Lin-Manuel Miranda On Disney, Mixtapes And Why He Won't Try To Top 'Hamilton'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're doing a holiday series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. Today - my interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, which we first broadcast January 3. Miranda had already left his starring role as Alexander Hamilton, but his hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers remains a phenomenon. A London production opened last week to rave reviews.
The Broadway production won 11 Tonys, and "Hamilton" won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Miranda's first Broadway show, "In The Heights", was a musical set in a Latino neighborhood in New York similar to the one he grew up in. In 2008, it won the Tony for best musical. Yesterday, Miranda tweeted that his grandmother, quote, "passed away this Christmas morning. I may have more words in the days to come, but for now, my heart is in pieces, and that's where it's going to be for a bit," unquote. We send our condolences. And now as planned, we'll listen back to our interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: OK, so I want to talk to you about "Hamilton." (Laughter) And so let's start with "My Shot."
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Sure.
GROSS: And this is Alexander Hamilton making his big statement about how, you know, he's come to America, he's going to make it, and he's not giving away his shot. You know, and first, it's going to be in the Revolutionary War and then in the new American government. So let's hear some of it, and then we'll talk. So this is Lin-Manuel Miranda from the cast recording of "Hamilton."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SHOT")
MIRANDA: (Rapping) I am not throwing away my shot. I am not throwing away my shot. Hey yo, I'm just like my country, I'm young, scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot. I'm 'a get a scholarship to King's College. I probably shouldn't brag, but dag I amaze and astonish. The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish. I got to holler just to be heard. With every word, I drop knowledge. I'm a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal trying to reach my goal. My power of speech, unimpeachable. Only 19 but my mind is older. These New York City streets get colder, I shoulder every burden. Every disadvantage, I've learned to manage. I don't have a gun to brandish. I walk these streets famished. The plan is to fan this spark into a flame, but damn, it's getting dark so let me spell out the name. I am the A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R. We are meant to be a colony that runs independently...
GROSS: That's Lin Manuel-Miranda from his cast recording of "Hamilton." So you are so incredible at these, like, intricate rhymes that you do in this show. How do you assemble all these intricately placed rhymes?
MIRANDA: For me, the fun of writing "My Shot" was, it's Hamilton's declaration of purpose. And I wanted to demonstrate his intellect and his ambition not just in what he was saying but in the way he was saying it. So prior to his arrival and singing "My Shot," the other guys in that bar - right? - Laurens, Mulligan and Lafayette - are rhyming at the end of the line. It's (rapping) I'm John Laurens in the place to be. Two pints of Sam Adams, but I'm working on three.
We rhyme at the end of the line. And then here comes Hamilton. And suddenly, you're getting a lot of internal assonance and a lot of internal rhyming and not content to just rhyme at the end of the line, but, you know, have these big pun-esque lyrics, you know? (Rapping) I know the action in the street is exciting, but Jesus, between all the bleeding and fighting, I've been reading and writing.
So it's - they're intricately tied together. And if you consider that Hamilton is delivering this in real time, suddenly you're like, whoa, this is the greatest freestyler who ever lived. And so that was the fun in constructing that. And it was many days and months of work to sort of make his lyrics just that much more intricate than everybody else's.
GROSS: Because he was so smart and so verbal and...
GROSS: ...Yeah. So do you use any tools like a rhyming dictionary? Do you catalog words? Do you have, like, lists of words that you - like, when you were doing your research, did you write down key words that you thought would be good to use in lyrics and so that you'd have a kind of storage box of, like, words or phrases that you could work with?
MIRANDA: I would you love to tell you that that's exactly what I did.
MIRANDA: That would seem like I took such care. But honestly, I kind of throw the kitchen sink at whatever situation I'm in at the moment I'm writing. So I remember when I got up to Lafayette's section and being, like, wow, I don't even have conversational French. So going and figuring, how do you say [expletive] you in French? How do you say - how do you count to 10 in French? I didn't know any of these very elementary things - and doing research just to be able to have it feel tossed off by Lafayette - a mix of French and English while he is learning English in the original colonies.
