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Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘Chase What Inspires You, and Finish It’

Lin-Manuel Miranda has been plenty busy since leaving his Broadway megahit Hamilton, but he carved a brief window into his shooting schedule for the upcoming Disney film Mary Poppins Returns to attend the luncheon for Oscar nominees in Los Angeles this past week. Miranda’s work on Moana netted him an Oscar nod for Best Original Song — if he wins, he could score the rare EGOT — and he talked about all those projects at the luncheon with John Horn, co-host of The Awards Show Show, including the creative DNA that Hamilton and Moana share, and the responsibility of artists after the election. Listen to the full episode below, and read an edited transcript of their conversation.

Here we are, we’re at Beverly Hilton, the nominees lunch is about to start, it’s been a couple of weeks since you’ve been nominated. Does it feel a little different from everything else now that you’re actually here?
I’ve grown, I’ve changed, I’ll never go back to what I was before! No, it’s thrilling honestly, you know, I’ve been at such a disconnect from all of this. I’ve been in London, I flew in for the day because I didn’t want to miss the fun of the Oscar luncheon. Who knows if you ever get to come back here. But yeah, we’ve been working on Mary Poppins Returns so it’s been this sort of surreal thing that’s happening somewhere else so this is my first glimpse at the whole megillah.

Do you think there is a through line from Mary Poppins Returns to Moana to Hamilton — do you think there’s a narrative similarity or musical similarity to all three of those things?
Actually, musically, the three could not be more different but it’s interesting because Hamilton and Moana do share some DNA. I got the job writing for Moana about seven and a half months before we started rehearsals Off Broadway for Hamilton, so there was a period where I was sort of writing both at the same time. They’re siblings.

Did one influence the other? Do you see them in relationship to each other?
I do see them in a relationship to each other. I think Moana was my oasis, during Hamilton. Anytime I needed a break as the whole phenomenon was unfolding, I could go sail the seas with Moana in Maui. And it forced me to sort of clear time and clear my brain so that I could stay focused on working on the film.

Getting on a boat and sailing the seas as opposed to picking up Ron Chernow’s book and going through 900 pages of text.
As opposed to catching beef with Thomas Jefferson twice on Saturdays.

There was a lyric from the nominated song, “How Far I’ll Go,” from Moana and this is the lyric that I’m interested in: “I’ll be satisfied if I play along / But the voice inside sings a different song / What is wrong with me?” And that seems to be kind of thematically consistent with what you’re talking about, that to be authentic and to be true to yourself you might have to step outside of what’s expected of you. And I think that’s maybe where Moana and Hamilton overlap the most.
I think so. I think that insight was the turning point for the song. It’s easier to write a song where someone is miserable where they are and they want to get out. It’s a little subtler [here]: Moana loves her parents and she loves her people and she loves her island and there’s this voice anyway. What’s wrong with me that I’m hearing this call to the sea? Once we made that distinction … there’s an earlier draft of the song called “More,” which you can hear on the deluxe edition of the CD, where she’s just kind of bored; she’s bored and she wants to get out. And I think what’s more interesting is, I love it here, so why do I want to leave, but still honoring that voice and paying attention to it.

The song in Moana and a lot of the songs in Hamilton are optimistic and they’re optimistic in the face of what a lot of people would consider pessimistic situations. Does that relate to how you see the world? That even if things don’t look that great that there is an optimism that you can express lyrically and musically?
That’s interesting, I never thought of the songs as particularly optimistic. Moana and Hamilton are both certainly strivers and they are people who sort of challenge boundaries and are seeking to go farther than what they see in front of them. I think that’s something they very much share in their DNA. I supposed I share that as well, but I look at both of those people and I’m sort of in awe of them. I mean, you’re talking to a guy who hasn’t moved out his neighborhood yet, and my characters seem to traverse oceans and change the world. I’m in awe of what the characters do.

I want to ask you about songs, more broadly speaking, songs in Moana, songs in Hamilton, or even a small change in the lyrics of “America the Beautiful” as done by the Schuyler Sisters at the Super Bowl. What can lyrics and what can music do that news can’t do? That documentary film can’t do? That narrative storytelling can’t do? How do they connect to an audience and inform that audience of a way of thinking that you can’t do in other means?
Well, a couple things. One, to paraphrase Sondheim, lyrics aren’t poetry: They’re not meant to look good on a piece of paper, they’re meant to sing well with the music with which they are assigned. Sometimes you’ll write out the lyrics from your favorite song and it feels like so much less on paper then it was when you were singing it and it’s because it’s wedded to another form, music engages both hemispheres of the brain. Go read your Oliver Sacks if you want to hear how incredible and extraordinary music is in the way we process it. I think the right lyric with the right melodic idea just does things to your brain and your heart that no other art form can touch and so pick those words carefully, you know? Your only job is to pick the exact right words for the job — no more, no less.

It feels as if — and even if you didn’t plan it this way — you are maybe in the right place at the right time in the history of this country. I’m wondering how you have reconsidered your priorities as an artist, the stories that you want to tell, the voice that you have, the platform that you have, after the election, and if it’s changed your thinking about what you want to do and maybe what you don’t want to do.
Creatively, no, not at all. I think your job as an artist is to chase what inspires you and finish it. If that inspiration is political in nature, great. If it’s not, great. You know, I think we can smell when something feels like homework. I think we can smell when something feels like, “I have a social responsibility to write this thing,” and you’re like, Okay, but it’s a drag for me to watch. When someone’s inspired to do something and they do great work, that’s wonderful. But I think your job as an artist is to make your art. My job as a private citizen is very different. I did a big fundraiser for Planned Parenthood in the wake of this election. I’m donating to the ACLU because their hands are very full. But that’s my work as a private citizen. My work as an artist is only informed by what inspires me.

You wrote a lyric not that long ago: “Immigrants, we get the job done.” When you think about that lyric and what it means today and what’s happening in the country today, what are your thoughts?
I think it’s crazy that is in any way controversial. I’m thrilled to see it on placards. I think we’re a country that is continually, over the course of our history, buoyed on the strength of immigrant groups when they come to this country and work twice as hard to make a new life here and strengthen our country by doing so. That’s as much a bedrock of what makes our nation great as anything else.

We are here at the Oscar nominees lunch. You’ve been nominated for an Oscar, you’ve done a Broadway show that’s a phenomenon around the globe if not beyond the globe. How do you measure your own success as an artist? What do you take away that lets you know that you’ve accomplished something? I suspect it’s not awards or Broadway box office grosses.
No, you can’t. If you’re trying to get financial success writing for theater, don’t do it — I think one in five shows makes their money back. You have to go in with your eyes wide open on any creative endeavor, say to yourself, I don’t know whether this will end in opening night, or whether this will be a five year run. What I try to do —and you know, I’m figuring it out like everybody else — is I try to put myself in situations where I’m going to learn something, whether it’s writing with Tom Kitt for the Tony Awards, or Bring It On which we co-wrote the score to with Amanda Green. Right now I’m working on Mary Poppins Returns, I’m watching Rob Marshall direct. He’s the best at making movie musicals, I’m going to learn 50 new things from working with him, regardless of the success of the film. And that’s going to make me a better artist, so that’s what I try to chase.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on What Moana Shares With Hamilton