Exclusive InDepth InterView: Lin-Manuel Miranda Talks BRING IT ON, MERRILY, HEIGHTS, HAMILTON & More
Pioneer, innovator and the voice of an entire new musical theatre generation coming in the dawning of the age of GLEE, Tony Award recipient and Grammy-winning composer, lyricist and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda has merged the worlds of the two most significant of original American art forms - musicals and rap - in such a striking and surprisingly inventive way with his hit musical IN THE HEIGHTS - currently touring the country - and is setting out to do the same with his fresh collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning NEXT TO NORMAL composer Tom Kitt along with lyricist Amanda Green on their new musical inspired by the cheerleading comedy film BRING IT ON, currently in previews out of town in Los Angeles as it eyes New York. In addition to discussing the development of IN THE HEIGHTS and BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL in detail, Miranda and I also outline his experience working alongside the two modern-day masters of the musical theatre - Stephen Sondheim and the recently deceased Arthur Laurents - on the Spanish translation and re-envisioning of the classic for the recent bilingual revival of WEST SIDE STORY - in addition to his forthcoming ALEXANDER HAMILTON project, which Miranda recently performed a medley from for President Obama himself at the White House Poetry Jam. As if all of that were not enough, we also delve into his thought process as he sets out to take on one of Sondheim's most challenging roles in all of musical theatre - that of Charley Kringas in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at Encores!, under the direction of James Lapine. Plus, news on his new feature film THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN, as well as recollections of his favorite Broadway shows, scores, cast albums, movie musicals and general musical and theatrical inspirations - and his favorite Shakespeare plays, Cole Porter and Sondheim songs, too - and much, much more!
Hundreds Of Stories
PC: Would you like to see GLEE take on your material in the future?LMM: Oh, I would be all for that!PC: How would you feel about a tribute episode?LMM: [Laughs.] Well, I don't know if our show is really famous enough for that! But, I am lucky enough to have known Matt Morrison and Lea Michele back in their Broadway days - they are both amazing performers and I couldn't be happier for them and I enjoy watching them on GLEE every week.PC: It seems that in the last few years the new generation has embraced the theatre - through GLEE and, also, SPRING AWAKENING and your own IN THE HEIGHTS. Do you agree?LMM: Well, the secret of GLEE is that it is not really creating something new - it is tapping into something that was always there.
PC: Without a doubt.LMM: Thanks to our nation's high schools and elementary schools, there has always been a subset of us who grow up learning about musical theatre by doing - I mean, I know that's how I learned. Our family didn't have money for Broadway shows, but I got to be in GODSPELL in tenth grade; and, I got to assistant-direct A CHORUS LINE in eleventh grade. And, GLEE taps into that - that there are a subset of kids for whom high school is just what they wait for to be over so they can get to rehearsal at 3:30. PC: Exactly.LMM: I was definitely one of those kids - and, I think what is the best thing about GLEE is that it presents theatre music - within the plot of its stories - right next to pop music and hip-hop music and it makes us part of the fabric of the national conversation in a bigger way.
PC: Hip-hop seems to be getting more and more theatrical, as well - I think Kanye West's MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY is about as theatrical you can get on a concept album.LMM: It's a pretty great album - yeah.PC: His RUNAWAY mini-movie-musical is TOMMY for 2010, pretty much. Were you influenced by TOMMY or THE WALL or JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR growing up?
LMM: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR was a big one in our house. You see, I remember these shows all as cast albums, because my parents had a pretty good collection when I was a kid, and, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR had this mystery about it - because it was this four album, vinyl thing with the whole booklet inside. So, I remember getting lost and immersed in that album when I was a kid. I was lucky enough to play it - freshman year in college, I got to play Jesus. Unfortunately, I was still deep in puberty - so, I couldn't hit the notes Ted Neeley hits! But, it's a great show.
PC: I actually just saw a snippet of your performance on YouTube. LMM: I'm screaming my head off just to get up there!PC: Do you find that singing those Andrew Lloyd Webber tenor roles are a challenge because of the semi-operatic vocal lines and all that?LMM: I don't know that I find it a challenge now that my voice has settled, but it is certainly a joy to sing - he certainly writes some of the catchiest melodies, I think, that Broadway has ever seen. PC: What do you think of how he has brought a contemporary sound into musical theatre throughout his career?LMM: That's a good question. You know, what I really admire about both JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA is that they work as albums, on their own terms.PC: They really do - viscerally. LMM: Yeah. I think that's really cool. Like, it was years before I saw a production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR or the movie, but, as a musical experience, it was incredibly fun. It's similar to what I am trying to do with this HAMILTON project I am working on - I am really thinking of it as an album first, and, if some genius - some Hal Prince - figures out how to stage it... [Laughs.] that would be great. But, I am really trying to think of it as a fully musical experience. PC: When Hal Prince did this column he said that someone needs to come along and re-invent the wheel in order for theatre to stay current - it sounds like ALEXANDER HAMILTON has that potential. Do you think there needs to be an MTV influence like we saw with your IN THE HEIGHTS and, also, AMERICAN IDIOT and SPRING AWAKENING? Are we entering a meta-entertainment performance age in general, do you think?