And that was, you know, that amount of time that I spend for those two lines, and also sort of a love letter to Lancelot in Camelot, which is my mother's favorite score. So have him ending his line with "C'est Moi," which is Lancelot's big tune - that's my little love letter to Lerner and Lowe, just him saying that. So the answer is no, I kind of - I stop and research whatever situation that's in. That being said, I did have Ron Chernow's book as a guidepost.
GROSS: Do you do anything to be able to capture the speed without tripping up your tongue? Does it get harder or easier over time when you're doing the same, you know, raps every night? And again, it's really fast, intricate lyrics, and you have to get them on the beat and do it without stumbling.
MIRANDA: The fact that I'm a performer helps me enormously as a lyricist. I wouldn't give a performer something I couldn't deliver myself, with the occasional exception of Daveed Diggs, who's just so exceptionally articulate and able to articulate at high speeds that I give him some raps that I probably couldn't deliver the same way at that velocity. But I'm not trying to make something that is difficult to perform every night. It needs to proceed at the speed of that character's thought because that's the only way it's actable. But, you know, it's interesting. I think the - it was an enormous challenge to do that show every night. And yet who to blame but myself?
MIRANDA: I wrote the part. And it was also the most thrilling roller coaster every night. You know, I got to fall in love. I got to win a war. I got to write words that inspired a nation.
GROSS: So "Hamilton" has such an interesting connection to the White House for two reasons. The show basically originates at the White House. You started off thinking of "Hamilton" as a concept album about Alexander Hamilton, and the first time you performed one of the songs - the opening song from the show - it was at the White House. What was it - like, an evening of American music or something that Michelle...
MIRANDA: Yeah. It was evening...
GROSS: ...Obama presented?
MIRANDA: ...Of poetry and spoken word, yeah. And it was in about May of 2009 - you know, fresh new administration - and thrilled to be asked. And I had written the verses for what became the opening number of "Hamilton" and then sort of adapted it to that room. You know, there was no piano arrangement. I got together with Alex and was, like, all right, this is where I think we're headed, sort of...
GROSS: This is Alex Lacamoire, your pianist.
MIRANDA: Alex Lacamoire, my...
GROSS: ...And music director.
MIRANDA: ...Music director.
MIRANDA: Yeah. And so yeah, so we prepared it for that evening. And the people filming that evening's events - it wasn't the typical C-SPAN footage. HBO shot the night because they were following some of their poets who were performing. There was a series on these poets. So the result is this insane, like, cinematic HD footage of this performance that I think got posted later that fall. I think it was posted in, like, October or November. You can check the YouTube. And then it really kind of went viral among people for whom history and hip-hop is interesting.
GROSS: OK. Let's hear a little bit of that performance at the White House from 2009. Here's Lin-Manuel Miranda.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIRANDA: I'm thrilled the White House called me tonight because I'm actually working on a hip-hop album. It's a concept album about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.
MIRANDA: You laugh. But it's true. He was born a penniless orphan in St. Croix of illegitimate birth, became George Washington's right-hand man, became treasury secretary, caught beef with every other Founding Father. And all on the strength of his writing, I think he embodies the word's ability to make a difference. So I'm going to be doing the first song from that tonight. I'm accompanied by Tony-and-Grammy-winning music director Alex Lacamoire.
MIRANDA: Anything you need to know - I'll be playing Vice President Aaron Burr. And snap along if you like.
MIRANDA: (Rapping) How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar? The $10 Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter. By 14, they had placed him in charge of a trading charter. And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted away across the waves, our Hamilton kept his guard up. Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of. The brother...
GROSS: That's Lin-Manuel Miranda performing the opening number from "Hamilton" at the White House with Michelle and Barack Obama in the audience. So let's skip ahead - when Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended "Hamilton," and he was cheered - he was booed when he was there. And then when the show was over, Brandon Victor Dixon, who now plays Aaron Burr, came out and read, like, a little speech directed to Mike Pence. And I'll read some of it for our listeners who might not have heard this yet.
