Lin-Manuel Miranda: 'Anyone who tells you that Sondheim isn’t an influence on their music or their work is lying'
As the legendary Hamilton creator makes his directorial debut in the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson's musical tick, tick... BOOM!, he tells us all about the music that has shaped his life and work
In my seventh-grade music class, we had to pick a composer to write a biography of. I picked Hector Berlioz because I thought he was Latino, because I’d never met a non-Latino named Hector before. Thanks to this error, I ended up falling in love with his Symphonie fantastique and the way he winds these themes around one another and keeps unravelling them. I remember hearing the drumroll at the end, which represents the head rolling away from the guillotine, and thinking, wow. I couldn’t believe classical music could do that! I did a deep dive on his music at a very formative time. You care the most about music when you’re 13.
The musicals you’re lucky enough to do at school become a part of you on a cellular level, because you rehearse them so intensely. I was lucky enough to be cast as the Pirate King in ninth grade, which means I got the job over a senior which was extremely validating. Someone is very mad at me for getting that role so young! To engage with Gilbert and Sullivan is to engage with a masterclass of lyric writing. The way the lyrics sit on top of the music is pretty exceptional. As someone who was listening to hip hop every minute he wasn’t doing The Pirates of Penzance, I saw the two as being quite similar. The joy of finding the right words in the right order to sit atop the music – that’s a tradition as old as time. Seeing the Major-General working out how to rhyme ‘strategy’ with something else is so funny and exciting. The thing I love about the lyrical tradition of hip hop is the unexpected rhyme, not the pure rhyme. It’s the left-field one, and they play with that and have fun with that.
I continue to find solace in the incredible Latin music I grew up with by artists like Rubén Blades. He was a blessing and a curse in my family – a blessing, because his music taught me how much story you can get into the lyrics of a song, but also a curse because he’d gone to law school, so my parents tried to persuade me to do the same! His use of lyrics was so clever though. It wasn’t until I listened to ‘El Padres Antonio – Y El Monaguillo Andres’ about the 100th time that I realised it was about a priest getting killed, because I’d danced to it at parties. He was able to marry this real-world poetry to this incredible danceable tune. You stop and listen to the lyrics and it’s the story of Romero and his martyrdom and the lyrics are so gorgeous.
As I’ve been mourning the death of Sondheim, I’ve been listening to the music he loved. He talks a lot about Ravel and Debussy. All I know of Ravel is Bolero – that’s the hit single.
Sondheim’s score for Sweeney Todd is a masterpiece. It’s Sondheim doing his best homage to Bernard Hermann and the incredible horror scores he wrote. What’s thrilling about the Sweeney score is that it zigs when you think it’s going to zag. When Sweeney’s about to cut Judge Trippin’s throat, it breaks into ‘Pretty Women’, which is maybe one of the most beautiful ballads Sondheim ever wrote. There’s a delicious tension created when he goes to beauty when you think he’s going to horror and vice versa. The ‘Johanna Quartet’ in the second act is made up of some of the most stunning melodies – but takes place when Sweeney is literally slitting throats. When I heard it performed recently and I heard the Johanna reprise, the line ‘We learn, Johanna, to say goodbye’, I burst into tears. How many different ways did Steve teach us how to say goodbye? That will be here long after the rest of us have gone.
Anyone who tells you that Sondheim isn’t an influence on their music or their work is lying. They’re either chasing him and emulating him or they’re consciously running from him. That’s how big his legacy is.
His mentor and father figure Oscar Hammerstein once said to him, ‘you’re trying to write like me, but you’re not like me. Your concerns are not my concerns. You’ll be 90% ahead of everyone else if you can write like you rather than like me.’ That was a really important message for me to hear. Dig down on what you – and only you – can bring to the table.
'Everyone's either chasing Sondheim and emulating him or they’re consciously running from him. That's how big his legacy is'
The biggest thing I take from Sondheim’s writing is the element of surprise and variety. There’s not one score where there isn’t incredible rhythmic and melodic variety. When I was working on Hamilton, Steve really encouraged me to develop that piece, and I’d occasionally be brave enough to send him demos. Every time, he’d write back saying ‘variety, variety, variety’. The tricky thing about writing hip hop for the stage is when our head starts bopping, we stop paying attention to the lyrics. It’s important to always surprise the audience – I really took that feedback to heart. He encouraged me, but he also encouraged Jonathan Larson, Jeanine Tesori, Tom Kitt, Dave Malloy and Jason Robert Brown and so many others.
Rent hit me in a much more profound way than just its score. Of course, it’s a revolutionary score, but it hit me in a what-are-you-doing-with-your-life way. I saw myself in its plot. I wanted to make movies and write songs, just as the characters did. It had a diverse cast and was the most truly contemporary New York musical I’d ever seen. When I was growing up, A Chorus Line and West Side Story were period pieces. It was the show that gave me permission to write musicals. It was when I went from liking musicals to think I could write one someday. It handed me a key in a very tangible way. There’s a direct line between the characters in Rent and in my musical In the Heights: all the characters are fighting gentrification and struggling to stay in their neighbourhood. He was really open about bringing pop and rock influences into the musical arena, just as I later tried to do with bringing Latin and hip hop influences into In the Heights. That was the thesis Jonathan threw down and which I believed in and wanted to advance.
The only thing I can have on while I’m writing is tennis. It’s rhythmic and they never have music on at any point, so there’s no infecting the work.
I’m very open about looking to my forebears and the ancestors when it comes to structure and the things you can learn from. Tommy (Thomas Kail) and I used to say that the grandparents of Hamilton are Sweeney Todd, Evita, Les Mis and Gypsy. With Les Mis, it’s that notion of theme and variation – we’re telling a story over a very long period over a hundred years. How do you bring themes back in surprising and meaningful ways? Plus, we were trying to wrestle with history and bring history to the stage – as is also the case with Les Mis.
With Evita, Sweeney and Gypsy, what you’re looking at is the strong central character, who you need to get the f*** out of the way of. They’re a life force. There’s no negotiating with Gypsy Rose Lee. She’s the hurricane around which everything happens. You see that propulsive Gypsy-like energy in Hamilton, but you also see the influence of Sweeney in our prologue. Everyone on stage is tasked with telling that story. Whoever is close to the hurricane of Alexander Hamilton gets the mic and the spotlight. They’re the shows we consciously learned from.
I don’t see a huge amount of live music. Shows are different, but I’m usually just happy to stay home and listen to music on CD. The exception to that rule is ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, because that dude has a four-octave range and has to impersonate Madonna and Nirvana over the course of a night. In a lot of instances his work has outlived the person he’s spoofing, and he puts on a hell of a show.
I remember seeing him at the Beacon Theatre in New York City when I was a teenager and my friends and I had balcony seats right at the back and we screamed ‘Yoda’ and he played it as his encore. We couldn’t believe it. To grow up loving Weird Al Yankovic is to grow up appreciating all styles of music, because there’s no genre that’s safe from him for parody. You learn to understand that we’re all taking the same 12 notes from a piano and everything else is just harmonics and elasticity. I’m really grateful that he was one of my heroes growing up because it allows me a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to what you can do with genre.
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Lin-Manuel Miranda has recently made his directorial debut in the Netflix film adaptation of Rent creator Jonathan Larson's semi-autobiographical musical, tick, tick... BOOM!, which is available now to stream on Netflix.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.