One of EW's Entertainers of the Year talks departing 'Hamilton' and starting new adventures -- and hashtags.
“I’m a f—ing mess right now.”
That’s Lin-Manuel Miranda mere seconds after the Hamilton Mixtape live-stream event at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre on Dec. 1, where folks like Ja Rule, Ashanti, Andra Day, and Regina Spektor performed remixed, reimagined songs from the Broadway musical. Miranda is in London (a new home) getting into shuffle-step shape in rehearsals for Mary Poppins Returns (a new experiment), watching the live YouTube event on his way home to tuck his kid into bed (a new pleasure, afforded by no longer being in Hamilton six nights a week).
Miranda, as a Miranda is wont to be, is emotional, but it’s a version of emotional which has become his defining reaction to any good thing — and there were a lot of them — that happened this year. Yes, he wrote the songs that musical icons and nascent Disney princesses are singing; yes, he penned the lyrics that great orators are quoting and world leaders are appropriating; yes, he Made the Thing that reinvigorated America’s appreciation of theater and our country’s own history. But ultimately, he’s just happy that you’re happy.
Chalk that up to being the precocious comic relief in a nuclear family. Miranda is the globally-approved genius who blew open the zeitgeist this year with Hamilton and a slew of other dynamic projects (like Moana). But he’s also the same geeky, ‘80s-culture-devouring Puerto Rican kid from New York who started doing the “Thriller” dance in his living room and never really stopped — even as the living room got bigger.
It would be easy to get lost in the accolades, but that’s not Miranda’s M.O. Miranda spent the better part of this year beaming and cheering for the success and careers of others, never betraying more than the minimal amount of self-satisfaction you can cull from knowing you’re responsible for changing someone else’s life (be it New York actor or Montana teen). In 2016, others endlessly sang his creative praises — there were awards with his name engraved, holy grails of Grammy, Tony, and Pulitzer. But as his professional career skyrocketed, his emotional journey stayed largely the same: gratitude, appreciation, and a desire to create again, expectations be damned.
Exactly one year ago, he was one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year, and the same is once again true. Upon a recent revisit with Miranda, it becomes clear that when it comes to his commitment to entertaining this year, not a thing has changed — even though it certainly seems as if everything has.
1. Let’s start at the end: You finished the year by releasing the Hamilton Mixtape, which you literally just finished watching the live performance of. What’s your reaction right now?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I’m so thrilled. I love the way Atlantic rolled out the release with two singles at a time because that was honestly our experience of creating the mixtape. We’d go out to these amazing artists, we’d leave them alone, and then they’d come back with this stuff that would blow our weaves back when we’d listen to it. And so I feel like the audience has been experiencing it the way we experienced putting it together. And this caps the end of an insane year, and I’m out! I’m out of Hamilton things to give you! There was the mixtape! There was Drunk History! There was a book! There’s the show itself! It just feels like such a gift. I feel like Hamilton was a giant boulder we threw in a pond, and the mixtape is the last ripple coming back.
2. Did you make a New Year’s resolution at the beginning of this year, and if so, what is the current status of said resolution?
The resolution of the year was to survive it. [Laughs] And I have. And I’m grateful for it! This has been such a remarkable year in my life. It’s been really crazy. The fact that I’m even talking to you from London is a sign of how crazy it is. I don’t even have words for it. I can’t remember what my resolution was. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of memories just this year alone.
3. What kind of Lin are you right now? Are you in a writing headspace? A holiday decorating one? A “how do I dance again?” Lin?
I am in a gleefully grateful but exhausted headspace. I’m basically dancing eight hours a day in rehearsal for Mary Poppins, so I have a date with a bath full of Epsom salts as soon as I tuck my child in. I’m very much not in a writing headspace, actually. I’m really in a performer one. I’m working on a dialect, I’m dancing harder than I’ve danced since In the Heights in 2008, and just really getting my performer chops up, and that’s exciting. That’s the opposing muscle group to writing. The more you learn as an actor, I feel like, the more you bring to the page, and vice versa. So I am really not writing right now. I’m just learning.
4. What was the last Hamilton-related dream you had?
It’s been a minute. My go-to anxiety dream is I’ve got an hour to get somewhere and suddenly New York’s map has changed out from under me and I’m on some weird new train that’s going the opposite direction of what I wanted. It’s a little like Hogwarts and the staircases don’t get you where you want to go. I probably had a mixtape delivery deadline dream — that’s probably the safest best, that we were due to finish the album and I got on the wrong train and suddenly I’m on a J train in Queens.
5. A lot of talk show hosts asked you to freestyle rap this year with words like “pop tart” and “carbon footprint.” Which word almost caused you to blow it all?