LMM: It's so interesting that you said that, because that is definitely the challenge of putting hip-hop onstage. Like, I love listening to, let's say, Jay-Z's REASONABLE DOUBT - and I will listen to it over and over until I get the lyrics; whereas you don't have that luxury onstage. It has to work in real-time, the first time. So, how do you make it sound impressive as hip-hop but still have the audience with it and understanding it? That's the challenge.
PC: You certainly set that gambit up early on in IN THE HEIGHTS with the Cole Porter references and homage to him.LMM: [Laughs.]PC: What were the most formative and influential albums for you growing up?LMM: Oh, wow - we can go by genre if you like! [Laughs.]PC: Even better!LMM: For me - and I think it's funny because there are people for whom hip-hop like appeared to them - whereas, I was born in 1980, so hip-hop never didn't exist in my life. I remember listening to the Fat Boys and Beastie Boys and LL Cool J as a little kid and rapping along with that stuff. I think the first album I stole from my older sister was Black Sheep's A WOLF IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING. And, then, I remember the first album I really memorized beginning to end was actually a West Coast album - The Pharcyde, BIZARRE RIDE II THE PHARCYDE.PC: Great old-school album.LMM: I just couldn't believe these guys sounded like they were having so much fun! And, they had a single - called "Passin' Me By" - which was all about these guys who couldn't get girls - [Raps.] "And the letter came back three days later; return to sender!" And, I was like, "Oh, you are allowed to rap about that? I thought you were only allowed to rap if you were awesome." [Laughs.] PC: So, that album was the big favorite of your youth, I may presume, then?
LMM: I really took that album to heart. I have so many memories, though. I remember getting into a fistfight with my best friend for the last cassette single of Scenario's that was on-sale when I was in seventh grade and really discovering it and the pleasure of the words. It was at that time when music means more to you than anything - like, 12 to 18 - and, you know, everyone's favorite era of music is whatever they listened to from 12 to 18. PC: Indeed.
LMM: I was lucky enough that, for me, it was the golden age of hip-hop - Tribe Called Quest; Dr. Dre; then, Jay-Z coming out in '96; Big Pun; Eminem towards the end of that - and, I feel very lucky to have sort of come about at an age in an era when lyrics were paramount in hip-hop and storytelling was paramount. Biggie is like a master storyteller.
PC: You could conceivably turn just the song "Big Poppa" into a full-fledged musical. LMM: Yeah! They're stories! The challenge is that they are self-contained stories so every song is like a one-act.
PC: It seemed like those videos that came out in the mid-to-late 90s were so epic and theatrical - especially the Hype Williams videos. They were almost like the grand theatre of our lives.LMM: Totally. Totally. That's why I was pleasantly surprised when GLEE caught on, but I was like, "We've been trained to understand musical theatre storytelling by MTV - it's slightly different, but it's the same thing." At the end of the day, it's all musical storytelling.PC: Without question. I just saw your 7-year-old self doing the "Footloose" routine on YouTube, so may I assume that was your big movie musical growing up?LMM: My parents loved FOOTLOOSE and I loved the album. Again... [Laughs.]... I remember listening to "Holding Out For A Hero" and "Almost Paradise". I mean, way before they ever put FOOTLOOSE on Broadway, I had already staged the musical in my bedroom.PC: Jim Steinman wrote "Holding Out For A Hero" and so many of the greatest theatrical pop and rock songs of all time. Are you a fan of his work - especially BAT OUT OF HELL?
LMM: Yeah, I mean - totally. Totally. I am a huge fan of his. I didn't realize he was the guy who wrote all those songs until later - I discovered the Meat Loaf BAT OUT OF HELL album kind of late into college. I am slow on the curve when it comes to rock music, but I wore that album out! I mean, "Paradise By The Dashboard Light"? "Heaven Can Wait"? All those songs are so epic and gorgeous.
PC: What was it like working with Stephen Schwartz - the composer of one of your first performance experiences, GODSPELL, who you then worked with when you recently did the new version of WORKING together that you added songs to for a new production?LMM: That was such a total joy. Stephen Schwartz is one of the nicest guys who works in the musical theatre and I had met him briefly before because he worked with our musical director for HEIGHTS - Alex Lacamoire - on WICKED - Alex was the associate conductor and did a lot of the arrangements for WICKED. Before HEIGHTS hit, I would sit in the pit of WICKED all the time and watch how the orchestra played and how they worked together and it was just such an incredible learning experience for me.PC: I bet - behind the scenes on Broadway's biggest hit, no less.
