This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Lin-Manuel Miranda, the multi-talented director, actor and songwriter, who has two projects premiering at the end of 2021. The Pulitzer Prize winner for “Hamilton” directed his first feature, “tick, tick…Boom!” on Netflix, and he wrote the songs for Disney’s new film “Encanto.” The film “tick, tick…Boom!” tells the story of the late playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, and Miranda says seeing a production of “tick, tick…Boom!” off-Broadway after Larson’s death solidified his desire to create his own art, even if no one would ever see it. Miranda says he was inspired by the “Golden Age” of Disney musicals in writing the songs for “Encanto.” And he says both the late Stephen Sondheim and rapper Jay-Z show the importance of making music reflect the way people speak.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. Rather than beat around the bush, I'm going to give you three words that most of you public radio listeners probably know very well by now: Lin-Manuel Miranda. We're going to be talking about a project of his about an enchanted village with a protagonist waiting to realize their magical potential. We're going to be talking about his song score for "Encanto" and his directorial debut, "tick, tick…Boom!" They both have those things in common: somebody's waiting for this thing to happen, and they can both kind of feel time passing them by.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I think a ticking of the clock is something a lot of my characters feel aware of. And I think that starts with Jonathan Larson. Honestly, I was very aware that this was someone who changed musical theater and didn't live to see the change he made with his work, and so a lot of characters I write ended up being very aware of this ticking clock.
KCRW: That's even the case of Hamilton, isn't it?
Miranda: Yeah, there's not a little bit of Jonathan Larson in Alexander Hamilton's restlessness.
KCRW: But you have that idea of things in motion around these people who have to decide what they're going to do. How far back does that go for you?
Miranda: I guess it goes pretty far back. I think being a native New Yorker, you grow up with a "spidey sense." You grow up like, okay, good subway car, bad subway car? You grow up with just a sense of mortality. I would rifle through The Daily News and The New York Post to read the comics page, and you see no short amount of trauma on pages four, five, and six of those things. So, mortality is something you're aware of at a very young age, and so I don't think it's an accident that my characters wrestle with it a lot.
KCRW: I was thinking about that opening for "tick, tick…Boom!" where we're going through his apartment, and up on the wall is a calendar page from “Calvin and Hobbes.”
Miranda: You're catching me at such an interesting time because my seven year-old is now becoming a very good reader. And he's just gone all the way in on the “Calvin and Hobbes” collections in our home. He's getting all the worst ideas from it. It's sort of: what have I wrought? But I also was that kid. I was that kid who just couldn't believe Calvin's incredible imagination, and it spurred my own imagination.
KCRW: You just referenced a “spidey sense,” this character that you so often are attracted to is this person who lives in their own head, and sometimes can't separate their reality from the real world.
Miranda: When our producer Julie Oh pitched to me the idea of a "tick, tick…Boom!" movie, it was: okay, the frame is the rock monologue that Jonathan used to perform in the early '90s. And you’ve always got to find a way to break into song in a movie musical. And I just thought the moment his hands touched the piano, we go into the world according to Jonathan Larson, and the world according to Jonathan Larson is like real life but better, because you can burst into song at any given moment. And so that's a really exciting place to be.
What's fun about Mirabel in "Encanto" is that she's the only member of her family that does not have a magical gift. And so that gives you other powers when you feel decidedly unspecial among what you consider a very special family. You get your own gift. And talking about when you ask how far that goes back for me, I reflect on the fact that I was a Puerto Rican kid who grew up in a Dominican neighborhood, and then at age five, won the lottery and went to a magnet public school on the Upper East Side where I was one of the only Puerto Rican kids. And then I would get sent every summer to my grandparents in Puerto Rico, where I was the gringo with a really messed up Spanish accent and couldn't hang with kids my age. And I think that's a great recipe for making a writer: just be a little out of place, everywhere you are. And also learn to entertain yourself and learn to keep your own company. I think that is something that these characters do share.
KCRW: It's so much about recognition in your work, not just the clock or the sands of time, but the person to recognize what their own gifts and limitations are.
Miranda: Yeah, that's very true, and it's interesting because I saw "tick, tick…Boom!" for the first time in its off-Broadway incarnation. Jonathan Larson performed it as a semi-autobiographical one-man show when one-man shows were kind of in vogue. When I saw it at age 21, it was a posthumous work, and it had been really brilliantly adapted by the playwright David Auburn and director Scott Schwartz into a three-person show.
I was a theater major; I had gone into theater because "Rent" gave me permission to write musicals. It was the most contemporary and diverse musical I'd ever seen. And here is this show that is really clarifying if you're an artist. It is the journey of someone who has a crisis of confidence, not in himself, but in the world to recognize his work. And I really think Jonathan wrote it as a way to process spending his 20s on a musical no one would ever see. And what am I doing this for if the world is not going to notice? If I never get the final collaborator of an audience? What emerged when I watched that show is: would you do this if no one ever noticed? Because Jonathan never actually got to experience that in his lifetime. He would go on to change the world, but he doesn't know he changed it. And my answer, somewhere deep inside me was like, yes, there was another timeline in which none of my work has been produced. And I am still a substitute teacher at Hunter College High School. And I'm still writing songs at night. And I was okay with that.
