When Lin-Manuel Miranda was a teenager in the 1990s, he liked to make eclectic mixtapes for his friends. In those cassettes, he experimented with the rise and fall of energy in music: A musical theater number might play after a hip-hop song, only to be followed by an oldie or an obscure pop song. It was through mixtapes that he could bridge the gap between two seemingly opposing passions — Broadway and rap.
“I think I learned more about writing scores for Broadway by making mixtapes … than I did in college,” the actor, composer and lyricist tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.
In 2008, Miranda’s first musical, In The Heights, won four Tony Awards, and in 2016, Hamilton — a hip-hop infused retelling of the founding father’s life — won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
Though Miranda stepped away from his Hamilton role in July, he remains busy with other projects. He wrote several songs for the Disney animated film Moana, and he’s preparing to star in a film sequel of Mary Poppins.
Looking ahead, Miranda says he doesn’t feel pressure to duplicate or exceed the success of Hamilton. “If you think in terms of topping, you’re in the wrong business,” he says. “I remember getting that question after In the Heights. ‘It’s your first musical and you won the Tony, how are you going to top it?’ I’m like, ‘I went from broke substitute teacher to Broadway composer. I will never make a leap that big in my life again.’ ”
On what it was like to play Alexander Hamilton every night
It was an enormous challenge to do that show every night, and yet who to blame but myself? 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.
Getting to go through that experience, it’s something I’ll never get old of, which is why I really tried to downplay my departure as much as possible, because I don’t think I’m remotely done with it.
On Donald Trump’s tweet calling for the theater to be a safe place after the Hamilton cast read a statement directed to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who attended a performance soon after the election
Here’s where I agree with the president-elect: The theater should always be a safe space. … I think one of the reasons Hamilton has been embraced by people of every stripe on the political spectrum is that theater is one of the rarest places where we still come together. 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 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 to that end, I agree with [Trump’s comment]. I don’t agree with his characterization of what we did. I think anyone who sees that video sees [actor Brandon Victor Dixon] silencing the boos … from the audience itself, who … nine days after the election are still working through that thing. I can’t speak to that, but I know that Brandon quieted the boos and made a plea to lead all of us. I don’t believe there’s anything remotely resembling harassment in what we’ve done.
On the life he dreamed of as a kid
I have two wonderful, supportive and very practical parents who are like, “You’re really talented and really creative. You should be a lawyer,” because there’s a safe path there. I knew I was never going to be a lawyer. I knew that I wanted to make movies, and I wanted to write shows.
On his love of Disney musicals growing up
I had the great joy of being 9 years old when The Little Mermaid came out, and I went and saw that three times in the theater. Then I dragged my parents back and my family back to see it a couple more times.
I don’t know why it changed my life as much as it did. I think Sebastian the crab had a big amount to do with it — the fact that this calypso number happens under the water just knocked my socks off when I was a kid. It had this power over me. I would perform that thing — I would jump up on my desk in fourth grade and sing that song.
Then I had the good fortune of being a kid during that really kind of amazing run of musical animated films. It’s Little Mermaid, followed by Beauty and the Beast, followed by Aladdin, followed by The Lion King. That’s an incredible run. And what’s been exciting is animation has changed so much. There’s this incredible Pixar golden age, and really golden age from all these other studios as well, and it feels like we’re in another one of those where musicals have a seat at the table. You’ve got Tangled, you’ve got Frozen, next to Inside Out, next to Zootopia, and it’s exciting to be a part of that tradition again.
On the music that influenced him as a teenager
My sister is as responsible as 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 “Engine, engine number nine, 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 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. … These are all New York, East Coast, ’90s rappers, and that’s when I was a teenager.
On code-switching between the Latin American neighborhood he grew up in and his school with affluent white kids
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 . …
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 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. …
The corner that I lived on 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 friend’s 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.