The thing about the freestyle headspace [is] it’s very short-term memory. It’s hard to describe how it feels physically, but you’re putting your brain through a filter where hopefully rhymes will land on time. So I have very few memories of actually being in the moment freestyling. It’s like when you ask athletes, “How did it feel when you put away that winning shot!?” I don’t know. I relied on my training and it just happened! You train and train so that when those moments happen, you just go, and you’re not thinking. So I can’t think of one, but I will say, I think the most delightful one I had was playing with Emma Watson in my interview with her. We formed a mutual fandom so quickly when we met. That was just a really fun conversation that got caught on camera. And I predicted it would result in a million GIFs of her beatboxing, and I was right! So that one was worth it for me.
6. Every theater kid who finishes a run of a show has a real deep withdrawal, like an emotional hangover. What was your emotional hangover from Hamilton like after you left in July?
Totally. I used to sit on my bed and read the cast’s signed messages on the posters. It was a delayed hangover because I immediately went into the studio with J. Lo and was on the Today Show the following Monday. We had that charge to raise money right away for the Orlando victims as soon as possible. And then once that was done, I really went away and just floated. Honestly, any hangover I felt was outweighed by the relief of tucking my kid into bed, a pleasure I had been denied for about a year. Getting that back is what I remember the most: “Oh my God, I don’t have a show, I can just let this kid lie on me until he falls asleep.” And now that’s my favorite part of my day, every day.
7. What was your favorite piece of pop culture you got to show your son this year?
The one he’s hooked on is my dad singing The Sound of Music that we did on Ellen and shot all over Austria because my father’s an insane person. What’s fun for me is my kid can sing ‘Do-Re-Mi’ now because he’s watched his grandpa do it in a video about a billion times, so that’s delightful because that was certainly me growing up.
8. What’s your snapshot memory of Moana?
The first memory I think of is that first weekend in New Zealand when I got the job. It was two days of total immersion in Pacific culture and music and then jumping into the studio with Opetaia [Foa’i] and Mark [Mancina] and “We Know the Way” coming out of that session. That’s Opetaia’s song. He wrote the music and the words in Samoan, I wrote the words in English, and then I kind of made up a little countermelody at the end. But that’s Ope’s song. All of us jumping in and Mark coming in with chords, it was really a group effort. We were in this studio at the edge of New Zealand — it felt like Lord of the Rings for real. Going from being in New York the weekend before, not having this job, to writing a song on the other side of the world… that’s what I remember.
(8b. Ron Clements and John Musker said you won a random dance contest while you were there?)
(That was the same day! The dance is about shaking your hips as hard and fast as possible, and Puerto Ricans have some game in that department. That’s not JUST the Pacific Islands. The Caribbean Islands lay some claim to that skill as well.)
9. Where do you keep your Grammy?
You know, I still don’t have my Hamilton Grammy? I don’t. I have my Heights one. Grammy’s got to get on that. Maybe mine got lost in the mail. I can tell you all the rest of the stuff is on a shelf in New York. I think it’s at my parents’ house?
10. What was your last text to Javier Muñoz?
My last text to Javi was “You got hacked! Change your password!” He got badly hacked and someone started writing all this crazy stuff, and I was like ‘Javi, Javi your Twitter is going crazy.’ No, wait, you know what? There’s one more recent than that. Oh, I texted him happy birthday!
11. What was your favorite day on Twitter this year?
The fun with Twitter, and the reason it’s so addictive for theater performers, has always been that you’re getting the dopamine of an audience in your pocket whenever you want. So if you’d asked me this question last year, I would say the day we began streaming the cast album on NPR. Six years of music I had been working on, finally in the world, and hearing people respond in real-time. I think my answer now might be people hearing the mixtape for the first time, hearing it drop in different time-zones at midnight like on New Year’s, and watching people tweet me their reactions has been wonderful. But I also really like the silly days. When I hit a million followers on Twitter, Jonathan Sun, this amazing writer, decided it was going to be a #1MillionGIFs party and so we were just sending the dumbest sh– on Twitter all day! Just the dumbest, funniest GIFs you can imagine, all day, and in a time when Twitter has gotten increasingly combative and dour and tough, because there’s been a lot of really scary s–t in the news, we were having a GIF party. It’s nice to be that oasis on the Internet for people.
12. Besides Twitter, which app on your phone did you almost straight-up break this year from using too much?
As soon as [Hamilton sound designer] Nevin Steinberg turned me on to it, the backgammon app. That’s like my wife and I’s sport of choice. That’s my go-to “I can’t be on the internet right now, I’m gonna play 20 games of backgammon.”
13. What was the most surprising Hamilton meme this year?
I was surprised by “Find someone who looks at you the way Lin-Manuel looks at literally everyone.” [Laughs.] You know, I’m lucky to be in a situation where most of the time when people see me in public, I am staring adorably at a fellow cast member or a guest on Ham4Ham or I’m at the Tonys and I can’t believe where I am. I don’t normally look like that, but I love that. That made me laugh really hard.