LMM: Stephen was so fantastic, though. I mean, to get a call to join that cadre of songwriters - you know, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Stephen; it's a pretty incredible list - so, I was pretty honored to be asked to contribute to it.PC: One of Schwartz's finest songs is in that score for WORKING - "Fathers & Sons".LMM: Yeah. Beautiful song. PC: Did you see any of his shows growing up, or since?LMM: Since WICKED, I've seen PIPPIN and some other shows - but, it's funny, because I really didn't see that many shows as a kid. You know, we saw the holy trinity of what was popular in the 80s - and it was usually at a birthday or a special occasion - we saw CATS, LES MIZ and PHANTOM. That's all I pretty much remember seeing as a little kid. Then, once I had a little disposable income, I went to go see some shows on my own as a teenager.PC: IN THE HEIGHTS had quite a long development period since you started it when you were still a teenager, in 1999, yes?LMM: Yeah, I started writing it in the Winter of 1999. I remember that we did a reading at my house instead of a party for my 20th birthday. [Laughs.]
PC: That's dedication!LMM: Yeah, it was just all of my friends playing the characters - I sang all of the songs. Back then, it was a very different show - it was only intended to be a full-length show for Wesleyan; it was this 80-minute, one-act thing. But, you know, some of the characters that showed up in that draft stayed throughout - Usnavi was in two scenes then and only had, I think, one song; because he was sort of the comic relief - and, then, he slowly became the main character. PC: Of course. What else was in the first draft that changed significantly?LMM: Nina has a brother who went away; Benny's mom was a major character - it was a really different show. I compare it to seeing the cartoons of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie before he became Mickey Mouse, you know?PC: Totally.LMM: Or, those early seasons of THE SIMPSONS where everyone is a little ragged, you know? [Laughs.]PC: A little blurry.LMM: Yeah.PC: Did you cut anything that you still miss?LMM: Hmm, what do I miss? [Pause.] You know, I don't miss any of it. Anything you cut, you cut because you believe there is a better idea around the corner that you haven't thought of yet. There are people who have told me - because there are early demos of HEIGHTS that have gotten out and around - that they miss Nina's brother. Well, Nina's brother hung around for so long because he had some really good songs!PC: You can say that again! That's precisely why I asked, actually.LMM: Yeah. Yeah! So, that's why he hung around as long as he did. But, once we decided his story was not as related to the neighborhood as the other stories are - and, with really making the neighborhood the main character, we suddenly realized we had all this room for these other stories. So, yeah, that was a tough cut.
PC: Did you ever have to censor or tone down any elements of the show at any point - or at least remove some F-bombs?LMM: You know, I have to say, to our producers eternal credit, they never tried to push our show in a certain direction or another - they always supported us writing the best version of the show we wanted. They would - of course, because they are good producers - say, "This moment is not working. Work on this. Work on that." I did have to take out a couple of F-bombs - but, it was not required of us.PC: How was the topic broached in the first place?LMM: Actually, the producers put it to us like this, "There are a couple of F-bombs in a couple of places in this show - school groups don't care about anything but the F-word. So, if it has even one, school groups won't go." And, for me, it was really important that school groups come to see this show and kids come to see the show. I really do see this as a family musical, even though I happen to have a potty mouth! [Laughs.]PC: The art is not the artist, after all!LMM: I was happy to make those cuts, though, because it meant that middle-schoolers and high-schoolers could get taken by their school to see our show - and that was important to me.PC: And the total realization of your career seems to be that you are the major voice of the new generation. Do you find that you have an enormous amount of pressure on you?
LMM: Well, I do not think of it that way - even though it is very nice of you to say it! [Laughs.] But, I really don't think of it like that. I am just trying to follow my gut - following my gut and what I wanted to write is what got me here, so I am just trying to continue doing that.
PC: If it ain't broke...LMM: I do feel a responsibility to hook kids in early, though - I mean, I got hooked in and saw that this was a potential place where I could live and work and be happy by doing musicals in high school. You know, I still go back to my high school to see their musical every year. I feel very connected to that because that is where I figured out who I was. So, that was very important to me.PC: While still in your 20s, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim approached you to rework WEST SIDE STORY with them. Did you even have to think twice to accept it?LMM: That was a... it was really one of those opportunities that you can't even dream about happening. You know, like, who in their right mind dreams, "Oh, I hope they do a revival and they ask me to write Spanish lyrics for it!" I mean, you couldn't make that up!
PC: Definitely not.LMM: That being said, I know that show so well - you know, if they had asked me to collaborate with them on something new, I think I would have been too intimidated to say anything; but, I know WEST SIDE STORY really well. I directed it my senior year in high school and I remember going to Columbia University and taking out the Bernstein conductor's score to look at every single page of it. So, it was a real trip for me to be able to do that. I was like, "I actually feel suited to help in this experiment."
PC: I remember taking scores out of the library and playing through them - do you remember doing that with Sondheim's scores or WEST SIDE STORY itself?LMM: Well, I'm a pretty terrible sight-reader - I need the piano/vocal line and I usually cheat with the guitar tabs on the top! [Laughs.]
PC: That still counts, though!LMM: But, yeah, I can sight-read, but I tend to do it super-super-slowly. But, I mean, the score of WEST SIDE STORY you can study like the Talmud - there is just so much incredible orchestration in there that it is just a learning experience to just go through it and see. You know, when you know that score and you see, like, "Why does the entire world lift in the last few sections of 'America'? Oh, it's because these horns are all doing octaves here!" You know, it's just a pretty timeless score.
