Lin-Manuel Miranda first crossed paths with Stephen Sondheim during the revival of one of the greatest musicals in history.
Miranda had been brought in to do Spanish translations of the lyrics to Sondheim’s West Side Story.
“He said, ‘What else are you working on?’ That interested him more than West Side Story,” Miranda recalls.
At the time, Miranda was writing what would become her record-breaking show, Hamilton.
“I’ll never forget, he threw his head back, he said, ‘This is fantastic. No one will expect this from you. This is great. This is exactly what you should do,'” said Miranda at Take 5 with Zan Rowe.
“That laughter probably fueled the next three years of writing, that kind of encouragement.”
Those three years also cemented a friendship between the two men, with Miranda taking Sondheim at his word and sending him songs for feedback as they went along.
This led to a single piece of advice from Sondheim that Miranda always keeps in mind.
“He always said, ‘Variety. Variety,'” Miranda said.
“Surprise is the only thing; every eight bars changes what’s happening underneath the music. Change it.
“That’s the biggest lesson he taught me.”
Miranda said he knew he wasn’t the only artist who benefited from Sondheim’s advice and shared how difficult his death had been in 2021.
“He leaves us two enormous legacies: He leaves us the eclecticism and the mastery of his work, all of these musicals, each one of them, a completely different work in itself,” Miranda said.
“I am one of the thousands of artists he personally encouraged. His encouragement is (also)… a legacy as much as the work itself.”
As for the legacy Miranda plans to leave, her goal is to be “well remembered by the people I love, who loved me, and who I knew.”
In pursuit of childhood sensations
After working alone to create the songs and story of Hamilton, Miranda’s preference now is to seek out and leverage the expertise of others.
He said it had been “amazing” and “truly humbling” to collaborate with composer Alan Menken, who has written music for a wide range of Disney animated classics.
They worked together on the live-action remake of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a film whose music he found revolutionary as a child in the 1990s.
“I remember feeling weightless when Under the Sea started, thinking, ‘How am I watching this crab sing a calypso number?'” Miranda said.
“Time has erased how strangely contemporary that song was. It was a pop song.
“I just remember the thrill of that, so when I write those moments for Encanto or Moana, I run after that. I want kids to feel what I felt in 1989 underwater.”
It’s safe to say that Miranda managed to recreate these feelings, with children and adults alike fascinated by the songs he created for the screen – including those he never expected to hear.
“I was very surprised that We Don’t Talk About Bruno was the biggest hit on the Encanto soundtrack,” Miranda said.
“It’s the most specific song on this score. Yet I think that’s why it resonated with people.
“I think we all have these stories in our families that are like… ‘We can’t talk about this in front of Mom,’ or ‘We can’t talk about this in front of your brother.'”
Miranda also shared that he didn’t discover the song was gaining momentum through the usual channels.
“Really, my son was the town crier,” Miranda recalls.
“He’s the one who told me, ‘Dad, everyone at school sings it. It’s crazy.’
“He went from freaked out…to really proud pretty quickly.”
Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda on Take 5 tonight at 8pm on ABC TV or on ABC iviewAnd listen to the extended conversation on the Take 5 podcast on the ABC listening app.