Only 16 people dead or alive have ever attained the showbiz grand slam known as the EGOT, that rare feat of winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is just one “O” shy of joining that rarified club, which includes John Legend, Rita Moreno, and Mel Brooks. And after a year that included work on three hugely successful big-screen musicals — the adaptation of his own Broadway show, In the Heights; original songs for Disney’s animated hit, Encanto (on which he also has a story credit); and his feature directorial debut, Tick, Tick… Boom!, about Rent creator Jonathan Larson — he may have his best shot at this year’s Academy Awards in March.
Miranda’s EGOT chase marks the culmination of a whirlwind Covid lockdown, which began with his dive into Tick, Tick, an adaptation of Larson’s semi-autobiographical account of writing a musical to launch his career. (Larson would die tragically at the age of 35 after suffering an aortic dissection on the day of the seminal musical’s first Off-Broadway preview performance.) But the other two films bore down on him fast.
“I’m not a great multitasker,” Miranda, 42, says during an interview at the United Palace theater in his native Washington Heights. “When I have something, it pretty much has my focus, which has made the past year a challenge, because In the Heights was happening and I was editing Tick, Tick… Boom! and writing songs for Encanto at night. The way I get through it, when they pile up like that, is I pretend I’m back in college and go, ‘These aren’t projects, these are classes. This is my songwriting class and this is my Directing 101 class.”
There’s little doubt that Miranda aced his assignments. Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became a surprise megahit (it topped Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes charts as well as cracking Billboard’s top five) and the biggest single ever from a Disney movie — surpassing even the 2013 earworm “Let It Go” — while the movie’s “Dos Oruguitas” has been shortlisted for Oscars’ best original song. And as a producer of both Tick, Tick and Heights, Miranda could be competing in the best picture category.
Now, with the most intense work behind him, Miranda can relax. Almost. He’s well rested after a two-week island vacation with his wife, Vanessa Nadal (“We played tennis and hung out on a beach and had margaritas,” he says) but facing a busy awards season ahead, and of course more projects down the road. On this blustery January morning, after catching a little bit of the Australian Open on TV, he sat down to talk about his songwriting process, casting Tick, Tick star Andrew Garfield, Disney’s upcoming live-action Little Mermaid, that weird January 6th ceremony with Nancy Pelosi, and more.
As this Oscar season heats up, are you feeling the pressure?
I really believe that once you start chasing it, it goes away. The term EGOT was invented by someone who didn’t win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, or a Tony. It was invented by the guy from Miami Vice [Philip Michael Thomas, who played Tubbs], right? That’s when the term first came into prominence, and then it was brought back into the world by Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock. It’s always been an interesting statistic, but it’s never why you do something.
The Encanto song “Dos Oruguitas” which translates to “two little caterpillars,” is a ballad that soundtracks a painful moment in Abuela Alma’s life story, when she loses her husband. It’s the first song you’ve ever written entirely in Spanish. What took so long?
Yeah, the second one being [Encanto’s] “Colombia, Mi Encanto,” which actually happens earlier in the movie. We’d been circling this moment in the development of the movie for a long time, and it happened by process of elimination in a lot of ways. It didn’t feel right to have Abuela sing in that moment. It is such a moment of profound tragedy that you can’t have a character diegetically sing it. And so I was like, “It should feel like it’s happening over the backdrop of a song that feels like it’s always existed.” I took the inspiration for it from the visuals that were coming out of the animation department. They had represented [Pedro’s passing] as this candle flame that turns into a butterfly, and, as I was spitballing on the phone with Jared [Bush] and Charise [Castro Smith], the writers, I said, “Well, the notion of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, that’s nature’s original miracle, right? That this caterpillar has no idea what it’s doing, but it goes through this process to become its next form.” And so I had the idea of, “What if there are these two caterpillars who are in love and they’re scared of letting each other go, but they have to, because they have to become the next version of themselves?” That felt like a really great metaphor for what this family is going through en masse, and it also felt like it would be very poignant over this woman losing the love of her life, and that also begetting the next section of her life. And all those words are just so much prettier in Spanish. “Dos oruguitas” is so much more beautiful than “two caterpillars,” [which would] become like a Muppets song. It becomes, like, Kermit on a log singing “Two Caterpillars.” I’m bilingual, but I’m pretty English-dominant. My brain runs in English mode. And what was interesting was, in writing this song, I started dreaming in Spanish again, which I had not done since I was a kid.
Is there any truth to reports that you were angry that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was not the song Disney submitted for Oscar consideration?