PC: Was there a moment when you felt that you just had to pinch yourself? Sitting in rehearsals for WEST SIDE STORY on Broadway with Laurents and Sondheim...LMM: Every second I pinch myself! The day I stop pinching myself is the day I should quit! I never want to be jaded about how lucky I am to be here. It really was incredible - the whole experience. And, the other joy of that is that I got to see Karen Olivo play a part she was born for - and sort of shine in this show, too. It was really incredible to see that.PC: I think it's the best recording of the score, as well.LMM: Oh, thanks!PC: Are you proud of that revival cast album?LMM: Very proud. You know, that was my biggest pinch-me moment - sitting on a couch between Laurents and Sondheim at the cast recording session and being like, "What the f*ck am I doing here?" [Laughs.]PC: What was the greatest bit of advice Arthur Laurents gave you or what did you learn from him that you value most of all?LMM: [Pause.] Oh, well, his whole life and career is like an object lesson in perseverance and sticking to your guns. Just the fact that he was able to go back and stage GYPSY and WEST SIDE STORY that late in his career and really just feel a responsibility to do that is just incredible - and, it's admirable.PC: I know they phased out some of the Spanish as the production played, so were you involved in that process, as well?
LMM: No. I mean, the way it worked was that, originally, I had a long talk with Steve where we talked about what could work in Spanish and what couldn't. And, then, Arthur handed me a libretto and what he did was that he sort of took the sections that he thought could be in Spanish and he put, like, dummy translation lyrics from preexisting translations. So, I sort of started from scratch on those and we just wrote. And, then, you know, the decision to peel them back was really an audience-based decision on the part of the producers.PC: In what way?LMM: Well, you know, it's one thing to build Spanish into the show from the ground up - like we did with IN THE HEIGHTS, we took great pains to make sure the audience would feel taken care of and I feel that there are very few lyrics in the show that are in Spanish that we don't get the meaning across in some other way - sneakily through dialogue; or, somehow. It's woven into the fabric. But, it's another thing to translate a classic. And, you know there was real pushback from the audience - you know, "I want to see the WEST SIDE STORY I remember!" And, they peeled back a good deal of it and I wasn't involved in those decisions - but, that doesn't mean I don't cherish the experience and the experiment.
PC: Do you think future productions in Spanish-language or bilingual countries will use your new version, then?LMM: That's a great question - I have no idea.
PC: Since you consider the experiment of the new version successful, I assume you would like to see it again, though?LMM: Yeah, I would be very curious to see it done again.
PC: It will be interesting to see if it's given as an option in the rental materials.LMM: Mmmhmm.
PC: From working with him to starring in one of his shows: is it true that Sondheim himself cast you in the upcoming Encores! MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG that it was just announced you are starring in as Charley?LMM: Well, he e-mailed me to be sure, but, I don't think he chose me. I think he and Lapine were talking about potential Charleys and I think my name came up. So, he e-mailed me to ask me if I would be interested. You know, the part that that [New York] Times column left out was that I fully auditioned - I did a demo of "Good Thing Going" and sent it in. This is a crazy-demanding part and this was not just an offer out of the blue. And, I am really excited to get to work on it. So, yes, he e-mailed me and it was just the most thrilling e-mail that I could get because I remember seeing the first press release and being like, "Oh, who is he going to get to play Charley?" [Laughs.]PC: And here we are!LMM: Yeah, so the fact that that e-mail came my way and that the two of them thought of me is a real honor. A real honor.
PC: Raul Esparza and Neil Patrick Harris were two other names that were being considered, apparently. Did you see Raul's performance in the Kennedy Center production? He was unbelievable.LMM: I have seen the bootleg of him singing "Franklin Shepard, Inc." on YouTube and he is just incredible. I mean, Raul Esparza is freaking incredible! In my life, I will never have a voice like Raul Esparza - he just has one of those God-given gifts. So, I will try to do the best Charley Kringas that I can do. But, Raul is just incredible - I remember seeing him in TICK, TICK...BOOM! that I saw three times my senior year of college; and I didn't go to college in New York, so I would drive down every time to see him.PC: Jonathan Larson in a way was, and, now, Tom Kitt is, really, your only contemporary. Do you feel you have taken on the mantle of the new composers in Larson's passing and, now, in working with Tom on BRING IT ON?
LMM: Well, I don't really think in mantles - even though it's really nice of you to say! I mean, Tom Kitt is a genius! I am so honored to be working with him on BRING IT ON. But, really, we just try to do the best that we can at the end of the day. [Laughs.]PC: Will you be doing "Hills Of Tomorrow" in this version of MERRILY?LMM: You know, I don't know yet. I just got an e-mail of the score today.
