Lin-Manuel Miranda on President Trump: ‘I Know What I’m Going to Fight for in the Years to Come’
The lyrical genius reflects on his huge year, including his Oscar-worthy tunes in ‘Moana,’ the otherworldly success of ‘Hamilton,’ and his show’s message to VP-elect Mike Pence.
Should Lin-Manuel Miranda take home an Oscar this year for one of his eligible songs from the Disney animated film Moana, “How Far I’ll Go” and “We Know the Way,” he’ll achieve what only 12 other people in the history of Hollywood have: the EGOT, or winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
And he’s only 36.
Truth be told, the awards pundits may need to invent a new acronym for Miranda, the lyrical master behind the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton, given that he’s also been the recipient of a Pulitzer and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. MEGPOT, perhaps? Not bad for a Puerto Rican kid from Washington Heights.
With the exceptions of a certain tiny-handed ex-reality show host and his Russian sponsor, nobody had a bigger 2016 than Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, in addition to his plethora of awards, saw his passion project Hamilton break records; his Disney movie Moana become a blockbuster hit; and had the distinct pleasure of hosting Saturday Night Live—a dream for any New Yorker.
The Daily Beast caught up with Miranda for a wide-ranging discussion about his incredibly busy year, from his Oscar bait songs to his thoughts on the election.
So, you went from penning a tune for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to scoring a Disney animated feature in Moana. At a pretty young age you’ve managed to cross quite a few things off the bucket list.
What’s funny is you’ve got the order backwards! I got the Moana gig in April of 2014, eight months before anyone had heard Hamilton on Broadway. When the Star Wars thing popped up, which really came out of a conversation between me and J.J. Abrams at Hamilton, I didn’t tell Moana I was doing it because I had so much to do for Moana! I was like, well, this is too cool not to do, but I’m just going to work on this little side jam with J.J. and send this Logic file back and forth until we have a cool cantina tune.
How did the Moana gig come about?
You know, I was one of several songwriters they interviewed. I think they had Opetaia Foa’i onboard—they were huge fans of his music—and I think they also had Mark Mancina onboard. I think they were looking for another songwriter from the theater world to help flesh out the world—to focus on the storytelling aspects of the lyrics and the music. They knew my work on In the Heights and Hamilton hadn’t happened yet, but I got to meet with Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] and I basically told them: “I’m here because Little Mermaid was my favorite movie as a child. You guys are the reason I’m even in this room.” I sent them the opening number I’d written for Neil Patrick Harris at the Tonys, and got the job.
Since Little Mermaid was your favorite film growing up, did you have a favorite character?
Yes! Sebastian the crab—not just because my son is named Sebastian, but he’s the only composer in the Disney universe. He’s a songwriter! He’s such a reluctant hero. He goes along on the journey because Ariel fucks up his concert! She doesn’t show up for the concert, and so it’s funny that now I’m a songwriter, but I just loved his character. He was always my favorite.
Is your son named after Sebastian from The Little Mermaid?
[Laughs] I don’t think he’s named after him. I don’t think my wife would have let me do that. “Let’s name him after a fictional crab!” But in certainly didn’t hurt, in my mind, that it was a name I was inclined favorably towards. My Catholic confirmation name is also Sebastian, after Saint Sebastian, and it’s just a cool bilingual name. Sebastián in Spanish sounds dope. When you have a Latino kid who’s going to speak both, you want him or her to have a name that’s going to hang in both languages.
Let’s discuss Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go.” The song contains a very strong message for young girls about chasing their dreams and shattering glass ceilings.
What I relate to most in Moana is this notion of having a calling—of having something that you can’t stop thinking about even if your life, or the things around you in your neighborhood and your world, don’t necessarily point to that as a thing you can do. I grew up just off 200th Street in New York. The distance between that and writing songs for Broadway shows is an impossible gulf to breach, so I related to that. And the unpredictability of even having a life in the arts, of being able to make a living doing what you love—that’s a scary notion, and it was my way into Moana’s journey. She grows up on this island, loves her people and family, and yet there’s still this thing that calls to her that’s in competition with her world. To me, that’s messier, more complicated and more interesting than, “I hate it here and I’ve got to get out.” It’s “I love it here and I still wanna get out. What’s wrong with me?” That was the last step I needed to take as a writer on this piece, was finding, no, this isn’t the story of someone who hates where they are and needs to go somewhere else, this is the story of someone who loves where there are and yet there’s still this calling.
There’s this notion of Moana navigating uncharted waters, too, and shattering glass ceilings. The film opened on Nov. 23, just after the election, and it seemed like there were parallels you could draw between Moana and the plight of Hillary Clinton, who was also navigating uncharted waters due to her gender, and the limitations society placed on it.