KCRW: I saw that show, too, where I felt it was such a ripe piece of both comedy and melodrama, simultaneously. He couldn't have written a better end for himself. But for you, somebody who basically felt that same kind of time pressure, was it a catalyst for you?
Miranda: Yeah, it was a catalyst. It was a sneak preview of my 20s. I went to that show with my girlfriend, who was an actress. And the show basically said to me, that girl sitting next to you is not going to be your girlfriend anymore. Like, she's more sensible than you and she's gonna get a real job and grow up. It's just going to be you, man, if you're serious about this, and that all proved to be true. And if you're prioritizing your art, sometimes your love life will take a hit. That also proved to be true, and so it was a sneak preview of this thing I wanted to do. I wanted to write musicals in New York, and it was a show telling me how hard it would be, but again, it also clarified my resolve to do it.
One of the challenges I think we faced in making the film is: we saw a stark difference in audiences who knew Jonathan Larson's story and who didn't. And we needed to set the table for you to understand that this straight white guy complaining about turning 30 didn't reach 36. And he heard a clock that really no one else heard, and he must have heard it on some sub-cellular level. Because the pressure he puts on himself, if you don't understand that wider context, it's like, oh, you're turning 30, poor f--king baby. And we had to find a frame for the viewers to get everyone on the same page that this is a true story in this artist's own words, and he wrote this not knowing or maybe knowing what was coming.
KCRW: Thinking about both "Encanto" and "tick, tick…Boom!" but so much of your work, the final villain is, as often as not, common sense or the perception of common sense. Are you going to deal with the logical thing where I should just accept what people are telling me is happening, or should I look past that? In your work, people, at some point, have to buck that conventional wisdom.
Miranda: For Jonathan Larson, the reason that the show resonated with me and the movie seems to be resonating with others, is that it's not the story of a genius making their masterpiece. That is not very relatable. It's the story of a struggling artist spending his 20s making something no one wants to see. How do you move forward from that? And I think we've all been in a situation in our lives where we've spent a certain amount of personal capital, or time or resources, working on something that doesn't pan out, and what do you take with you? How do you get back up? How do you keep moving, and I find it enormously moving that, you know, this movie ends and Jonathan has to go start "Rent" from scratch. And he has to get back up and learn the lessons he needs to learn to make the next one.
With Mirabel, it's interesting because her journey is one of just seeing her family more fully, and seeing herself more fully than the way in which she has defined herself because she has defined herself as less than this family that all have these incredible and awesome gifts. And the only way through is to see more of the picture.
KCRW: There is an interesting sort of scale that happens in your work. It's almost like the difference between film acting and theater acting: the presentational and representational.
Miranda: John Lasseter gave me the most important advice that would serve me incredibly well in my work in animation, which was: we were just about to sit down for one of those legendary Disney story sessions, where everyone sits around the square, everyone who's working on a movie in every phase of development weighs in. It's not just the people working on your movie. The folks from "Frozen II" are gonna weigh in on your "Moana" pitch, or your "Moana" screening. I was intimidated to be there, and he turned to me and said, these are all animators. They don't do what you do, so you have to raise your hand for what music can do. That was very empowering.
That also allowed me to lean into the Howard Ashman of it all. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were like serious musical theater writers, and they brought that discipline to Disney animation. And I think it's the thing most directly responsible for ushering in that second Golden Age was the rigor of that musical theater structure and storytelling: "The Little Mermaid," “Beauty the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King.”
It's interesting that you talk about the presentational versus the personal because that was the most sort of delicious thing about writing the opening number of "Encanto." I was very inspired by Ashman and Menken's opening number of "Beauty and the Beast.” At the beginning of that song, it starts so small, "little town, it's a quiet village." And by the end of six minutes, we know everyone in that town; we know the lady who needs six eggs. We know Marie the baguettes, hurry up. We know Gaston, and we know who everyone is and how they feel about Belle, and our story can continue.
And the brilliance of this is Jared, Byron and Charise’s idea of having a narrator who doesn’t have a gift when everyone else does. One, she's setting the table: here's who everyone is, what their gifts are and how they're related to each other. And then I get to have a little kid turn to Mirabelle and say, What's your gift? And then suddenly, the presentational takes over, right? Like, oh, I'm not here to talk about me. More on my family! And she goes into double time; you get to hear all of the family's gifts again, as she is using the song to deflect from herself, which I have never seen before in a movie. And that was really exciting.
KCRW: Certainly we have to talk about the influence of Sondheim. We're talking about a magic village, and he would, as often as not, turn Manhattan into a small town.
Miranda: “And another 100 people just got off the train.”
KCRW: Exactly. And that idea of also identifying all the things going on around you, but also making these songs epic and intimate at the same time. You're talking about those Disney musicals that really turn the corner of making them about emotional concerns that were on a small scale rather than just about singing about the cri de coeur and love. It’s about: how do I get through a day? Which is this thing that had never been in a Disney musical before.