PC: Do you think it will be a bigger acting challenge for you or singing challenge - or is it about equal? It's a very complex role in both respects.LMM: I think they are about equal. What I am really excited about is playing a lyricist! [Big Laugh.] I know that sounds crazy, but I think that's what I love most about that score and that show - that it is really about doing what we love. And, Charley's character is so incredibly relatable to me. I am so excited to sink my teeth into all of it.
PC: Do you consider yourself a lyricist first, before composer?LMM: No, I think of them as about the same. You know, working on BRING IT ON has been fun because I have been able to sort of flex the muscles in different ways. There are songs for which Tom wrote the melody to which I wrote lyrics - and that is really freeing and fun. And, then, there are songs for which I wrote the music. I like doing both - a lot.PC: Tom Kitt actually did his first interview on BRING IT ON in this column many month ago. So, how do you look back on the experience now that the show is relatively complete?LMM: Oh, gosh! The complete part is hard to say because I was up 'til 3 last night rewriting a section that goes in on Friday! [Laughs.]PC: No way!LMM: Yeah! So, we are in the thick of previews - we are still plugging away. You know, it's never done - they just freeze the show at some point.
PC: I think that's an Arthur Laurents-ism!LMM: I gotta say, working with Tom and Amanda [Green], I learn an incredible amount. I mean, they are both incredibly accomplished on their own. You know, I wrote HEIGHTS with an incredible creative team, but it is very rare for composers to get to work with other composers. PC: Almost unprecedented.LMM: Even on WORKING, you know, Stephen and I talked in depth about what kind of songs I should write - and then I went off and did it. With this, we are all in the thick of it around the piano. I think we started the process writing in our respective corners, and, as the process has continued, it has been all hands on deck - and that's been really fun! I mean, there are themes in this score that Tom wrote that I then swipe for a song and there are themes that I wrote that Tom swipes and Amanda writes stuff to, and, then, there is our finale, which is really exciting to put together - and, we actually put it together last week.PC: Tell me about it.LMM: It is a melody I wrote over a chord progression from another song that Tom wrote - it really is this stew. But, we have really managed to write a complete score, even with all these cooks in the kitchen.PC: You and Tom are coming in as equals, then - so it's like two scores. Do you feel stifled at all because perhaps a song he wrote fills a slot that you have a song for, as well, and one wins out over the other?LMM: No. I mean, the fun is that we are not stifling each other - we just throw it in the pot and, then, whatever works for the moment wins. I am so lucky to be working with composers and lyricists as generous as Tom and Amanda, because ego really doesn't enter into it - it's about, "OK, does this work in the moment? Does this not work in the moment?" PC: What serves the scene best wins.LMM: Yeah. And, we have an amazing music director - Alex Lacamoire; who has worked on both Tom's stuff and my stuff and can really thread the needle in terms of making this all sound of a piece.
PC: Who is orchestrating BRING IT ON?LMM: Tom and Alex are.PC: So, Tom is doing his own again?LMM: Yeah, I think Tom and Alex are sort of tag-teaming all of it, and, also, doing mine.PC: Is that something you want to pursue in the future or does it seem like too much trouble?LMM: I really don't have the attention span or patience - I am, like, the nuisance in the room while they are working. You know, "What about this? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." [Laughs.] So, really, I am around for it, but, the attention to detail - they are just so freaking good at it. Frankly, it is really fun to watch them orchestrate and watch them go moment-by-moment through the score; that's been another joyous part of the process. I have learned more about orchestrating watching the two of them than I ever have before.PC: How do you prefer to compose - especially for this project? Do you write at a piano or sing into a recorder or do audio files on a computer?LMM: It depends entirely on the show. Technology has helped me enormously in that, now, my demos can really match what's in my head - which they really couldn't when they were just 4-track recorders. I remember I wrote the entire first draft of HEIGHTS by hand - and that was such a pain! It took so much time out of time I could have been writing instead of, you know, notating. So, now, I use Logic Pro - and, BRING IT ON is the first time I decided, "I am going to learn to use Logic Pro as a writing tool and as a orchestrating tool." So, I make these elaborate demos. The only drawback of it is that there are so many fun sounds to play with that you can fall down the rabbit hole of playing with sounds and, you know, lose the momentum of your writing. So, I usually play - depending on the song - just enough that I get something I like and then I will go away with it; I will make an MP3 and I will walk around playing the MP3 on a loop and then lyrics will come to me off of that. And, if I feel like I am hitting a wall with it, it means the music probably has to change and then I go back. So, I kind of divvy up the composer/lyricist things. I do my lyric-writing when I am away from my computer and I am walking around.
PC: How fascinating.LMM: But, then again, there are the happy accidents - there are the times when you are walking down the street and it hits you like a bolt of lightning and you have to race to write it down. There are the times when a lyric totally changes the time signature of what you need to do. So, there are always exceptions. But, for the most part, that's the method that works for me.
PC: "Seven Minutes In Heaven" sounds like a song you wrote at the piano.LMM: "Seven Minutes In Heaven"? You heard "Seven Minutes In Heaven"?
