I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the wonderful Lin-Manuel Miranda for his new film Mary Poppins Returns. This is the first film he has acted in as the lead, so it was a big deal for him. If you are unaware of this man, he is the creator and star of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton which is one of the biggest successes of all time and he also wrote all the music for Moana. He was very open and honest in the roundtable interview, so I hope you enjoy.
How closely did you get to work with both Scott and Mark in creating songs especially in “The Cover is Not the Book”?
Very closely, Emily and I were the first ones cast and that is such a luxury. Believe me when you have written musicals and know who is singing the song, that is half the battle. Easiest song I have ever wrote was “You’re Welcome” for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson because I was a fan of when he would sing as a wrestler and knew his vocal range and knew that if I could hook “You’re Welcome” he’s the only person that could pull that off and actually have it be charming because he’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. I think it helped them to tailor that to our voices, but I didn’t write anything, I was there as an actor and singer. If you made musicals, you like collaborating and getting into a room being with something bigger than the sum of your parts.
Did you have to hold back?
No, all I ever wanted was a life making musicals and I knew I didn’t have the ballet chops to be a shark and that’s all Puerto Rican dudes get in the theater. In the Heights is my first musical and at 19 I knew “oh, no one is going to write my dream show, you have to create your own opportunities” so to go from writing my own parts to getting to work with people of this caliber, this is the fruit of all that hard work.
What would be your advice to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Start writing yesterday. Not because your first work is going to be any good, it’s not. If you’re anything like me you’re first work will sound like poor attempts at everything you love. My first musicals sound like warmed over Jonathan Larson because that was the guy who I felt like sort of gave me permission to write what I knew and make it into musical theater. In chasing your heroes, in trying to sound like Jay-Z and trying to sound like Jonathan Larson and trying to sound like ‘insert hero here’, you fall short and find your voice along the way so the sooner you get started the sooner you get the rust out the faucet.
We right now in the entertainment industry are going through a march towards diversity to a more diverse world and diverse characters. How was it for you to embark in such an iconic film with such a well-known character being a Latino and how do you see Latinos now in the Hollywood Landscape?
I think that I’m really proud to be in this movie, you don’t necessarily see Latinos with Mary Poppins. I remember the thrill of when the Adams Family movie came out and I was like “Holy Shit there is Raul, a Puerto Rican as Gomez Adams in this big blockbuster movie” and the pride we felt seeing him up there with Angelica Houston and all those other stars. We don’t see ourselves nearly enough and the lie that Hollywood has told itself for a long time that diverse films don’t sell internationally is finally breaking down because the Fast and Furious is the biggest movie franchise in the universe and it is the most diverse cast we will see in Hollywood. That’s the beginning of the decimation of that lie. The reason In the Heights at Universal didn’t get made was “well, you don’t have international stars”. So, we’ve seen the lie sort of put to the test. I’m thrilled in a full circle moment we are bringing the Heights to the big screen next year and are in the middle of casting that now. We couldn’t have a better director than John Chu because he proved that line false with Crazy Rich Asians. It was not a superstar driven movie, there were stars we’ve known all our lives like Michelle Yeoh and Ken Jeong, but there were also superstars we’d never heard of like Awkafina and boy did I look her up the second I walked out of that theater. So, I’m hoping he achieves a similar mix with In the Heights there will be legends you’ve know all your life and legends you meet in this film.
Was Mary Poppins your favorite movie and how was it working with Dick Van Dyke and doing that character?
2/3ds of Mary Poppins were my favorite movie. I own that movie on VHS growing up, I remember many hours of dancing with Dick Van Dyke and those penguins. Then I would turn it off as soon as “feed the birds” came on because that’s the saddest melody in the history of the world. It just broke my little heart and I just turned it off because I could because it was VHS. I didn’t see the end of the movie until I was in High School. I just knew that song was very sad. What’s funny is I talked to Dick about everything except Mary Poppins we talked about Bye Bye Birdie which was his big break and was my big break because I got cast as Conrad Birdie in the 6th grade play. We talked about working with Tito Rivera, and Mary Tyler Moore and the Dick Van Dyke Show. We talked about his barbershop quartet which he still sings with at age 93. We talked about everything except Mary Poppins because I could not wrap my around that I was in a Mary Poppins movie with Dick Van Dyke. So, I just sort of talked around it like an eclipse.