Miranda: Yeah, absolutely. I remember doing another interview and someone asking me: is there pressure to make broad appeal when you're writing for Disney? And that's never something that enters in the conversation among our collaborators. We're very lucky that this is a group of artists who realize that specificity is the key to everyone finding a way in. We invariably found, first of all, with the research just into Colombian music and literature, the more specific we went, and we drilled down on those rhythms and those cultures, the more unique a story we were telling. But also, the more specific the concerns, the more relatable they are.
There's a song in the movie called “Surface Pressure,” which is a song that is sung by Mirabel's older sister, Luisa. Her supernatural gift is just like indestructibility, and the pressure that comes with that. I just put all of the pressure that older siblings everywhere feel. I have an older sister. I know she got a rawer deal than I did because parents are just paying less attention to the subsequent siblings. And so I know she felt the burden of extra responsibility. I experienced that firsthand. So as much as it's a story about Luisa and the things under her indestructible surface, it's also my love letter-slash-apology to my older sister for being made to build my He-Man playset before I woke up on Christmas morning because it was her job as the older sister to do that.
KCRW: This idea where you combine emotional detail into a song that's dealing with story point, is something, again, that's clearly from Sondheim, but it's something that hadn't happened before that.
Miranda: I want to talk a bit about Howard Ashman's innovation in that because the other thing that Howard Ashman was so brilliant at was writing a lyric that was at once incredibly conversational, and epic. I'm thinking specifically of two moments. [One is] "Part of Your World," which is maybe the best Disney "I want" song of all time because even as she's trying to express her heart song, she doesn't have the vocabulary. So to sing, "what's a fire and why does it…what's the word? Burn." A character who keeps interrupting herself to find exactly the right words to express her longing is heartbreaking and relatable to any person who is trying to find the right words to express their longing.
The other moment I think of, and it knocks me out every time is in "Beauty and the Beast." She's singing about this book she loves. And she goes, "isn't it amazing? It's my favorite part because... you'll see!" She interrupts her own train of thought to say "you'll see." She's so excited that she trips over herself to tell you about her meeting Prince Charming, but you won't discover that it's him until chapter three, which is also weirdly a foreshadowing of the journey Belle is going to go on when she meets the beast. So this mixing of very conversational vernacular with the soaring Alan Menken melodies, there's a gold standard there in terms of the way in which the characters were both approachable and then become these Disney icons.
KCRW: We're talking about awareness, that thing that you so often touch on: characters sort of wrestling with their awareness. How much are they going to say out loud? If you say it out loud does it make it true or not? These are all these kinds of moments we're talking about in the music here, too, aren't we?
Miranda: Absolutely. You brought up Stephen Sondheim, whom we're all still mourning. And I always think of a lesson he got from Cole Porter. He tells the story of reading that Cole Porter would write, "it was just one of those things," and he would notate the way he spoke it. And he would build the melody on the rhythm of that speech. And that's why Cole Porter songs are so insanely sing-able: because he's starting from the way in which we say them. And the way in which those words sit on the music are directly inspired by how we speak them. That's also something Sondheim mastered.
There are certain phrases you can't say without hearing Sondheim's melody underneath them. Something he and Arthur Laurents used to say to each other, when they had a good idea was "very smart, Maria, very smart." That's kind of always what you're chasing is the specificity that then crosses over into everyday speech.
KCRW: Talking about the conversational power in music, we can't not talk about rap.
Miranda: Jay-Z and Sondheim I think are equally masters of making the conversational line that anyone else wouldn't notice. I think of [Friend or Foe] from his first album, where he goes, “Don't do that. You're making me nervous." That pause between "don't" and "do that:" that's everything when you're able to capture real life and put it in a musical frame. That's always what we're chasing.
I was surprised by the places in which hip hop patter popped up in "Encanto." I didn't think it would show up. But I was writing a song called “We Don't Talk about Bruno.” That was the gossip number in "Encanto." I really wanted a song where everyone says no, we're not supposed to talk about that member of the family; here's my story about that member of the family. It also allowed me to give solos to characters that we wouldn't necessarily have the time or real estate to have a whole song for them. And when Dolores, Mirabel’s cousin, showed up, her power is a supernatural sense of hearing. And when she started singing, it was this very quiet patter. That was delightful: the person for whom sound is this all encompassing thing is the quietest character. And she's also more perceptive to the family dynamics than anyone else because she hears everyone's side of the story.
KCRW: All the music in the "Encanto" score speaks to different genres. And that felt, to me, the kind of moment that clarifies and makes all these things part of a piece rather than just a mosaic.
Miranda: All I really knew about Colombian music before we started this project was its diversity. The three Colombian artists I knew the best were the great salsa artist, Jo Arroyo, the amazing Carlos Vives and the mid-90s rock I grew up on from brunette-era Shakira. So I was really excited when our filmmakers chose Colombia because I knew, Oh, there's a wide range of styles, and a large number of characters through which to express the diversity of the music of this part of the world.