This is what he said. (Reading) Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at "Hamilton: An American Musical." We really do. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us - all of us. Thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds and orientations.
So you co-wrote this. That's my understanding. You co-wrote it with the director and the producer. Do I have that right?
MIRANDA: Yes, with Tommy and Jeffrey. We got the heads-up that he was coming that afternoon and sort of put that together before his arrival.
GROSS: OK. So what was the conversation like between you and whoever else was involved about whether you should say something or not?
MIRANDA: Well, the conversation was, this has been an incredibly divisive election with a lot of hurt feelings and disappointment and anger on both sides. And the overwhelming sort of statement within that statement is, we truly hope you lead all of us. We're a play that tells the story of our founders with a very diverse company that we feel, you know, reflects what our country looks like now.
And so it was really intended as an olive branch. You know, please lead all of us. And I was - what I was really grateful for was that Sunday, Mike Pence really was grateful for that and I think got it in the sentiment in which it was intended. He said, I wasn't offended; I assure you that we are trying to lead all of you. And so I was grateful for his statements and for him stopping to listen. You know, he didn't have to do that, but he did. And I thought it felt like a civil dialogue between us.
GROSS: So you said Vice President-elect Mike Pence took this speech very well. President-elect Trump did not. He tweeted, (reading) the theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of "Hamilton" was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!
And he tweeted, (reading) our wonderful future Vice President Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of "Hamilton," cameras blazing. This should not happen!
What was your reaction to the tweets?
MIRANDA: Well, here's where I agree with the president-elect. The theater should always be a safe space. It's, in fact, I think, one of the reasons "Hamilton's" been embraced by people of every stripe on the political spectrum is that theater's one of the rarest places where we still come together. You know, you may take a totally different conclusion from "Hamilton" than I do based on your ideology and your politics and your life experience, but we all sat in a room together, and we watched the same thing. And that doesn't happen anymore. As you can see from this election, we have our own sets of facts based on who we listen to. Which news organization gets our business determines the facts that get in our head.
So, you know, I think one of the things that makes theater special is, first of all, it's one of the last places you put your phone away. And second of all, it's one of the last places where we all have a common experience together. So, you know, to that end, I agree with him. I don't agree with his characterization of what we did. I think anyone who sees that video sees Brandon silencing the boos that were not coming from anyone involved in our company, but from the audience itself, who were - nine days after the election, are still working through that thing. I - you know, I can't speak to that. But I know that Brandon quieted the boos and made a plea to lead all of us. And I don't believe there's anything remotely resembling harassment in what we've done.
GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, which we originally broadcast last January. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of "Hamilton" who starred as Hamilton in the original production.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So "Hamilton" is, in part, a story about an immigrant and - about immigrants and - which, of course, relates to your family background. Your father came to New York from Puerto Rico for college. And your mother...
MIRANDA: Right. Technically making him not an immigrant because Puerto Rico's a commonwealth, but the experience of Spanish to English and displacement is very similar.
GROSS: Right. Exactly. And your mother I think moved as an infant to the U.S. from Puerto Rico.
GROSS: And you grew up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. You went to, like, the Hunter College elementary and high school. Do I have that right?
MIRANDA: That's right.
GROSS: Yeah. So you've spoken in the past about this divide between who you were at home and in your Latino neighborhood and who you were at school with friends. What was the difference between those two yous?
MIRANDA: Oh, man. I feel like we've just stepped into Code Switch because that's what I was doing. I think that's sort of the interesting thing. I mean, I think if you want to make a recipe for making a writer, have them feel a little out of place everywhere, have them be an observer kind of all the time, and that's a great way to make a writer. I won the lotto when I got into Hunter. To get a great free public school education sort of saved my family, and I was aware of it. I was aware of - that I was at a school with kids who were really smart.