With both of the songs “Where You Are” and “How Far I’ll Go,” you have a character who is being prescribed a role by her community. This is a role you are meant to play, and you will be happier if you just play it. I think that strikes a chord for just about anyone. Our family puts us in a role based on whether you’re a younger sibling or an older sibling; whether you are in a society in which women are allowed to play this but not this; or boys are allowed to play with these toys but not these toys. Did you see that amazing “Wells for Boys” sketch on Saturday Night Live? It nailed that notion of What are you allowed to play with? and What speaks to you when you’re a child that society doesn’t necessarily let you play with? I think “Where You Are” speaks very specifically to Moana and her island and her individual story, but I think it strikes a deeper chord of What do you do when your individual world wants you to be this, and you want to be this?
You recently provided narration for Junot Diaz’s book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and one of my favorite Junot Diaz quotes is: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” When you look at a movie like Moana with a Polynesian Disney princess, and The Princess and the Frog with a black princess not too long ago, and Pixar’s Coco out next year that is set in Mexico, it does seem like minority kids are finally getting the opportunity to see themselves reflected onscreen.
Yeah, and with the caveat that these movies take years and years to make. I’m very proud to be a part of a movie where a young woman saves her family and saves the world, and that she looks very different than anyone we’ve seen in the Disney sphere. I’m very proud to be a part of that. That is such a huge thing. I can tell you that my favorite character in Oliver & Company when I was kid was the Chihuahua because it sounded like my uncle! And Cheech Marin was the voice of the Chihuahua. One of the reasons I think sci-fi and fantasy have been such a refuge for people of color is that we can project ourselves into those worlds. That’s what I love about Junot Diaz’s book, is it’s this little Dominican sci-fi fantasy nerd, and sci-fi deals in worlds we haven’t imagined yet, but you can write about discrimination and write about social issues in a way that is infinitely more applicable and sneaks in because you’re on other planets, and other universes. That’s the great, subversive thing about sci-fi fantasy, and I think that’s just as true of Disney films. Zootopia probably spoke more trenchantly about bias and discrimination than any other mainstream movie this year.
You know, you’re turning 37 in January and, should you win an Oscar for one of the songs from Moana, you’ll have already achieved the almighty EGOT by 37. That is just incredible.
It’s all surreal. And I have to say, it’s just as surreal to see your friends go through it. Bobby Lopez has been a mentor of mine my entire career. We went to the same elementary and high school. We were in the same talent show, when he was in sixth grade and I was in first grade. When I was graduating college and hoping to make a career in musicals, he was in previews for Avenue Q, so I got to see that show in previews. He was so generous and sat down with me and talked to me about his experience as a young theater songwriter. I remember screaming on my couch watching him pull off the upset of upsets when Avenue Q swept the Tonys over the favorite, which was Wicked that year. I was lucky enough to be at the first reading of Book of Mormon when that was happening, and then I got to watch with joy the Frozen song as he was EGOT-ing.
I thought, Oh my god! Bobby Lopez went to my school! He has a fucking EGOT! And I guarantee you the last thing Bobby Lopez was ever chasing was an EGOT. He just was trying to do good work with good people, and it was a product of his incredible work with his incredible collaborators. And that’s all you can do: make the best work you can, and the rest is gravy. I feel super, super lucky and super, super fortunate, but I know that the first second I start chasing it I’m fucked. I work in a field where one in five shows makes their money back, so I know that I could work for seven years on something and it could open and close in a night. I live with that knowledge every day. I live in a world where Jonathan Larson, rest his soul, worked on a show for seven years that he never saw through to opening night. Living with that knowledge just makes you focus on the work itself. I really try to stay focused on that even though it’s a crazy thing to even be close to EGOT-ing.
I’m a New Yorker too, and I’m curious how you’re taking the election result. The morning after the election, it seemed like everyone’s soul was crushed in New York City. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the city that quiet. How are you coping with it?
That’s a good question. Obviously I supported the other team quite publicly, and I found myself in a very weird circumstance where I was on a plane on Election Day headed from London to Mexico to do press [for Moana], and so I was sad to be away from my family—because you want to be close to your family when momentous events happen—and, in addition to the disappointment that comes with not having your candidate win, I went through that before. I remember going through that in 2000 not knowing who was president, with Gore conceding and then taking it back. It’s interesting how kids who are voting now don’t remember that. That felt way scarier in a way because we didn’t even have a president. You’re supposed to have someone by the end of the night.