PC: I try to hear everything.LMM: Oh, my God! But, yeah, I wrote that one entirely on piano - I was like 17 years old! [Laughs.]PC: That's a beautiful song.LMM: Thanks. I didn't even know the technology existed yet, so that was all me playing into a 4-track recorder. Oh, my gosh, that was, like, my very first 20-minute musical.
PC: What was it about?LMM: Well, you heard the song the girl sings?PC: Yes - that one is even on YouTube.
LMM: [Laughs.] Oh, my God! That's funny that that has made it to YouTube. The show is called SEVEN MINUTES IN HEAVEN, but I think that song is called "Reflection" - with apologies to MULAN; with apologies to MULAN, even though I think mine was first. [Laughs.] But, yeah, that's so funny that you brought that up, because that is really the first song I wrote then that I still kind of like. [Laughs.]PC: So that's your "Something's Coming", then, in some way! What about "Nightmare in D-Major"? I've never heard that one, but I hear it is a hidden gem.LMM: Whoever told you that is over-hyping it! [Laughs.] We had an amazing student-directed theatre club at my high school called Brick Prison and it was student-written, student-directed plays. I wrote plays all throughout high school and I wrote a play that got accepted in tenth grade. And, then, junior and senior year, I wrote 20-minute musicals for this club. PC: Wow. What a great club.LMM: Actually, NIGHTMARE IN D-MAJOR was a show, too, and it was directed by Chris Hayes - who now has his own show on MSNBC! PC: How crazy is that?!LMM: I know, right? He's a year older than me.PC: Did he happen to cover your appearance at the White House?
LMM: [Laughs.] I don't know if he did - I think he might have been working for The Nation at the time.PC: That performance of the ALEXANDER HAMILTON medley was so masterful - and, you had a major star moment on a national stage. Were you terrified?LMM: I think I usually say yes to things that terrify me and that was definitely one of the things that terrified me. [Laughs.]
PC: How did it come about?LMM: Well, you know, the White House called [Laughs.] and said, "Do you have anything about the American experience? We are putting together this evening." And, I had spent eight months writing that song about Hamilton - I had played it for no one but my wife and a few people at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I had never performed it in public. At the same time, I was like, "Where or when on earth are you ever going to get the chance to do a song about Hamilton in the f*cking White House?!"
PC: Impossible to refuse.LMM: Yeah - I just couldn't say no. Even though I didn't know if this stuff was any good, I just knew I had been working on it for a long time. So, I grabbed Alex and we figured out a piano chart to the track I had created and was writing to. Then, we went the next week. I had to send in the lyrics for approval - I was very nervous that they wouldn't approve it. I was delighted that not only did they approve it, but, they called and said, "Yes! You're closing the show!"PC: Wow.LMM: Yeah - it was pretty incredible. In the clip, you can see how nervous I am. I get a lot of slack from people because it seems like whenever I speak in public it usually rhymes. But, that's because, when I don't, I stammer and I say "Uhh," - it's in the clip. As soon as I started talking, I immediately had to look up because otherwise it's just too hard looking out at the audience. I mean, it's hard to rap to a guy you voted for!
PC: Did you ever write an Obama reference at any point in any of your songs?LMM: I don't think I ever have - but, I did participate in the Spanish version of "Yes We Can" that someone put together. I was very proud to be a part of that.
PC: How did your "Run This Town" and "Empire State of Mind" parodies come up? Did you get approval?LMM: Oh, gosh, no - those are so punk-rock underground. I think, basically, I just wanted to be Weird Al when I was a little kid. [Laughs.] Doing YouTube videos for HEIGHTS - you know, we were a show with no stars; it was a tough sell as a hip-hop, Latin musical - so we did these YouTube videos to get the word out even beyond what our ad agency was doing, which was already so great. Then, it became like my outlet for doing spoofs - and, when I was in the show, it became my only creative outlet. PC: They are so entertaining.LMM: "Run This Town" - this sounds insane, but when I first heard it, I thought, "Oh, we could do this for the tour! Karen will be Rihanna and I will be Jay-Z and we will get the new Usnavi to play Kanye." Like, my brain just, like, attacked it as soon as I heard it. So, that was really fun and that was really great to send the tour off with a video to say to the audience, you know, these people are just as special as the people you saw on Broadway and they are going to do this show proud.
PC: When Baz Luhrmann did this column he called Jay-Z, Kanye and Beyonce the Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Liza Minnelli of today. Do you agree?LMM: Yeah - they are pretty awesome; speaking as someone who took their wife to the Jay-Z/Eminem concert in Yankee Stadium as their wedding present, you will get no argument from me. [Laughs.]PC: So, is there any BRING IT ON coming to Broadway news you can share yet?
LMM: Not really - we are still in the thick of it of getting the show up. So, we haven't thought past anything but getting the very best show up that we can. We have a superhuman cast of young people and we are just trying to write a show as good as they are.PC: What happened with the lawsuit that was pending?LMM: All that is settled and we are full-steam ahead in terms of the show. PC: How great to hear!