14. Name one piece of criticism about you that you LOVED this year.
I get it every day, which is, “stop blowing up my phone with notifications.” You know, musicals take a long time. The next musical I write, you’re not going to see for many years, so for me, social media began as sort of the creative run-off of that. The thing I’m really working on in my real time, you’re not going to see for a long time. So here are some retweets in the meantime. The criticism I get that I laugh at is that I tweet too much. I have a lot of thoughts. The most valid criticism is just “Shut the f— up!” which I’m now used to that it doesn’t even affect me.
15. What will Lin-Manuel absolutely not be doing in 2017?
Host anything. I get offers to do that, and I think that’s a slightly different skillset than what I have. I’m in awe of people like Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman who are themselves and perfectly at ease. I’m much more comfortable as a character or behind the scenes. Ham4Hams were fun for me because it’s usually about presenting someone else, but you won’t be seeing me hosting anything. I’m just trying to make new sh–.
16. How did you reconcile the inherently political nature of Hamilton with a very volatile political year? Essentially, this is my vague Mike Pence question.
You know what’s interesting? I don’t think of myself as inherently political. I think the politics that emerge from my work are whatever politics are apparent to the characters who are living through it. The characters in In the Heights are dealing with gentrification, so you have to touch on that because it’s a day-to-day flesh-and-blood thing that they’re dealing with. The birth of American politics is happening over the course of Hamilton’s life, so you get into that because it’s inherent to the story. I think for me, the goal is always to make everyone feel welcome at the theater, because increasingly — and I think this election has proven — we get our facts from different sources. We get our senses of reality from different sources. It’s easy to curate your own reality. And in a theater, it’s 1,300 people in a room watching the same thing, and that’s powerful. You may have all gone away with different conclusions of it, but you all watched the same thing together.
And so, there’s the Pence of it all — but also the Obama of it all. We had a year in which we were invited to the White House to perform, and a year in which we asked the vice president-elect to represent all of us in the most respectful way I know how. And so those are sort of the two big “political moments,” but they’re about the same things. They’re about “please include all of us.” This country, we are inheritors of it. Whether you felt like you were part of the foundation narrative of this country or not, you live in it now, so what are we to make of it? And that’s sort of about as political as I think I get.
17. What were the last three words you wrote from whatever project you’re working on?
“My highest recommendation.” I just wrote a letter of recommendation for a kid I know very well for college.
18. When was the last time you listened to Bring It On: The Musical?
Oh, fairly recently! It was after seeing [Joshua] Henry’s incandescent performance in Chicago. He is giving a Burr performance for the ages right now in Chicago, and I loved it so, so much that I went and listened to his vocals on “Cross the Line.” He wasn’t in Bring It On: The Musical but it’s his vocals on the last song that Jackson sings. I went back and listened to that tune because I was just in such a Josh Henry state of mind.
19. How has Moana infiltrated your home life?
My son cannot stop with the Maui doll. It says like seven things, a little bit from each line essentially, and he’ll say “Maui?” and then he will sing the section of “You’re Welcome” to me. Probably the most we sing is from the Maui doll’s stomach.
20. Tell me about Mary Poppins Returns. Have you made a connection Dick van Dyke yet? And what’s it been like rehearsing with Emily Blunt?
That connection has not been made yet. I hope to make it in the coming year. My brain is certainly in a W.W.D.V.D.D. mode right now as I am high-kicking. But yeah, the more I get into the nuts and bolts of rehearsal and singing and dancing, the more I am in awe of his performance. So far it’s been me and Emily and [director] Rob Marshall. I’ve been in this land enough to know now that the top of the call sheet dictates the mood, and Rob Marshall makes you feel like a million bucks when you walk in the room, and Emily’s the best. There isn’t anyone who has an unkind word to say about her. She just makes everyone feel loved and appreciated every step of the way, so that’s a wonderful feeling to have at the top of the call sheet.
BONUS QUESTION: 21. Will you have a resolution for next year?
I guess my resolution is to continue to create space for myself and for my family. Without that nothing else goes. That’s the essential engine that makes me feel like I can get up in the morning and do the things I’m doing and just know that things are good with my kid, things are good with my wife, things are good with my friends, and if you have that, everything else can go away, because here’s the secret. The secret is, I’m going to write some big old f—ing flops! I’m going to write some things that really don’t work. I don’t know what those are — you don’t set out to do that — but I ‘ve been very, very lucky and I know going in when I write a piece of theater, it can close in a night. I work on a movie, I know it can open and close and disappear. I’ve had enough to it to just know that you can’t control the outcome of something. You can only control the thing you make. So to that end, it’s sort of a refocus on my family and my friends and making sure that the people I love feel good and feel like they still know who I am, and we’re all good, and everything else feels okay, and if I have that foundation, it feels okay to play.