No. We have all these amazing songs and people love all of them. I’m certainly surprised that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the one that has leapt to the top of the pile. But on the other hand, I shouldn’t be, because it’s a song about a bunch of people stuck under one roof gossiping, and that’s all we’ve been doing for the past two years in lockdown. But you have to pick something to submit, and we picked in November, and, for me, “Dos Oruguitas” really represents the spirit of the film. That’s always what I feel should guide [those submissions], not whatever you think the hit’s going to be, because that’s impossible to predict.
And by the way, I’m very close with [Frozen songwriters] Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, and I know that in a month, parents are going to be cursing me out, being, “My kids won’t stop. I hate you.” Right now, it’s very charming. You’re going to be very sick of it in a month, and that’s OK. That’s part of the life cycle of a song. I’m very Zen with that.
How did you come up with “Bruno?”
When you’re developing original material, everything that isn’t the main character and their quest gets cut away. Moana had eight brothers when I was hired for Moana. We killed those eight brothers. Moana had more important stuff to do. And so I said, “Is there a way in which we can really hang onto as many characters as possible and give them as many layers as time allows?” My big pitch on that, musically, was: You have an opening number that’s like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, where Mirabel literally gives us the family tree, like, “Here’s Abuela. She begets these folks. They beget these folks. And here are all their strengths.” Laying it out super-clearly so the audience has the same road map. And then the other one I pitched was, “We should have a group-gossip number, because there are the things you can talk about at dinner and there are the things you cannot talk about in front of Mom or in front of your sister.” And so I pitched a group-gossip number, and it made sense to make it about Bruno.
Did you ever in your wildest dreams think that “Bruno” would become the biggest single ever from a Disney movie, surpassing “Let It Go”?
No. I really think of it as my “Send in the Clowns” moment. Sondheim’s only chart-topping hit was “Send in the Clowns,” which, when you look at the work he’s done, is delightfully random. But Sinatra covered it and then everybody covered it.
What was your best moment on Tick Tick… Boom! ?
The people in Jonathan’s life who are still with us, his best friend and girlfriend and the galaxy of people who knew and loved him, they’re like, “You got him. It was uncanny.” And that’s the most exciting thing for me, is that it really feels like we captured the essence of someone who meant a lot to a lot of people.
How did you land on Andrew Garfield to star?
I knew I needed a theater actor. It couldn’t be a movie star who has no relationship with the theater. I went to see Angels in America at the National in London and watched Andrew Garfield hold this incredible ensemble in this masterpiece of a six-hour show with his ribcage cracked open. He’s so open and he gets to access everything. That part is a 14-course meal, and he ate everything. And I just left that show being like, “That guy can do anything.” I think I started mentally thinking about him as Jonathan an hour into the show. And he had a passing resemblance — he doesn’t have curly hair like Jonathan, but he’s elastic and rubber-limbed in that way that Jonathan was. I fixated on that while watching this play, and didn’t have a plan B.
In the Heights started its film life at Universal. What was the reason they gave you for why they weren’t going to make it?
In their courting of us, it was, “We’ll do anything to make this movie.” And then math happens and people answer to suits who answer to suits who answer to, ultimately, a vague notion that is called “international.” And, finally, they said to us, “Well, there’s no Latino stars who test international. If you can’t get this incredibly famous pop star, who has never acted, to be in the movie, you can’t make the movie.” And we couldn’t, and we didn’t. It was really interesting to see how everyone answers to someone and everyone is afraid to pull a trigger on something that’s unknown, because it’s a Catch-22, right? There are no international Latino stars because you’re not putting them in movies, and so they don’t get to then open movies.
Is there a project you’ve always wanted to get off the ground but weren’t able to?
Oh, dozens, dozens. I had the rights to a book called My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, which is one of my favorite books about being an artist and creativity. It’s a beautiful masterpiece of a book, and I loved getting to meet Chaim’s wife, and she granted us the rights. But it also happened around the time that I was writing Hamilton, and I was, basically, just so pregnant with Hamilton that I had to keep writing that and the rights lapsed. And that’s OK. They made a beautiful play adaptation of it a few years ago.
Like most in the Broadway community, you didn’t say anything when superproducer Scott Rudin — a member of the EGOT club, between his stage and screen work — was exposed as an abusive boss. Why not?
I’ve never met him. It’s crazy, because you would think we would have met. I’ve really never worked with him, so I didn’t feel like it was my place to speak when there were so many people in our industry who had interactions with him, good, bad or indifferent. But those [Rudin employee] stories were horrifying. The only Scott Rudin story I have is one of incredible pettiness. We were putting our first two-page ad in the New York Times for Hamilton. He put a huge ad for one of his shows, a two-page ad, just to bump us a little later in the paper. Apparently, the Times felt so bad about it, they gave us a discount on the next ad. It was that level of vindictiveness and pettiness. I didn’t know about all of the incredible cruelty, and I think it’s only right that he’s called out on that. And I’m glad he stepped away, because there are incredible artists that he took chances on and you don’t want their work to disappear because he was involved.
