In the digital age, the traditional songbook — filled with lyrics and sheet music and maybe some pictures — can feel like a lost art, but it certainly is not to classical musicians, and particularly musical theater veterans. So even for Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, his first songbook, containing 27 songs from “Hamilton,” “Encanto,” “In the Heights” and more, was a big deal.
Such a big deal that Miranda’s songbook-release party in Manhattan last week was an extended-family gathering, attended by his parents, sister, nephews, friends, music teachers from several New York schools — and even Lin-Manuel’s former teachers — as well as city music programs serving underrepresented children, and fellows from the Miranda Family Fellowship Program, which aims to increase access to education and careers in the arts for emerging artists from underrepresented communities.
At the event, his nephew Alejandro performed “Dos Oruguitas” (from “Encanto”) on the piano, and was joined by his own teacher for “You’ll Be Back” (from “Hamilton”).
Earlier, Luis Miranda, Lin’s dad, told Variety a bit about his son’s early years as a performer. He said that a light bulb went off for the young Lin when playing piano at a middle-school recital. “When he heard the applause, he was like [makes excited, attentive face], and then he played another song. When he heard the applause for that, he started playing another song,” he laughs, “but then the teacher very gently led him offstage.”
It was an auspicious beginning.
During the party, Lin was kind enough to duck into a conference room for 20 minutes with Variety to give what may be the most substantial interview we’ve ever gotten in 20 minutes: About the songbook, his early years as a songwriter, his process, how some of the songs for “Hamilton” and especially “Encanto” came together, and more.
You grew up with musical theater and piano lessons — how does it feel to have your own songbook?
Emotional, and really, really surreal — this is actually the first day I’m seeing it in print, because I was traveling all last week: We had the Hamburg premiere of “Hamilton,” and then I just went down to D.C. to see [“Hamilton” star] Phillipa Soo in “Guys and Dolls” at the Kennedy Center. So I’m fresh off an Acela [train], and I went to the Drama Book Shop and this book was there, waiting.
It feels even more surreal with the company we have here. We invited a bunch of teachers — my best friend since kindergarten, Danny San Germano, still teaches at my old high school, he’s the chair of the arts department — and my ninth grade music teacher, Michael Stratechuk, is here. I learned rudimentary music theory in his class — a 12-tone piece I wrote for his class is still one of the things my hand doodles [on the piano] when I’m writing. It all really also reminds me of how far we’ve come.
I learned through songbooks — going to [legendary New York music store] Colony and getting the sheet music for songs or show tunes and figuring them out on my own. If you play piano, I think everyone’s Bible growing up was the Beatles two-volume set, and “The Ultimate Broadway Fake Book” — there’s certain staples that make a musical theater person. So it feels very surreal to see my songs be a part of the canon, all stacked up in one place.
Do you remember the first song or songs you wrote?
It depends on where you want to start! I was always kind of making up songs, but I started seriously figuring them out on the piano and writing them in around seventh grade.
What were they about?
Girls. (laughter) Girls in my class that I had a crush on. And it really was a teacher who brought me out of just writing songs about girls in the back of the classroom. My eighth grade English teacher assigned us Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen,” and it was the rare English-class book where I was hooked. We had an assignment where we had to teach three chapters, and I decided to make a musical of every chapter we had to teach. I wrote a song for the key moments of each chapter, recorded myself a capella on a tape recorder — I was the kid in the group who did all the work — and I had the other kids lip-sync to my voice. And the teacher sort of called me out on a subsequent essay I wrote for his class, saying, “You’ve been hibernating in the back of my class. And it’s time to take all that creative energy that’s happening in the margins of your notebook and bring it into class with me and with us.” He encouraged me to write for the student theater group at our high school, and nudged me: “They’ve never done a musical — go write musicals for them.”
And your songs were evolved enough to do that?
Probably not in eighth grade! (laughter) Also, it was a capella, so I wasn’t worried about the chord progression and things, it was just these melodies that I was singing. I think the first one-act musical I wrote was in 11th grade, and by then I’d been through Stratechuk’s class, and also, I had a lot of friends who were more talented than me. I would go to their houses and be like, “What is this chord I’m playing?” “That’s a diminished chord, Lin, you didn’t invent it!” I would call my friend Dan, “Listen to this, has this has been done?” But that’s still kind of the process, just figuring out what I’m hearing and how to get it out of my head and into the world.