And I also had friends in the neighborhood who went to the local school. And I remember feeling that drift happen. You know, when you spend your entire day with someone, your closer friends become the ones you go to school with. And yet, I'd still have sleepovers with the friends from the neighborhood, make movies with my friends from the neighborhood. And, you know, the corner of - that I lived in was, like, this little Latin American country. It's one in which the nanny who lived with us and raised us, who also raised my father in Puerto Rico, never needed to learn English. All of the business owners in and around our block all spoke Spanish.
And yet, I'd go to school, and I'd be at my friends' houses on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, and I'd be the one translating to the nanny who spoke Spanish. So it's interesting to become a Latino cultural ambassador when you're 7, you know what I mean? (Laughter) So I had that experience as well. So, you know, we changed depending on the room we're in. I'm talking quieter because I'm talking to Terry Gross.
GROSS: (Laughter) So you obviously, you know, love rap and hip-hop. What were the first recordings that made a big impression - the first rap recordings that made a big impression on you?
MIRANDA: I have several. I remember my sister bringing home the Fat Boys when I was really little and also taking me to the first hip-hop movies. I remember going to see "Beat Street" and going to see "Breakin'" as a really little kid being sort of dragged along by my older sister. My sister is as responsible for anyone for giving me good taste in music. I remember stealing her copy of Black Sheep's "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing" and learning (rapping) engine, engine No. 9 on the New York transit line.
I think that's probably the first rap song I really worked hard to memorize in sixth grade. But then also, you know, Naughty By Nature and Queen Latifah - the music you love when you're a teenager is always going to be the most important to you. And I find that it's all over the score of "Hamilton." The quotes are Biggie quotes. They're a big pun, and these are all New York East Coast '90s rappers. And that's when I was a teenager.
GROSS: We're listening back to the interview we first broadcast in January with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and original start of the musical "Hamilton." After a break, he'll tell us about his first rhymes. Let's hear the song he wrote and recorded to help raise money for people in Puerto Rico in need of supplies and resources after Hurricane Maria. The all-star cast on the recording includes Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Gloria Estefan, Ruben Blades and Rita Moreno. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALMOST LIKE PRAYING")
MIRANDA: (Singing) Say it loud, and there's music playing. Say it soft, and it's almost like praying. It's almost like praying. It's almost like praying. It's almost like praying. It's almost like...
LUIS FONSI: (Singing) Cabo Rojo, Corozal, Naguabo, Guaynabo.
MARC ANTHONY: (Singing) San Lorenzo y San German, San Sebastian, mi Viejo San Juan.
CAMILA CABELLO AND ANTHONY RAMOS: (Singing) Isabela, Maricao, Fajardo, Dorado.
EDNITA NAZARIO AND GILBERTO SANTA ROSA: (Singing) Hormigueros, Humacao, Luquillo, Hatillo.
RUBEN BLADES AND JUAN LUIS GUERRA: (Singing) Vega Alta, Vega Baja, Toa Alta, Toa Baja, Mayaguez.
JOELL ORTIZ, JOHN LEGUIZAMO AND LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yes.
BLADES AND GUERRA: (Singing) Otra vez.
ORTIZ, LEGUIZAMO AND MIRANDA: Yes.
BLADES AND GUERRA: (Singing) Aguadilla, Quebradillas, Guayanilla, Juana Díaz y Cayey, hey.
MIRANDA: (Singing) It's almost like praying.
RUBEN BLADES: (Singing) Puerto Rico.
MIRANDA: (Singing) It's almost like praying.
BLADES: (Singing) Puerto Rico.
JENNIFER LOPEZ: (Singing) Puerto Rico.
MIRANDA: (Singing) It's almost like...
LOPEZ: (Singing) Arecibo, Guanica, Culebra, Las Piedras.
GILBERTO SANTA ROSA: (Singing) Orocovis, Guayama.
GILBERTO SANTA ROSA AND RITA MORENO: (Singing) Gurabo, Maunabo.
RUBEN BLADES, DESSA AND ANA VILLAFANE: (Singing) Aguas Buenas, Salinas, Rio Grande, Sabana Grande.