So, I noticed as soon as you put the iPad don you noticed Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s one of my favorite movies of all time and one of the reasons is because of the soundtrack, I was wondering if you have any favorite soundtracks from growing up.
Well I’ll tell you what I love about that movie, and I love that you are so young and that is your favorite movie. Great movie. Is the notion of the mixtape. I feel very lucky I came of age at a time when the cassette tape was the public form of listening to music. Here’s why, I grew up in mixtape culture. I believe everything I learned about writing scores I learned when I was making mix cassettes for people I loved and for friends because they have to listen to it in the order I set. I am telling them how I feel about them by the choices of songs and there’s a rise and a fall. I want you to listen to there’s a side A and B, just like we have an act to break in musical theater. Everything I know about writing Broadway scores I learned making mixes for girls I like and that’s how that ties back to Guardians of the Galaxy.
You’re working on a live-action version of The Little Mermaid, is there another Disney classic that’s a dream project for you to do a remake or sequel?
Nope. The moment Sebastian started singing to Ariel, that was the giant supernova in my childhood imagination. I saw it at a playdate with a friend and dragged my parents back the next weekend, dragged my sister to take me again then called in sick from school the day it came out on VHS so that I wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the school day. I was obsessed with how fresh and inventive those numbers felt, they felt like instant Disney. My goal is to create new characters with Disney the way we were able to with Moana, it was a great joy of my life to work with those Little Mermaid directors on Moana and write new music. I’m going to continue to find new ways to create new characters with them in the animated world or not.
You have a leery speak in the film that was a new language in itself. What was the process in learning that?
It’s in the tradition of Cockney writing slang except that the directors wanted more latitude to create these new lyrics and surprise audiences in London with “wait, that’s not London it’s a new thing”. I’m in awe of Scott Whitman’s gifts as a lyricist. I would go to his house and he would have a stack of British Archana and phrases from the 1930s with Cockney writing slang. As a lyricist I was just fucking jealous. Where does he get these wonderful toys? It was a joy watching them craft that number from scratch.
What do you think of musicals today in this era of digital cinema? You think audiences are just as interested as they were in the 50’s and 60’s?
I think it’s not a coincidence that you’re seeing the rise of the movie musical again in a very real way. I grew up in a fallow time for movie musicals. We had Fame, we had Newsies, we had Labyrinth. 80s were rough for movie musicals guys. There just weren’t that many musicals. The peak of the MGM and Hollywood musical coincides with a really dark time in our world between the 1930’s-1940’s. We are increasingly going to the movies to escape with a collective experience of joy together. It’s good for me, I write musicals, the only way this continues is we need to continue to innovate and push the form. What I’m even more thrilled by is that Mary Poppins Returns is so different from A Star is Born, different from The Greatest Showman, so different from Mama Mia: Here We Go Again, so different from La La Land. Once we become a formula we are dead, but if we continue to push the form then I think we can see it expand in a big way because they’re expensive.
Any chance we might hear you singing in Spanish?
I would love to! I sing in Spanish to my kids and I would love to find an opportunity to do that and it’s a question of if I have to create that opportunity myself or will someone find a way for me to get to it onscreen?
Which musical would you recommend in Broadway right now besides Hamilton?
I haven’t seen a lot from this season yet. My favorite last season was The Band’s Visit by David Yazbek. It’s an adaptation of an independent film. There’s nothing like it. It has a mix of sounds that got middle eastern influences in it that’s unlike anything I’ve heard in Broadway. It’s a perfect 90 minutes and your back to your babysitter by 10 O’clock. Sorry we could deliver that on Hamilton. It’s a beautiful, magical night at the theater.