I asked your dad if there was a history of musical talent in your family and he said no, but there is a history of storytelling and acting.
Yeah, his uncle was a really popular actor in Puerto Rico, Ernesto Concepcion. You mention that to a Puerto Rican of a certain age and they’re like, “Your uncle is Ernesto Concepcion?!” He was enormously popular theater actor on the island. And he knew [famous Puerto Rican TV astrologer] Walter Mercado when he was still an actor, before he became [makes hilarious magician-like gesture]. So he was of that generation, and there were [Broadway musical] cast albums everywhere in our house. Dad loved acting, but he’s way too practical to ever see the arts is a viable way to make a living.
When you’re writing, what comes first, the music, the lyrics or the story?
I’m grateful for whatever shows up, you know? Whatever gets us to the final meal. I just wrote a song for a TV show — I don’t think I’m allowed to tell you what it is — but as soon as they pitched me the concept, I had the title immediately, and the title was [so good] it was like, okay, I now have to earn this title. So sometimes the title will get you halfway home, if you’ve got a really good turn of phrase that can do two or three things.
On the other hand, “My Shot” was a year of writing lyrics before I ever touched the piano; “Wait for It” came all at once; “That Would Be Enough” came all at once [all from “Hamilton”]. I think the music for “Dos Oruguitas” came first — I just tried to really find something that felt like “Tale as Old as Time.” And then the lyrics came after, but the lyrics were in Spanish, so that was a much longer process.
Do you write mostly on the piano?
Yeah. And every song is different. Sometimes a melodic idea will show up and it’s so strong it’s just about translating it from what I’m hearing in my head to the piano. Sometimes noodling on the piano, I’ll find it — I’ll just noodle inside a pattern until something emerges that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.
How about the rap songs?
For those, “Hamilton” is sort of the best example of why computer programming has made my life so great. I mean, I wrote most of “In the Heights” on GarageBand [studio software] — it literally comes with your computer, my kid uses it. And then I very consciously graduated to Logic Pro for “Bring It On” and “Hamilton.” When I do that, I make myself a loop until I felt like it was suggesting things, then I would take that loop and walk away — like, separating that part of the process — and I find lyrics when I’m walking around. In my neighborhood, I’m like the village eccentric walking around with headphones on, talking to himself. So that’s usually how the lyrics come in, especially if it’s a hip-hop piece.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is one of the biggest singles of the year, speaking of surreal. How did the writing of that song come together?
I remember pitching the concept, like “What are musical forms we haven’t seen before in a Disney movie?” Because the challenge of the piece was always — and remains — that there are so many characters. How do we give them all complexity and real estate? I pitched a gossip number as, “We can learn a little bit about everyone by what they choose to whisper about,” you know? I think that’s a very universal thing, of what you can talk about in front of this family member versus that family member. Plus, it was amplified by the fact that I was in lockdown with my in-laws at the time I was writing it. So my brother in law was like “Is this song about me?,” because he was living with us. (laughter)
So the gossip number was the pitch, and then the other idea became that they’ll all tell a kind of ghost story about him — but when you actually meet Bruno, you’ll realize there’s actually nothing scary about him. So he predicts rain on her wedding day — well, she’s the most stressed-out person in the world, of course it’s gonna rain on her wedding day! — and other incredibly predictable predictions, right? “I’m gonna lose my hair!” “My goldfish is gonna die!” Goldfish don’t live that long! But everyone telling these stories with this air of promise, so when it’s looked at in a refracted light, it would be different. And the [song’s] name got me halfway there, and then I actually pulled an all-nighter, figuring it all out. Figuring out the math of it was really a lot of fun.
Did you know when you were writing it where it would be in the musical? Like, I need this kind of song and it’s got to have this kind of tempo?
Yes, I knew it was sort of the end of Act One, and I knew that it was going to be coming after… actually, I don’t know if I’d written “Surface Pressure” yet. But I knew it was a great chance to check in with the cast members who don’t get their own song: Dolores, Camilo, Pepa and Felix, and just a chance to get to know them. And what was fun was that I wrote it early enough in the process that my songwriting informed how [screenwriters] Jared Bush and Charise [Castro Smith] kind of ran with the characters — like, I wrote this very quiet rap for Dolores because she has super hearing, so she’s not going to be screaming into the mic, and then they ran with that. That’s a really fun thing about the whole process: When you’re there early enough, your songs can really be a part of a give-and-take.