Songwriters and composers usually don't make it to the press junkets for big movies. Usually you get the big-name actors, like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Sometimes you also get the director. But the guy who wrote music lyrics? He's usually not paraded in front of people.
But Lin-Manuel Miranda isn't most songwriters.
The creator of the smash hit musical Hamilton has taken over pop culture over the past year and change. He's hosted Saturday Night Live. He's made appearances on some of the most popular talk shows around. And now, he's a songwriter on Disney's next great animated musical, Moana.
He's handled it all with a huge smile and a contagious positive attitude, but it's a level of fame he didn't expect. "I guess the weirdest part of the Hamilton phenomenon and the success of it has been every tweet becoming a press release," he says over the phone.
"[It's weird when there's] an article based on something I just pull out of my ass in the morning."
He takes solace in the same sorts of things anybody else does. He plays toy trains with his son, he plays video games like Assassin's Creed with his wife, he reads books and he listens to podcasts. During my brief interview, we bonded over the comedy advice podcast My Brother, My Brother and Me (which we've recommended to you before) and shared inside jokes from the show's fan community. "It's one of the last places I can just go and be myself without it being a press release," he says. "I can go make the same Griffin McElroy goofs as everybody else, or quote Travis, and just be the same dork I was before all this fame hit me."
Miranda got the job on Moana seven months before rehearsals for Hamilton began, so there was a period where he was working on both at the same time. Thankfully, he says that jumping from one to the other wasn't difficult.
"I guess what was joyously surprising about it was that it's the same process," he says. "There are just a lot more cooks in the kitchen. You're dealing with an arsenal of master visual storytellers — storyboard artists and graphic designers and sequence designers — you know, Disney and Pixar are legendary for their story meetings. ... There's joy in that, of knowing that everybody in the room is supposed to be there, kicking the tires on your story and your storytelling."
His way into "the room where it happens" (his words, quoting his own song) was the music. During meetings "I'm encouraged to raise my hand and say 'I think a song can deliver that moment better than an action sequence can,' or 'That action sequence you're describing, we can bring that back around in a musical way.' ... I think theater prepared me for it really well. It would be one thing if I was a songwriter who works alone and hands you a song and says 'This is what I wrote.' I'm used to bringing something in and having really smart people kick it around and say 'What about this? Have you considered this? This part doesn't work. This part really works.' That's the fun for me, is getting a pit crew of people smarter than me to help develop the work. So I felt very at home in the process."
He's also at home when it comes to the songs themselves.
If you're familiar with the music in Hamilton, a likely reaction to hearing the music from Moana will be, "Oh, this is a Lin-Manuel Miranda song."
One easy indicator is his trademark use of the word "yo," which can be heard in the song "You're Welcome."
"Oh, 'yo' is my signifier," he laughs. "I love it. I genuinely believe that style is like accent. Everyone else can hear it but you can't hear it in yourself. ... When I wrote Neil Patrick Harris' closing act for the Tony's a few years ago, I didn't tell anyone I was doing it. And then as he started delivering it, my phone began exploding with people going 'Are you backstage?' And that's when I knew that I have a thing. I have a style. And I think that's developed over many years of chasing your heroes and the people you like and falling short of that, and then you eventually find your voice.
"'You're Welcome' was a joy to write because writing for The Rock is like getting to drive the coolest car. He's so charming that you can give him a lyric like 'you're welcome for your existence' and you still totally like the guy."
The rest of our interview was more laid back and occasionally off-topic.
GuideLive: What's your favorite Disney movie?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: The Little Mermaid.
First celebrity crush?
It's probably like Candace Cameron or somebody like the young women from The Facts of Life. When I was little it was probably Kimberly from Diff'rent Strokes. Or Alyssa Milano. I watched a lot of TV when I was little, so any sitcom star from the '80s I was probably in love with.
What do you want for Christmas? You can't say "World Peace."
I want that mini Nintendo [the NES Classic Edition].
I've got one of those! You should come over and play Mario.
I hear they're running out everywhere! Can I ask you a very serious question? Does it have Pro Wrestling on it?
It does not.
OK, I need it less, then.
If you could be any Disney character, who would it be?
Sebastian the Crab. The reason I say that is because in the Disney pantheon, Sebastian is the only songwriter. He's the court composer for Triton, so it's already playing to my strengths.
What's your favorite Thanksgiving dish?
My traditional Thanksgiving dish is arroz con gandules. If you go to a Puerto Rican Thanksgiving you're getting really good, flavorful rice and beans. But for several years, my wife and I would go down to the Dominican Republic and celebrate Thanksgiving down there, and we'd go to this one restaurant called Papi's, and they have this amazing langostino dish, and that was like our turkey dinner.
What's your guilty pleasure food?
Cadbury Creme Eggs. Seasonal, but my God, I can't not have one when they come around.
Your pinned tweet on Twitter is you recounting an instance where a woman shouted at you "Congrats on Hamlet!" What's something you do wish you could take credit for creating?
I'll bring it back to Moana with that. It's the central metaphor. The people of the Pacific Islands were the best navigators in the world. They connected islands separated by miles of ocean through their system of navigation. And the metaphor there is literal in this case, which is that you have to remember where you came from to get where you're going. In that case it's literal because that's literally how they knew where they were at any given time. I wish I could take credit for that metaphor, but it's actually a way of life for these incredible people.
Have there been moments when creating something that you thought about giving up or felt like you hated your work? If so, how did you get through it?
Only every day I've ever written anything. You have to put away the idea of giving up. You can acknowledge, 'Whatever I'm doing isn't working. This melody, this chord progression, this lyric isn't getting me closer to the place I want to be.' Part of gaining craft is finding multiple ways to solve problems. It's, 'Alright, throw everything out. Now why did I go down this avenue to begin with? It's because I like these five notes. What is it about this that isn't quite right? OK, let me try a totally different lyric approach. There's a rhyme I've been trying to make work that isn't working. Start from scratch on the rhyme.'
It's about hacking small angles. That's how you get past it. And you only do that through reps and working with others and learning other techniques.