But I woke up with a very pronounced case of moral clarity. In addition to the disappointment, it was like, oh, this does not change the things that I believe in. The things that I believe in that this candidate doesn’t means we’re going to have to fight for them. You don’t want to go backwards when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters; you don’t want to go backwards when it comes to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. We have to keep fighting for the things we believe in, and it just made that very clear: I know who I am, and I know what I’m going to fight for in the years to come. That felt like the tonic of it.
Has the Trump camp reached out to you to perform at the inauguration? I understand they’ve been having a very hard time attracting top talent.
No, they haven’t reached out to me. No.
I wanted to discuss the Hamilton cast’s message to Mike Pence. I thought the message they delivered to the vice president-elect was tasteful and dignified, but then President-elect Trump and many on the right framed it as an “attack.” That seemed disingenuous.
I guess all I can say is: I agree with your assessment. I felt really grateful that Vice President-elect Pence got the message in the spirit in which we tried to give it to him, which was as respectfully as possible. It was great of him to stay, and I’m really glad that he spoke the following Sunday and said that he appreciated it, wasn’t offended, and spoke to the message of what we were saying. I don’t know if there is a less divisive message you could give than “please represent all of us”—and that’s really all we said. The fact that the notion of representing all of us is controversial? I don’t know what that says about us right now. But I am super grateful that Mike Pence got the message in the spirit in which we tried to deliver it.
You’re a very vocal advocate of Planned Parenthood, and just as you said about “representing all of us,” even supporting women’s health is for some reason a divisive issue—which seems crazy to me and to a lot of other people.
People are going to believe what they’re going to believe. For me, my mother is on the board of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and my mother has her own personal stories with Planned Parenthood. That’s an organization that’s really saved lives time and again. The thing it’s controversial for [abortion] is a very small part of the health services it provides, and so, like I said, this is a way to support something that is so important. It’s a no-brainer, and the fun bonus is that my mom gets to look like the cool board member because of our efforts. I’m happy to support it, and that’s just that. Women’s health is a priority, it’s worth protecting, and if I can be of service in that way, then that’s how I’ll be of service. Full stop.
Now, this is a tough transition, but the nerd in me wants to know if you’ll continue to compose music for the Star Wars universe?
I don’t know! The tune I wrote J.J. was such a one-off that came out of a conversation we were organically having, which was me joking, “Hey, if you need cantina music I’m here,” and him going, “Actually, I do need cantina music!” And then we were off to the races. I haven’t had any conversations beyond that other than a great friendship with J.J. which is the best thing to come out of it, because one he’s a mensch, and two, he’s making some of the most interesting contributions to pop culture out there. So no, I don’t have any more plans other than what’s on my plate.
Is there one musical out there that you feel would make a good film but hasn’t been given the proper Hollywood treatment yet?
Oh, that’s a good question! If there was I don’t know if I would tell you because someone might take that and run with it! I know that Jason Alexander was close to adapting Once on This Island for the screen once. That’s a great musical, and I’m surprised that nobody has done that in any screen form. It’s a great score. But nothing really springs to mind. Adapting a stage musical to film is one of the hardest things you can do. It’s why I’m taking my time both with Heights and with Hamilton. With Heights we’re back on track with The Weinstein Company, and we’re really excited by the people we have involved—particularly because [filmmaker] Jon Chu just makes fuckin’ incredible musical numbers already. He’s really amazing with dance sequences and he’s a child of immigrants, so gets the story in his bones in a very real way. I’m excited to see what he does with the material, and I’m excited that Quiara [Alegria Hudes], my co-writer, is working on the screenplay because I feel like she will honor the integrity of what we made together. But that being said, it’s going to be hard and we still might fuck it up! It’s hard to turn a two-act thing into a three-act thing. It’ll be interesting to see what we come up with.
One of the films that’s getting a lot of heat this awards season is the musical La La Land. Have you seen it yet? And if so, what do you think of it?
No, but I’m really looking forward to it. Marc Platt, who’s one of the guys that’s producing Mary Poppins, is one of the producers on that. I had a great time talking to Damien Chazelle and he’s really talented, so I’m very interested in seeing what he makes—especially since this is one of his dream projects that he’s been working on for so long. The dream projects are the really exciting ones from filmmakers, so I’ll be right there on line with everyone else!
Just to bring things full-circle, I heard that you’re doing the music to the live-action Little Mermaid film. Is that true?
Talks are sort of premature. Basically, what happened was that they’re planning a live-action adaptation and I sort of threw my hand up in the air as the chairman of the Don’t Mess It Up Committee. If that leads to me writing music, fine, or if that leads to me just weighing in on stuff and not writing anything, that’s also fine. I’m just the guy with the biggest Little Mermaid hat on wearing all the merch, so you should have me in the room when you’re making these decisions!