jen Long, whom Jim and I both knew from the Today show.
Jen had lived in Puerto Rico for 10 years — how lucky was that? At our brainstorming meetings, she always had suggestions for the best ways to show off the island — from food to music to the streets that would be the coolest for filming. From day one, the ideas were flowing like crazy.
Our timeline was tight.
We had to tape two shows back-to-back on January 10, then jump on a plane, arriving in Puerto Rico at 3:30 in the morning. We had to be ready for hair and makeup just a few hours later, at six, because Lin had been nice enough to promise us an interview — and to let me perform a song with the cast of Hamilton.
This was an exclusive performance, taped especially for our episode. So, we wanted to do whatever it took to fit ourselves into his insane schedule.
Back in New York, I had been fitted for a wig by Charles LaPointe and a costume by Paul Tazewell (Charles is the wig and hair designer, and Paul the costume designer, for the Broadway show).
Then suddenly, there I was onstage in Puerto Rico — dressed as Hamilton! — being directed by Tommy Kail and watching Alex Lacamoire conduct the orchestra. It was one of the coolest, most surreal moments of my life.
And that was just the beginning. Over the next three days, I danced down Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan with Bad Bunny, and I sampled the local food and beer with chef José Andrés, who was nominated for — and deserves — the Nobel Prize for his humanitarian work since the hurricane struck the island in 2017.
On our last night, I watched two icons from different generations — José Feliciano and Ozuna — come together outside the governor's mansion to sing "En Mi Viejo San Juan," a love letter to Puerto Rico that's become its unofficial anthem.
Everybody we'd asked to be involved with the show had agreed immediately, and watching the performance that night, it was easy to see why: because the love of the Puerto Rican people for their home is so powerful.
Our goal was to show the world that Puerto Rico is open for business. We know there's still rebuilding to be done, but we didn't want to make a somber show. We wanted to display the culture, the colors, the music, the spirit, the joy — all the reasons that Puerto Rico is an amazing place to visit.
Visiting is the best way to show support for the island — by staying in the hotels, eating the food, supporting the businesses. We hope our episode, which aired January 15, will encourage more people to visit and fall in love with the island, as we did.
A few people have asked me, "Why are you doing this? You're not Puerto Rican." My answer was — and is, "No, but I'm American." We're all Americans. And when we see someone hurting, we help each other. That's the right thing to do.
On our last day, the driver who took me to the airport gave me a hug and told me with tears in his eyes, "Jimmy, you'll always have a home here." The world needs more of that — people reaching out, offering help when it's needed and making each other feel at home.
I can't wait to go back.
The Puerto Rico episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is available on NBC.com, the NBC app, YouTube and Hulu.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019