TOMMY TORRES: (Singing) Yabucoa, Florida.
JENNIFER LOPEZ AND GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing) Penuelas, Santa Isabel.
PEDRO CAPO AND TOMMY TORRES: (Singing) Naranjito, Barranquitas, Carolina, Aibonito, Bayamón
ALEX LACAMOIRE, JOELL ORTIZ AND LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Hey.
CAPO AND TORRES: (Singing) Rincon.
LACAMOIRE, ORTIZ AND MIRANDA: Hey.
CAPO AND TORRES: (Singing) Barceloneta, Las Marias, Comerio, Moca, Ponce, Manati, asi.
MIRANDA: (Singing) It's almost like praying.
CAMILA CABELLO: (Singing) Puerto Rico.
FONSI: (Singing) Boricua, Boricua, Puerto Rico.
CABELLO: (Singing) Puerto Rico.
MIRANDA: (Singing) It's almost like...
FAT JOE: (Rapping) Yeah, Utuado, Aguada, Adjuntas y Caguas.
PJ SIN SUELA: (Rapping) Canovanas, Catano, Juncos, Lajas.
DESSA: (Rapping) Jayuya, Villalba, Arroyo, te amo.
DESSA AND FAT JOE: (Rapping) La cueva de Camuy, los banos de Coamo.
GINA RODRIGUEZ: (Rapping) Trujillo Alto, Ceiba, Ciales, La isla de Vieques...
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGABLE PLANETS SONG, "REBIRTH OF SLICK (COOL LIKE DAT)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, which we're featuring as part of our holiday week series collecting some of our favorite interviews of the year. Miranda created and wrote "Hamilton," the Broadway hip-hop phenomenon about the Founding Fathers, which won 11 Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. He starred as Alexander Hamilton in the original production. A British production just opened in London to rave reviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So I'm going to put you on the spot and ask you to do one of the first rhymes that you remember writing that you still remember today.
MIRANDA: (Rapping) Well, hello, my name is Lin. But if you're dyslexic, call me Nil. My rhymes are gonna kill, so I suggest you write your will and leave your [expletive] to me. I am the epitome of coolness, can't be rid of me because I will be hitting the mic tonight.
MIRANDA: Notice my voice went up about two octaves. It's because at that time, I was listening to nothing but the Pharcyde. And my favorite rapper in the Pharcyde had that (rapping in high-pitched voice) well, there she goes again, the dopest Ethiopian, and now the world around me - it was that cadence, and I think my rapper voice is still influenced by Pharcyde. But that is - those lines were a rhyme I wrote in ninth grade that I showed to friends. And they were like, all right, stick to your day job (laughter).
GROSS: No, come on. That was pretty good. That was funny (laughter).
GROSS: So OK. And I'm going to put you on the spot one more time. Your father has or had a political consulting company. He worked with New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
MIRANDA: He has.
GROSS: He still has it - and advising him on Latino affairs. And you apparently wrote jingles when you were younger for this political consulting company that your father owns. So how old were you when you started writing them? And please sing one for us.
MIRANDA: Well, jingles is misleading because it sounds like a, oh, how I wait to wake up in the morning. It's not - they're not like "I Like Ike." They - it's background music for commercials. I was basically cheap labor for my dad. He would say, I need 30 seconds of some jazz for a Sharpton spot that's going to be on WBLS or I need some bright salsa for a Fernando Ferrer campaign commercial. You know, I wrote music for Eliot Spitzer before we knew what we knew when he was running for governor. I wrote for Carl McCall. And whatever Democrat was running or my dad was working with, I was writing the campaign music. I liked writing the negative ads more than the - because it's more minor chords. You just kind of hit the synthesizer (imitating synthesizer). Politician X voted against da da da (ph), and then it ends with bright salsa - (imitating salsa music). Vote politician Y.
GROSS: Oh, that's great. So you know how you were talking about the compartmentalized you, the you you were when you were at home and in your Latino neighborhood and the you you were at school when your friends were white and not Latino and that you learned, finally, to bring all those parts together. Was the same kind of compartmentalization happening for you musically? You loved Broadway shows, and you loved hip-hop.