LMM: Yeah, it is all settled.PC: Tell me about THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN. I love your freestyle with Common that's already on YouTube. How did that come about - and will it be in the movie?
LMM: No, I don't think so - that is, literally, us just freestyling. Jennifer Garner hired a band for our dinner break because it was the last day for a lot of the people in the cast in the movie. So, she hired this local funk band - who were great - and she was basically like, "Get up there!" So, he and I just kind of traded back and forth over this funk groove. And, in the video, that's our cast and crew dancing on our dinner break.PC: It's a really catchy chorus. Did you just think it up on the spot?LMM: Yep! It's all made up.
PC: When is THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN coming out?LMM: That comes out, I think, August 15 of Summer 2012. PC: Did you enjoy your experience working on the film?LMM: Oh, yeah. It was a real joy to work on and Peter Hedges is just an incredible artist - in lots of different mediums; he's also a novelist and an incredible writer, so I am very happy to be a part of it.
PC: And Jennifer Garner is obviously a fan of yours given her karaoke incentive for you to perform.LMM: Jen Garner is awesome - yeah! She is really one of the coolest people I have met in these crazy travels. PC: So, ALEXANDER HAMILTON is the next project you are working on full-time after BRING IT ON finishes in LA?LMM: Yeah. Well, you know, as soon as we get the show up in LA, I go to the bunker to write. I am doing a concert of, basically, all the songs I have worked on for it as a work-in-progress at Lincoln Center in January.PC: Will Karen Olivo be involved?
LMM: I don't know, actually - we don't have a cast yet. We, basically - this is one of those things where Tommy [Kale] has been hearing the songs I have been writing and he goes, "Yeah, you need to prioritize this!" [Laughs.] So, he said, "Why don't we set up a concert so that you can work towards a deadline?" So, the concert is on January 11 - which would have been Hamilton's 255th birthday.PC: How serendipitous!LMM: Yeah, it really worked out perfectly because that was the first day in the Songbook Series at Lincoln Center. So, we just made the announcement on Monday - the same day as the MERRILY announcement. So, now, as soon as BRING IT ON is up, I go back to writing HAMILTON. PC: Is there a song in the ALEXANDER HAMILTON score you are particularly proud of already, even at this relatively early stage of development?LMM: Oh, gosh. I mean, honestly, I am really proud of all of it. It has been one of the greatest challenges to boil down these histories into song form. When I am taking on Hamilton and Washington I am having to get into the minds of people who are way smarter than me and articulate their world view - not only articulate their world view, but do it in couplets!
PC: Exactly.LMM: It's been really, really fun so far. And, I am doing my best with this project not to rely on sort of pop-culture references that will date it - it's hip-hop vernacular and heightened language, but I am really trying to keep it as pure in the language as possible. So, if you play this in fifty years, I hope it sounds just as fresh - and still tells the story just as clearly.PC: So, in a way, like what Sondheim, Laurents and Bernstein did with Robbins on WEST SIDE STORY - inventing a pseudo-slang.LMM: I am trying to take a mix of the contemporary - the way we speak now - with the way they spoke then; and, then, mixing it all together. [Pause.] It's hard! [Laughs.]
PC: Evocation is never easy!LMM: Definitely not!PC: Were you pleased with Kenny Ortega's medley using "In The Heights" on DANCING WITH THE STARS last week for Broadway Week? It was so utterly fantastic, I thought.LMM: Well, first, what's so crazy is how it came about - because, you know, music clearances always come first in all that. So, I got an e-mail a month and a half ago saying, "DANCING WITH THE STARS would like to use a section of "In The Heights" for the show," and, I say, "That's awesome! Great!" - picturing that a contestant would be dancing to it.PC: Ricki Lake or whoever.LMM: Yeah - I mean, I had no idea what they were going to use it for. But, I said, "That will be awesome!" and I said yes. And, then, I get an e-mail from a friend of mine who was in HEIGHTS and she said, "I just came to this Kenny Ortega audition and there are 300 dancers here and I burst into tears because I heard your voice on the track he is choreographing to - he is choreographing to your stuff." And, then, I put it all together and thought, "Oh, my gosh! Kenny's doing HEIGHTS on DANCING WITH THE STARS!" Because the music clearance e-mail had already come and everything.PC: Did you talk to him about it at all beforehand?LMM: Yeah, Kenny Got in touch with me and he told me he was working with Corbin on it and he invited me to the taping. It was such a thrill. It was such an incredible thing that he put together - I mean, Kenny is the only one who thinks of stuff like putting the cameraman in the cage with Corbin Bleu! It was just freakin' incredible!PC: A real movie musical moment!LMM: Totally. It was like a 3-minute movie musical. PC: Were you happy with Corbin's work in the actual show on Broadway?LMM: Oh, yeah - I was super-pleased with him. It's funny, because when they said he was coming in I said, "The HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL guy?!" And, he was just so impressive. It was fun watching him literally change minds and perceptions about him thanks to his performance in the show because he was so great.
