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BWW Interviews: Talking MERRILY with Lin-Manuel Miranda

Any actor would feel anxious about taking on an iconic role, but when one is recreating an iconic role in an iconic musical’s first professional New York production in 17 years…well, the pressure might seem just a bit more intense. But Tony-award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who shot to stardom with his hit musical In The Heights a few years ago, seems positively poised and humbled about playing Charley Kringas in the upcoming revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at City Center’s Encores! series.

When he was asked if he would be interested in the role, he couldn’t believe it was even a question. “I basically got an invite from James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, who were batting around names and asked if I would be interested,” he recalls. “Like any sane person, I said ‘yes,’ because I think Charley Kringas is one of the great roles, and so I [made a recording] singing ‘Good Thing Going’ and got the good news about a week later.”

To prepare for the role, Miranda has been studying with vocal coach Liz Caplan and studying the music. “There’s not a lot of time,” he says of the rehearsal process. “There’s a week and a half, two weeks before we see an audience for the first time. It’s really like being shot out of a cannon, so I’ve just been doing the legwork and crunching the score.”

As a composer and lyricist in his own right, Miranda feels a certain affinity for Charley Kringas and Franklin Shepard, the theatrical duo in the musical whose artistic growth fuels the drama. “It feels very personal in a way,” he says. “There’s a generation of musical theater enthusiasts who delineate between the Franklin Shepards and Charley Kringases of the world—the people who, as they see it, do the work for love or get caught up and sidetracked—which happens to Franklin over the course of the story. There is this incredible precedent set by great performances by Lonny Price and others, so I’m just trying to come at it as honestly as I can.”

Sondheim, he adds, truly captures “what it’s like to be a composer and what it’s like to be a lyricist and what it’s like to be on that grind of trying to get your show on.” He feels that one of the biggest challenges during the show’s two-week run (unprecedented for an Encores! production) will be singing “Opening Doors” and “It’s a Hit” without tearing up. “Opening Doors is one of the most fantastic depictions of the life of an artist,” Miranda says. “You think everything’s going great, and you tell your friends, and then this thing happens or that thing happens and you start again and you think it’s the end of the world, but you’re really just developing the tough skin you need to get by in this business where rejection is the norm, not the exception. So in that sense, it’s painfully true, but also exhilarating.”

The important thing, he adds, is to do whatever it takes to make the role true. “In certain senses, I’ve had an extremely charmed career as a writer, given that I met my collaborators [when I was] very young and we were really good fits. It takes many years to find someone you jive with. I was very lucky to meet Tommy Kale right out of college. That was probably the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me. So in that sense, yes, I draw on my own ‘opening doors’ period of my career.”

As a successful young artist, Miranda doesn’t necessarily condemn the characters for the way their personalities change over the decades covered in the show, or for the paths their lives take. “[Franklin] has his reasons for doing what he does, but they’re the opposite from how he started,” Miranda says. “But Charley’s indictment rings so true for a lot of people. You go into a business and you love it, and then you start crunching numbers, and you lose what connected you to it.”

Merrily is not Miranda’s first experience working with Stephen Sondheim. He famously provided Spanish translations for the recent revival of West Side Story, and worked alongside the icon to make sure the rhymes and meanings of the original words were maintained. When Sondheim’s second collection of lyrics and stories about his shows, Look, I Made a Hat was published late last year, Miranda was singled out for praise by the master. “What’s wonderful about the book is that you also see the moments where he’s talking about ‘Finishing the Hat,’ which is one of the best songs ever written,”—and which was cited by Miranda in his Tony-acceptance speech—“and it still drives him crazy that he had to pluralize ‘waits.’…You’re always working to make it better, and it’s never perfect. If you’re doing your job right, it’s never perfect. That’s the main lesson I take away from his work.”

Although he has been mentored by Sondheim, Miranda does not consider himself a protégé of the legendary composer’s. “What people don’t realize is that he was taught by Oscar Hammerstein II, and his main lesson is to encourage younger artists through various committees he’s on,” he says. “This is what he does. He encourages younger work. He influences the next generation. I’m one of many people who have gotten encouragement, and I’m unbelievably grateful for it. I’m one of many and I’m very proud to be a part of that.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda has been a longtime fan of Merrily We Roll Along, but the first time he saw the musical produced was when he went back to visit his old high school last year. “To see ‘Our Time’ performed on my high school stage was unbelievably overwhelming,” he recalls. “That’s the site where I figured out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. To see these kids singing ‘Our Time’ and facing their own world of possibilities on that stage where everything felt possible—it was very overwhelming. ‘Our Time’ will be tough to get through,” he chuckles. “I can still connect to it in a very visceral way.”

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