MIRANDA: What a fantastic question.
GROSS: And it's maybe hard to find people who, when they're teens, love both.
MIRANDA: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. And honestly, what a fantastic question because theater is really the thing that began to break that divide for me. My senior year in high school, I was the director of the school musical, and I picked the "West Side Story," painfully aware that there were not enough Latino kids to play all the Sharks in "West Side Story" at Hunter, or at least audition. And so what that became for me was actually this kind of weird way of bringing my culture to school. I remember being knocked out when I first saw the movie in sixth grade, that there's actually a musical number in the canon about whether you should stay in Puerto Rico and live in the United States.
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
MIRANDA: You know, that's amazing when you're 12, and you grow up in New York and your family's all from this other island - to have that conversation happening in front of you in an iconic musical. And so I had my white and Asian Sharks. And I brought my dad in, and he did dialect coaching. You know, while they're singing "America," I want the things they're yelling while they're cheering each other on to be accurate. I want the accents to be accurate, so it actually - it became a way to bring home to school, directing that production.
GROSS: Did you ever have friends who loved hip-hop who thought that there was something wrong with you because you also like Broadway?
MIRANDA: No. And then here's the - well, here's the other thing that I feel really lucky about. I grew up in the time just when cassettes were waning and CDs were growing. And so mixtapes - and not mix CDs, mixtapes - were an important part of the friendship and mating rituals of New York adolescents (laughter). If you were a girl and I wanted you - to show you I like you, I would make you a 90-minute cassette wherein I would show off my tastes. I would play you a musical theater song next to a hip-hop song next to an oldie next to some pop song you maybe never heard, also subliminally telling you how much I like you with all these songs.
I think I learned more about writing scores for Broadway by making mixtapes in the '90s than I did in college. You're learning about rise and fall and energy and tempo shifts. You're showing off your taste and your references. You're trying to be witty by - through placement of music you didn't write. And so it's no accident that the initial name for my show was "The Hamilton Mixtape." That's how I approached writing the score. It was, here's...
GROSS: Oh, that's why you called it that. Oh, OK. I get it.
MIRANDA: Yeah. It's, here's everything I know about this guy, and it's a ride, and you're along for the ride. And, again, the reason I make that distinction cassette before CD is you have to listen to it in the order in which I've curated it for you. You know, side A to side B is our act break. And I say all that to answer your question because I had friends who only listened to hip-hop. I had friends who only listened to musicals, and I stood proudly in the middle, and I'd say, I'm going to change your life with this song.
GROSS: I think we have to take another short break here. My guest is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and starred in "In The Heights" and, of course, more recently, wrote and starred in "Hamilton." He's out of the cast now, but the show is still, needless to say, going real strong. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the Broadway hip-hip musical "Hamilton." He played Alexander Hamilton in the original production. Our interview was first broadcast last January.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So I have to ask you about Stephen Sondheim because you have a very interesting history with him. First of all, when you were directing "West Side Story" in high school, he came to your class because he was the friend of the father of one of the students in the cast and spoke to you. So you...
MIRANDA: Yeah, he was - John Weidman's daughter...
GROSS: Oh, oh.
MIRANDA: ...Was very good friends with a - who's still, like, one of my wife's best friends. They were in the same grade, went to our school, and John Weidman...
GROSS: Oh. He wrote the book for "Assassins" and "Pacific Overtures."
MIRANDA: "Pacific Overtures," yes.
GROSS: Yeah. OK. So there's that. So you get to meet him in high school, and then you get to write the Spanish lyrics for the Spanish production of "West Side Story."
GROSS: And then you got to be in a production of "Merrily We Roll Along," which is a great Sondheim musical that always needs to be revived because the original Broadway run was so very short. And so this was a city center - a New York City Center Encores production.
GROSS: And in fact, I want to play just a little bit of you in that, which...
MIRANDA: Oh, great.