What was the thinking behind accepting an invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to speak at the ceremony marking the January 6 anniversary, and how did you feel about the backlash to the performance “Dear Theodosia” from Hamilton?
It’s a very dark chapter in our history, and so we wanted to find a way that would be something that just … Honestly, it was the only song I could think of that would be even close to appropriate for the occasion. And maybe there’s no right thing for the occasion. It’s a horrible anniversary of a horrible chapter, but she asked for this quiet moment in this proceeding and that’s the best we could think of.
You co-wrote the statement that was read to Vice President-elect Mike Pence at the end of a Hamilton performance in 2016, a plea to uphold American values. What do you remember about it?
This is not even two weeks after the election. It was very early days. I was in London, and I got a call that night from [producer] Jeffrey [Seller] and [director] Tommy [Kail]: “He’s coming to the show. We want to do a statement.” The initial instinct was to do it before the show, and I said, “You have to do it at the end, because you have to let the show do whatever work it’s going to do.” Because I do think that theater and the arts get us to a greater place of empathy. And it was really interesting — it was an early lesson in gaslighting and the president’s playbook for the next four years. He totally rewrote the reality of what happened. We read this statement. The statement is, “A lot of us in this country are scared because of what you ran on. We hope you will unite us.” That’s essentially the bones of the statement. And the subsequent framing tweets by Trump were, “They booed the vice president. They yelled at him.” And then I think he actually used the phrase, “The theater should be a safe space,” which is amazing coming from that particular president. Here is a thing that happened, and here is how the president created his own version of reality. We watched that again and again and again. We were totally the beta test.
You’re co-producing and also working on the music for Disney’s upcoming live adaptation of The Little Mermaid, due out next year. What can you tell us about it so far?
I got a FaceTime call from [composer] Alan Menken yesterday, who watched a rough cut of the movie and was so excited. He’s starting to write the score now. The songs are written and performed, and they’re editing for the next year or so. But I can tell you that we wrote a few new songs. We replaced nothing. That’s my favorite score of all time. Every song you love is in there. And then we just found a couple of new moments to musicalize together. Alan is the guy who I was begging for his autograph when I was in fourth grade, when Little Mermaid came out in 1989, so it was a dream come true to work with him. When we finally got started, it wasn’t hard to write lyrics for these characters, because they’ve lived in me for so long. I was like, “I know what Sebastian would say. I know what Ariel would say in this moment. I’ve had them inside me since I was nine years old.”
What kinds of music do you enjoy for pleasure? What would be the most surprising thing I’d find on your current playlist?
My son came home yesterday and he was like, “I have a song stuck in my head that I heard at school and I need you to find it for me.” And so we had an hour-long dance party to Imagine Dragons’ “Believer.” I’m listening to the new Cordae album. Right now, I’m just listening to a lot of podcasts. When I’m writing, I can’t really listen to other music, so I listen to comedy. I listen to the It’s Always Sunny podcast. I listen to the West Wing Weekly recaps. It’s a lot of people just talking in my ears when I’m walking around. But I’m also a big believer in the shuffle. I will just hit shuffle on all the songs that I have, and I believe that’s what the universe wants me to hear that day. I’m not particularly religious, but I believe in the shuffle. I was listening to Meat Loaf this morning on the news of his passing. We were blasting that as I was getting ready to come here.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
I just finished reading a [Roger] Federer biography. I’m a lifelong tennis fan. I’ll casually read the new [David] Sedaris Diaries because you can just go in and out and snack on those. I’ve been reading comic books. I just finished the Immortal Hulk series. I’m really all over the place.
Who is your dream collaborator, someone you haven’t worked with that you would love to work with?
Lil Wayne, because I find every verse he writes surprising and interesting. And then there’s folks in my part of the world, in musical theater, I’d love to collaborate with someday. [Composer] Jeanine Tesori is someone who just never misses.
What are you doing next?
I have a lot of dental work that I didn’t get done last year because I had movie after movie after movie. I have a wisdom tooth that’s got to come out. Seriously, my desk is clear for the first time in my career because I’ve been trying to get In the Heights movie off the ground since 2008. That’s off my desk, Encanto‘s off my desk. Tick, Tick is off my desk. So, this is a year to refill my cup and read comic books and listen to podcasts and see what the next thing is. But I got a clear desk, so I’m going to tuck in the kids and just chill this year.