Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about his chance of joining Egot
Los Angeles—Will Lin-Manuel Miranda soon join an elite group of talents, known as Egot, who have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards? Music’s man du jour only needs an Oscar to join 12 brilliant individuals. But now, having composed songs for Disney’s “Moana,” that could give him a shot at winning Hollywood’s shiny bald man trophy.
The distinguished Egot circle includes names from Richard Rodgers and Audrey Hepburn, to Mel Brooks and Robert Lopez.
The actor-composer, who also won a Pulitzer Prize for “Hamilton,” his critically acclaimed Broadway hit on Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, is boyish in person. Sporting a goatee, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants exuded a light, easy air, often breaking into a hearty chuckle.
Miranda’s casual exuberance was tempered by the recent passing of his fellow singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, whom he brought up when he was asked what music meant to him.
The 2015 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient said, “It’s one of the things that is most intrinsically linked to memory, which is why when you hear a powerful reprise of a song in a film later, it dredges up emotions in a way that a scene never will.
“Leonard Cohen passed away this week, and I will tell you what he said about it. ‘Being a songwriter is like being a nun: You’re married to a mystery.’ And I’m proud to engage with that mystery every day.”
On his cardigan, Miranda wore a safety pin, which has become the symbol of opposition to hate and intolerance in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
Back to Egot, the 36-year-old actor-songwriter added, “You get into that group by doing your best possible work and letting the chips fall where they may. So, for me, the joy was the dream coming true of writing a Disney animated score.
“I’ve wanted to do that ever since Sebastian the crab started singing ‘Under the Sea’ when I was 9 years old. And to work with those directors (John Musker and Ron Clements) was the dream come true for me.
It’s all heady stuff for the man who, as a teenager in New York’s Washington Heights, harbored many dreams that seemed unreachable.
Now, he has written songs for a Disney movie. “Moana,” set in Polynesia, centers on the eponymous princess (voiced by Auli’l Cravalho), who embarks on a dangerous ocean journey to save her people. Along the trip, she meets a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson).
“I remember being 16 years old, and I felt a lot like Moana,” Miranda admitted. “I knew I wanted to create music or films, but the gulf between where I was just seemed impossible. I wrote my way toward it, and that’s how I got out.”
Miranda, who acted in episodes of TV shows including “The Sopranos” and “House,” indeed composed his way to the top, starting with “In the Heights” and then “Hamilton.”
Credit the folks at Disney for having the foresight and instinct for talent when they hired Miranda to write songs for “Moana” way before the “Hamilton” phenomenon happened.
“I got the job for ‘Moana’ seven months before ‘Hamilton’ started rehearsals off-Broadway,” he confirmed. “Any time I was sick of rapping about the Founding Fathers, I’d go sail across the sea with Maui and Moana. Then, once ‘Hamilton’ was up and the phenomenon started happening, ‘Moana’ actually became this oasis for me.
“I had to prioritize making time to write. But we got it done, and it was mainly because we found time for me to sit in the room with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, my cowriters on many of the songs. That was the magic, the chemistry that made it happen.”
Miranda had to literally visit his childhood to compose young Moana’s dreams. “For Moana’s song ‘How Far I’ll Go,’ where she’s singing about how she wants to see where the sky meets the sea, I locked myself up in my childhood bedroom. I needed to go to a place where I felt as angsty as I did when I was 16 years old. I’m like a Method actor when it comes to writing this stuff.”
He’s temporarily moving with his wife Vanessa and 2-year-old son Sebastian to London to shoot director Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns,” set 20 years after the original.
The Wesleyan University alum is donning his actor cap—make that of Jack, a lamplighter described as akin to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert in the beloved 1964 original. Emily Blunt has the titular role.
With his guayabera-garbed father, Luis Miranda Jr., smiling proudly in the back of a meeting room at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California, Miranda talked about how he keeps his ego in check amid all the acclaim and breaks.
“My wife knew what she was getting into when she married me. I was a broke substitute teacher when we met, but she knew that I was going into this line of work.”
Miranda’s face lit up when he remembered an incident when he was a boy and savored his first “acclaim.” “I will tell you my mother’s (Luz Towns-Miranda) favorite story,” he began. “I was 6 years old in my first piano recital. I didn’t practice a lot, so my piano teacher only felt comfortable letting me play one piece at the recital. It was ‘Camptown Races.’ I got up on the bench and played ‘Camptown Races.’
“Then, I heard applause. My mother said that I looked around as if not knowing applause was going to be part of the deal. I lit up and said, ‘I know another one.’ I launched into a second song, then four songs later, my piano teacher physically lifted me off the piano bench. I seem to be reliving that story for the rest of my life.”
He’s had one brush with Hollywood, which almost turned into his first major heartbreak.
“I had one go round with Hollywood prior to ‘Hamilton.’ The success of ‘In the Heights’ almost led to a big-budget movie version. It ultimately didn’t happen. Once the budget started getting bigger, I started getting notes from people I’d never heard of.
“I learned a lot from that experience. We have a new attempt at an ‘In the Heights’ movie. So, I’m excited about that.
“For me, the balance is trying to create and implement ideas that I’ve been carrying around my whole life. And saying yes to opportunities that I’ll learn from. I’m going to be a better singer, dancer and actor after I finish ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ because I’m working with Rob Marshall, who is the best at making movie musicals.
“I’m an absolute monster,” he quipped with a grin when asked how hands-on he is as “Hamilton” tours across the US before its London production.
With all these successes, Miranda copped to feeling what’s called an artist’s anxiety. “Every day, you doubt—and every day, there’s anxiety,” he said after sipping from a water bottle.
“One of my great friends in the industry is John Kander, who is the composer of ‘Chicago,’ ‘Cabaret’ and countless other iconic musicals. The first time I sat down with him for lunch, he said, ‘Do you ever feel like they’re going to find you’re a fraud?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but you shouldn’t. You wrote ‘Cabaret.’
“Anxiety never goes away, no matter how much success happens. The only answer to it is work, meeting the moment and telling the truth.
“I have a wife who does not like musicals that much (laughs), so a musical has to be so good that she likes it.”
As our conversation wound down, we asked, what’s it like to be Lin-Manuel Miranda right now?
“I wouldn’t trade it with anyone,” he replied, his face beaming. “It’s been overwhelming. I thought I knew what musical theater success felt like after ‘Heights.’ I won the Tony for best musical, and ‘Heights’ had a three-year run. That’s about as much as you can hope for when you write a musical.
“What happened with ‘Hamilton’ is some other thing. I am riding it the best I can. It means you hold your friends closer. I wake up grateful getting to do what I love for a living. But I have good days and bad days.
“I always try to remind myself like hey, there was a time when you were at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and you were busking on the corner to get people to see your rap concert. So, I’d rather have this than that. I feel grateful for where I’m sitting.”
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