GROSS: ...Encores was gracious enough to - I saw you in this production.
MIRANDA: Oh, wonderful.
GROSS: Yeah. It was great. So you're playing a lyricist who works with a composer, but the composer has kind of, like, sold out, and, you know, he's just doing, like, commercial work. And the lyricist now has come to think of the composer instead of just being his friend and collaborator Franklin Shepard, he thinks of him now as, like, Franklin Shepard Inc. because he's so much about, like, deals and making money. So in this scene, like, you're getting interviewed on TV, and you're just kind of pretty bitter about the whole collaboration with this composer. So here's my guest Lin...
MIRANDA: Buzz, buzz, buzz.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Here's my guest Lin-Manuel Miranda.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Now, how do you two work together?
COLIN DONNELL: (As Franklin Shepard) Oh, we work...
MIRANDA: (As Charley Kringas) Oh, may I answer that?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Please.
MIRANDA: (As Charley Kringas) How do we work together? Sure. He goes (playing piano). And I go (playing instrument). (Singing) And soon we're humming along (humming). And that's called writing a song (humming). Then he goes (playing piano). And I go (playing instrument). And the phone goes (imitating phone ringing). And he goes mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter. Yes, Jerome, mutter, no, Jerome. Mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter. That's his lawyer, Jerome. Mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter, do it, Jerome. Click. Sorry, Charley. (Playing piano). So I go (playing instrument), and he goes (playing piano). And I go (playing instrument). And soon we're tapping away (humming). (Buzzing) Sorry, Charley. (Buzzing). It's the secretary - (buzzing) - on the intercom. Yes, Ms. Bzzz, it's a messenger. Thanks, Ms. Bzzz. Will you tell him to wait? Will you order the car? Will you call up the bank? Will you wire the coast? Will you - (imitating phone ringing). Sorry, Charley. Mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter sell the stock, mutter, buy the rights. Mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter, mutter (buzzing). Let me put you on hold (buzzing). Yes, Ms. Bzzz. It's the interview. Thanks, Ms. Bzzz, will you tell him to wait? Will you wire the car? Will you order the coast? Will you send up the bank? And the telephones blink and the stocks get sold and the rest of us he keeps on hold. And he's into making movies. And he's now a corporation. Right? So I play at home with my wife and kids. And I wait to hear the movie bids. And I've got a little sailboat. And I'm into meditation. Right. He flies off to California. I discuss him with my shrink. That's the story of the way we work, me and Franklin Shepard Inc. (laughter). I'm surprised at how much I like this.
GROSS: OK. That's my guest Lin-Manuel Miranda in a production of The New York City Center Encores Great American Musical series in a production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." You're so much fun in that. And I really think doing hip-hop rhymes is great preparation for that lyric.
MIRANDA: Absolutely is.
GROSS: ...For singing that, yeah. And Sondheim has written so many - he's just, like, the most brilliant lyricist. But what are some of the things you feel you learned either from talking with Sondheim - because I know he also gave you feedback on "Hamilton" before you actually put it onstage. So what are the things you've learned from actually talking to him or just from, like, getting intimately acquainted with his work?
MIRANDA: A couple of things. First of all, I am one of so many composers he's taken the time to encourage, and I feel very grateful to be one of many. I'm by no means unique in that I've gotten words of encouragement from Steve Sondheim. And many in my generation have, and that's been incredible. The way in which he specifically helped me with "Hamilton" - and, first of all, by saying that's a great idea when I first told it to him. I - the first time I met him to work on those translations, he said, what else are you working on? What comes after "In The Heights"? And I said, I think a musical about Alexander Hamilton. And he threw up his head and said, that is a fantastic idea. And that moment kept me nourished for months, you know, when the writing was tough, when I couldn't figure out how to end those first four lines of "My Shot."