PC: Would Kenny Ortega be a potential director for the film version of IN THE HEIGHTS that is being developed, then?LMM: Oh, gosh - I am so busy with all this other stuff that the film version is on the back burner for now. But, it was a thrill to watch Kenny stage that stuff. It was really fun.PC: He seems to be the ideal director for that project. With NEWSIES eying Broadway and SISTER ACT having opened recently, I'd love to know your opinion of Alan Menken - who has done this column, as well.LMM: Well, then, he can tell you this story! First of all, LITTLE MERMAID just rocked my world and changed my life as a kid, and, his niece went to my elementary school. So, I begged her for an autograph - and he wrote me an autograph. It said, "To Lin - Alan Menken. Stop kissing Jenny's feet." [Laughs.]PC: That's hilarious. How old were you?LMM: That was when I was like 9 years old! Just a little kid. He did that way back when, when I was a little kid, and, when I met him again as a grown-up, I reminded him again - and he remembered! And, he goes, "Ahh, so you are the kid who went to school with Jenny!"
PC: What was writing the Tony Awards closing number this year like? Neil Patrick Harris has done this column and is such a vocal supporter of theatre. Did you see the COMPANY movie yet?LMM: No, but I got to see him in it because I went to the recording - it was pretty incredible. He was amazing.PC: Was it challenging writing the song so fast? The YouTube video of the songwriting process is very entertaining.LMM: That was all basically Neil's idea - he e-mailed me and said, "I want to do a magic trick at the end of the Tonys. I want to do a spoken-word - not rap; because I can't pull off rap - but, a spoken-word wrap-up of the entire night."PC: A wrap-up patter versus rap-rap.LMM: Right. And, so, then, Tommy and I went to the basement and we wrote sort of alternate versions of a number of things and there were also just some unexpected moments that we had to write on the fly. So, we were putting it together as it was all happening and every half-hour Neil would check in. It was so incredible. Neil was so fearless - just to read something once and deliver out there onstage like he owns it. He is just incredibly superlative.
PC: What a great generation of musical theatre actors we have right now moving into TV - Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Neil, Raul and so many more. Musicals were the bastard stepchild of entertainment for more than a decade and now they are back in a big way.LMM: Totally. Totally.
PC: You and Lady Gaga both have been on THE SOPRANOS - so they featured the most important force in pop music and also musical theatre right now. How cool is that?LMM: I didn't know Lady Gaga was on THE SOPRANOS, too!PC: She was one of AJ's friends. How did you happen to get involved - just as an extra?LMM: Yeah, I was a just bell boy and I had two lines. They were the words "I don't know" twice. That was my first onscreen action. It was a total, total thrill, though. James Gandolfini could not have been nicer. I mean, literally - even when they were doing my close-ups and he was done for the day, he stayed to do his sides. He's just the nicest guy. It was just so great.
PC: Favorite Shakespeare play?LMM: I'm trying to choose between MACBETH - which I think is better - and I have such a soft spot for MEASURE FOR MEASURE - just because I think it's so tonally weird; so weird. I just dig MEASURE, so I'd have to pick that.
PC: You did quite a bit of Shakespeare in college, didn't you?LMM: Well, I did a production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE in college. But, you know, I studied MACBETH and HAMLET and the big ones, too.
PC: What would you like to do in the future - Edmond in LEAR?LMM: [Laughs.] Oh, good gracious! I don't know about that! I think I would be an awesome Banquo's Ghost [in MACBETH]. [Laughs.]
PC: Favorite Cole Porter song?LMM: Favorite Cole Porter song? Oh, damn. There are so many!PC: Only about a thousand!LMM: [Laughs.] Exactly! Exactly. I wish I was back home so I could thumb through the lyric book. But, "Anything Goes" is pretty timeless to me, man.PC: Favorite Sondheim song?LMM: Favorite Sondheim? I answered this once for Sondheim's 80th Birthday and I said "Barcelona", just because it is one of my favorites and I think that is a great example of Sondheim finding a moment - that morning after moment - and, then, just doing it so well that it's hard for anyone else to ever write it. [Laughs.]
PC: Indeed.LMM: But, that being said, you know that I am deep in prepping MERRILY and the hardest part of that for me will be singing "Our Time" without weeping. So, I am trying to strengthen my tear ducts because "Our Time" is just a beautiful, beautiful song.PC: And "Franklin Shepard, Inc." is near-impossible, so you have both sides of the spectrum covered in MERRILY.LMM: Definitely! Definitely. [Laughs.] PC: Last thing: please bring DICK TRACY to the stage someday with Sondheim's approval and/or collaboration! It's destiny.LMM: [Sings.] "Sooner or later you're gonna be mine..." [Laughs.]PC: You have to write a movie musical someday, too. Do you feel inspired to do so?
LMM: I would love to write a movie musical someday. I would just love to. Tom has a big project that is coming up that is really exciting with Robert Downey, Jr.'s company. That will be super-exciting.PC: This was so awesome. Thank you for everything you have done and continue to do for the Broadway community, Lin-Manuel!
LMM: All right - thanks, Pat! This was really fun. Bye now.