Lin-Manuel Miranda called from a hotel room in Philadelphia where he was shooting a new TV drama for NBC. He could just as easily been calling from a political office where he might be writing jingles for candidates, or from hanging out with Stephen Sondheim, with whom he re-wrote Spanish lyrics for the 2009 revival of West Side Story, or from the green room of a university where he might be delivering a presentation on hip-hop, or a stage where he might be freestyling. He wasn’t calling from the stage of the Tony Awards – but it’s worth mentioning that he could have been since In the Heights, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, was nominated for 13 Tonys and won four in 2008: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. The show was also a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It seems as if Miranda – writer, actor, composer, lyricist, improv artist, musician, dancer – could be phoning from just about anywhere doing just about anything performative and/or literary. His most recent show on Broadway is Bring It On: The Musical. He is now busy thinking about the next project. “I’m working on a concept album about Alexander Hamilton,” he told me. “I’ll do a recording first with an eye toward what the stage version might be – like the Who’s Tommy or like Evita. I want make an album and a bunch of killer songs that tell the story first and then figure out how to stage it – next.” As an artist and writer, Miranda is supple with his talents, fluid with his identity. When it comes to the work, however, he’s disciplined. Partially that comes with his upbringing, he says. But he knows luck plays a role in art, too. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
When did you begin identifying as an artist?
If I was on a play date with another kid, the thing that was the most fun for me was if we were going to put on a show for our parents. I don’t know if that started with dancing at parties to Michael Jackson or loving the attention of being the little kid dancing. Even if no one was around, I was doing it. I was very encouraged by my parents. So I was always drawing, always writing, and I was also left to my own devices a lot. That’s an important component to being an artist: the ability to entertain yourself. The next step is believing that what you’re making will be entertaining to others.
That fascinates me about artists – how you believe in your creativity and that it will have legs in the world.
My mom tells a story about me. I had my first piano recital at 7-years old. My sister and I both took lessons. My sister practiced all the time and played the pieces very well. I practiced not at all. I was bad at playing the pieces I was given. I liked to noodle when playing the notes. At the piano recital, my sister was permitted to play three pieces. I was allowed to play only one. I get up, I play my one piece – a very 7-year-old “this is up the scale and right back down” piece – and they applaud. My mom said I got this look on my face when they started applauding, and I said, “I know another one.” I played four pieces before they took me off the stage.
You’re multifaceted in your arts life. Does any one part loom larger?
I believe that writing and acting are essentially two sides of the same coin. I feel very lucky that I get to do both. They feed each other. When you’re writing, you’re basically talking to yourself and acting. The craft is a little more involved if you’re writing music, but it’s essentially that as well. If you’re writing music and lyrics, you’re noodling until it feels true to the moment you’re trying to portray or the scenario you’re in, and you write it down. It’s the same when you’re acting. You’re interpreting a text and breathe life into it and make it as real as possible. When you realize they’re the same thing, the life of the writer is inherently more interesting to me because you’re creating the world, creating what you want to see in the world. As an actor, you’re always subject to hoping someone can write something you can bring something to. Whether you’re a writer or an actor, the best mental viewpoint you can have is: Everything is grist for the mill. Everything you do from the moment you wake until the moment you go to sleep and everything that happens in your mind when you go to sleep, it’s all fair game. It’s also a good life viewpoint as well. My mom instilled this in me. If I were going through a tough time, she’d say, “You’re going to write something amazing out of this someday.” To be able to have that perspective on life as it’s happening to you is a good way to start.
What can we learn from artists about living a creative life?
One of my favorite books is My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. It’s about a young boy and his maturation into an artist. His mom always wanted him to paint pretty pictures, paint beautiful pictures. She asked, Did you paint something beautiful? And one of the great lines in the book is, No, I don’t paint pretty pictures; they’re good but they’re not pretty. It’s about honesty. Real artists show us the world in a way we recognize as our own. It’s not necessarily what we always want to hear, but it might be what we need to hear. Artists can do that in a way nothing else really can.
Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur?
No, not really. As little as possible. But you have to think about it if you’re going to make a living doing what you want to do. It’s the hardest part of any artist’s life. And it never goes away. With figuring out how to pay the rent, the electricity and for food while you are doing this thing you love to do – the reality is that it is such a hard field. You do what you can so you can do what you love. I did so many jobs to pay rent while I was working on Heights in the six years between graduating college and the show finally going on. There were lots of moments I was not sure what was going to happen. But the reality is I’d be doing it anyway.
Do you think about innovation? Are there people whose innovation you admire?
One of my favorite books growing up was Chuck Amuck, the autobiography of Chuck Jones, who is one of the animators at Warner Brothers and created Wyle E. Coyote and Pepe Le Pew and helped create Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. As a kid, I liked it for the pictures, but as I’ve grown up, it has become one of my favorite books about artistry and creativity. One of the takeaways is the innovation and genius that can come out as the result of limitations. They had a cheap producer. They were not allowed to go over six minutes. So they learned to time these animated shorts to be exactly 540 feet of film. That became their haiku form. Haiku form, limericks, song structure: The more restrictions you have, the easier it is to be creative because you need building blocks, you need things to push against. You use your space. You see what the limitations are, and you take advantage of them and find ways to turn them into strengths.
What about the role of all the people around you such as managers and agents? How can they best serve artists?
They’re super indispensible. I talk to my agents more than I talk to most members of my family. The critical role they can play is not just in representing their clients well and getting them what they need and getting them good deals. That’s really a small part of the business. A good agent is also a shrink when called upon and the friend who can say uncomfortable truths to you. Your job as an artist is to fall in love with something enough that you can start a project and carry it through to completion. Sometimes an agent’s job is to say: “I don’t think this is a good idea,” or to ask, “What’s more important, this or this? Because I don’t think you have time for both.” That’s the role that separates the good from the great agents: the ones who will tell you when you’re wrong. That is so critical. It’s someone who can really talk to you about what you’re doing but respect the process, too.
You’ve said you don’t write political jingles any more for money. You do it for conviction. Is that the same for your art?
I’m lucky enough that I can pick and choose projects. That won’t always be the case. My rose-colored glasses aren’t that rose-colored. I’m in a great position right now because I’ve had some success. The goal is always to be at least working on something you’re incredibly passionate about. I wrote jingles for a while because it paid well, and it was easy to do. My skill set allows me to do that with minimal time taken away from the things I’m really working on. Every artist’s life is a balancing act like that. Some teach. Some wait tables. It is about what gets me in the room I want to be in the most.
When you have a fabulous product – you have talent and conviction – does it assure success?
No, it’s all about opportunity meeting luck. My good luck moment was having two seniors come to see my sophomore production of In the Heights in college. It was just begging to be written by something inside me. I can’t imagine how different my life would be if they hadn’t seen it and said, Whenever you graduate, we’d love to talk to you about doing this in some way in New York. But I would not have had that luck had I not written this thing.
In the Heights had you working with young people. But you also worked with Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents on the re-figured lyrics of West Side Story. How was that inter-generational experience?
That was such an honor to be asked. If it had been any other production and it weren’t the original authors, I don’t know that I would have done it. I revere that show so much. It holds up well. It doesn’t need much changing. The fact that it was Laurents and Steve is why I did it. These guys are responsible for some of the greatest musicals ever written. I wanted to soak up as much through osmosis as possible. What was really fun about that collaboration was that it was something I felt uniquely suited to do. I know West Side Story backwards and forwards. I directed it my senior year in high school. I played Bernardo in sixth grade. And the fun of writing lyrics in Spanish – the challenge of retrofitting lyrics so that they fit seamlessly into these timeless lyrics – was really fun. They both gave me a lot of leeway. We discussed what parts they felt would benefit from being in Spanish and then they went off and let me do my thing. I call it the hardest crossword puzzle of my life.
*This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Writer. A version of this interview originally appeared in Inside Arts, the magazine of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.