The notion that Sondheim threw up his head and said, that's a fantastic idea, you know, kept me sane. But the thing he always sort of stressed was variety, variety, variety, variety, variety. When you're dealing with a constant rhythm, no matter how great your lyrics are, if you don't switch it up, people's heads are going to start bobbing, and they're going to stop listening to what you're saying. So consistently keep the ear fresh, and keep the audience surprised. And, you know, that was his sort of watchword throughout the writing of "Hamilton." I'd send him a batch of songs, and he'd say, I'm going to say it again - variety, variety, variety. And so I - you know, that was my mantra during the writing of that show.
GROSS: The Sondheim song that's closest to comic rap is, in my opinion, "Not Getting Married," which is done...
MIRANDA: (Rapping) Is everybody here? Because if everybody's here, I'd like to thank you all for coming to the wedding.
GROSS: Do more, do more.
MIRANDA: (Rapping) I'd appreciate your going even more. I mean, you must have lots of better things to do, and not a word of it to Paul. Remember Paul, you know, the man I'm going to marry? But I'm not because I'd never ruin anyone as wonderful as he is. Thank you all for the gifts and the flowers. Thanks to you all for the cards and the showers. Don't tell Paul, but I'm not getting married today.
GROSS: Anyone who could do that song has an incredible tongue.
GROSS: It's so tricky. It's so fast, and the words are so - just kind of, like, dense and funny and rhymey (ph). And so, obviously, you know that song by heart more or less. And have you thought about that song a lot in terms of intricate rhyme schemes and what the human voice is capable of without totally tripping up?
MIRANDA: Well, I think about that - honestly, I think about that song more when people ask me, how did you think rap was going to work on Broadway? And I go, nothing in my show is faster than "Getting Married Today" in "Company."
MIRANDA: So I don't know what you're talking about. There's so much precedent for the work in both, quote, unquote, "hip-hop" and not in terms of patter for the stage. But, you know, what's amazing about "Getting Married Today" is it's also in a master class in making a lyric easy. There are consonants on which you waste air. H - there's no H's in that because if you say ha, you've lost half the air in your lungs. So it's very T's and P's. (Rapping) Thank you all. Is everybody here? Because if everybody's here, I'd like to thank you all for coming to the wedding.
It's more about breath control than being - it's not a tongue twister. It's very consciously not a tongue twister. It's about being able to say it in one continuous breath and getting out of the way and choosing words that do not require any extra air or any extra tongue or jaw work. So it's actually not about trying to making it hard. It's about making it easy.
GROSS: So did you learn that intuitively or did Sondheim tell you that that was his intention to stay away from as many H's as possible and to keep it to things that could easily be said?
MIRANDA: I think I read about that in a conversation he had at some point, but I also knew that intuitively because of the hip-hop artists I liked who rapped fast. You know, they're not trying to make something that's hard for them to perform every night. They're trying to make something that sounds impressive and is a joy to deliver every night. I'm trying to think of, like, a really specific early-'90s example. Queen Latifah - (rapping) Snatch ya stature. Your broken looks more like a fracture. Catch that rapper. Latifah will be back to crush ya.
That's Queen Latifah in 1992, and it's fast. There's Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." She goes (rapping) there's plenty of people out there with triggers ready to pull it. Why you trying to jump in front of the bullet, young lady?
No H's. So you learn intuitively that, like, the writer is trying to make something that flows easily off the tongue.
GROSS: So did the writer of Alexander Hamilton try to avoid H's in writing the lyrics?
MIRANDA: Well, you will observe that Hamilton is not in any of the fast rapping that happens onstage, right? George Washington goes, Hamilton and then - he goes (rapping) sir, he knows what to do in a trench, ingenuitive (ph) and fluent in French, I mean.
So we're not hampering anyone with Hamilton.
GROSS: Well, Lin-Manuel Miranda, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you so very much.
MIRANDA: Likewise. The joy is mine.
GROSS: Lin-Manuel Miranda created the musical "Hamilton" and originated the title role. The London production just opened to rave reviews. His grandmother died yesterday. We send our condolences. Our interview was recorded last January. Today's broadcast was part of our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. After we take a short break, film critic David Edelstein will tell us what's on his 10-best list. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.