Lin-Manuel Miranda is an actor and writer perhaps best known for his Broadway smash hits HAMILTON and IN THE HEIGHTS and for writing the original songs for Disney’s MOANA. Currently he can be seen as the lamplighter Jack in MARY POPPINS RETURNS, the sequel to the beloved 1964 Disney classic. Popaxiom got to sit down with Lin-Manuel Miranda during a roundtable interview.
On His Youth:
Miranda was a fan of the original MARY POPPINS when he was a kid… but not all of it: “Two-thirds of MARY POPPINS were my favorite movie. I owned that movie on VHS growing up. I don’t remember when it landed in our house. But I remember spending many hours dancing with Dick van Dyke and those penguins during ‘Jolly Holiday’ and then I would turn it off as soon as ‘Feed the Birds’ came on because that’s the saddest melody in the history of the world. It just broke my little heart, and I would just turn it off because I could because it was VHS. I didn’t see the end of the movie, I didn’t see ‘Step in Time’ until I was in high school. I just knew that song [‘Feed the Birds’] is really sad.”
Miranda was also a fan of THE LITTLE MERMAID (of which he is working on a live action-remake): “Honestly, the moment Sebastian started singing to Ariel, that was the giant supernova in my childhood imagination. I saw it on a playdate with a friend, then I dragged my parents back to see it the next week, and then I dragged my sister to take me again. And then I called in sick from school the day it came out on VHS so I wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the school day. I was so obsessed with how fresh and inventive those numbers felt. They felt like they were written today and yet they felt like instant Disney classics.”
Additionally, Miranda talked about the importance of mixtapes and how they are similar to musicals: “I feel very lucky that I came of age at a time when cassette was the dominant form of listening to music. And here’s why — I grew up on mixtape culture. Everything I learned about writing scores I learned when I was making mix cassettes for people I love and for friends because they have to listen to it in order, the order I set. I am telling them how I feel about them by my choices of songs and there’s a rise and a fall. I want you to listen to the whole thing. There’s a Side A and a Side B, just like an act break in musical theatre. Everything I know about writing broadway scores I learned from writing mixes for girls I liked.”
On Diversity in Hollywood:
Miranda’s role in MARY POPPINS RETURNS busts through the boundaries of race and ethnicity. This is what he had to say about it: “I am proud to be in this movie. You don’t associate Latinos with MARY POPPINS, but I remember the thrill of when the ADDAMS FAMILY movie came out and, ‘Here is Raúl Juliá playing Gomez Addams in this big blockbuster movie!’ and the pride we felt in seeing him up there with Angelica Huston and all those other Hollywood stars.”
Miranda also believes that Hollywood is finally beginning to make a step in the right direction towards inclusivity: “And I think that the lie, and it’s a lie, that Hollywood has told itself for a long time that diverse films don’t sell internationally, is finally breaking down. Because THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is the biggest movie franchise in the universe and it’s the most diverse cast you will see in Hollywood. That’s the beginning of the decimation of that lie.”
He then described his goals for IN THE HEIGHTS, the upcoming adaptation of his broadway musical directed by Jon M. Chu (CRAZY RICH ASIANS): “The reason that first go of IN THE HEIGHTS at Universal didn’t get made was, ‘Well, you don’t have international stars,’ and so we’ve seen the lie sort-of put to the test. And so I’m thrilled that, in a sort-of full-circle moment, we’re bringing IN THE HEIGHTS to the big screen next year, and we’re in the middle of casting that now. We couldn’t have a better director than John Chu because he proved that lie false in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. And it was not a superstar-driven movie. There will be hopefully be legends you have known all your life and legends you will meet on this film.”
On Mary Poppins Returns:
Miranda discussed how he worked with Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman on the music for MARY POPPINS RETURNS: “Emily and I were the first ones cast, and that is such a luxury. Believe me, I know from having written musicals, when you know who’s singing your song, that’s half the battle. So I think it helped them to tailor it to our voices, but I didn’t write anything. I was there as an actor and as a singer, and that’s another joy. If you make musicals, you like collaborating. You like going into a room and leaving with something bigger than the sum of your parts and so to do that as an actor was a joy. All I ever wanted was a life making musicals, and I knew I didn’t have the ballet chops to be a Shark. And that’s all we get, all Puerto Rican dudes get in the musical theatre canon, and so In the Heights is my first musical because I realized at nineteen, ‘Oh, no one’s going to write my dream show. You’re gonna have to create your own opportunities,’ And so to go from writing my own parts to getting to work with people of this caliber — this is the fruit of all that hard work.”
Miranda worked closely with legend Dick van Dyke, who played Bert in the original MARY POPPINS and had a cameo in MARY POPPINS RETURNS. Miranda’s character in the film was the apprentice of Bert and the characters are very much related. This is what Miranda had to say about working with Dick van Dyke: “Fast forward to getting to dance with penguins for real and getting to meet with Dick van Dyke, and what’s funny is, I talked with him about everything except MARY POPPINS. We talked about BYE BYE BIRDIE, which was his big break and which was my big break because I got cast as Conrad Birdie in the sixth grade play. We talked about working with Tito Rivera, we talked about working with Mary Tyler Moore on the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. We talked about his barbershop quartet which he still sings with at age 93! We talked about everything except MARY POPPINS because I could not wrap my mind around the fact that I am in a MARY POPPINS movie with Dick van Dyke. So I just sort-of talked around it like an eclipse.”
In the film, Miranda’s character is a “leerie”, which is what the lamplighters of the streets of London called themselves. These lamplighters had their own way of communicating, which Miranda had to learn: “It’s in the tradition of Cockney rhyming slang, except I think that Scott Whitman and Marc Shaiman wanted more latitude to create these lyrics and surprise audiences, even in London, ‘Wait, that’s not Cockney, that’s a new thing! (in a British accent) It’s leerie speak!’ That was enormous fun for us. I’m in such awe of Scott Whitman’s gifts as a lyricist. I would go to his house and he’d have a stack of books of British arcana, British phrases from the 1930’s, Cockney rhyming slang, etymology of British phrases. As a lyricist, I was just jealous. Where does he get these wonderful toys? It was a joy watching them sort-of craft that number from scratch.”
Miranda has two sons. The elder son, Sebastian, greatly enjoyed MARY POPPINS RETURNS and was caught singing some of the songs: “Oh man! The fact that he walked out singing the songs was, ‘Okay, we’ve done our job,’ because that’s how we feel on the first MARY POPPINS film, right? Every kid can walk out of there trying to sing ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, and he marched out of there, ‘Nowhere to go but up! Up!’ and now he’s been changing the lyrics because he’s my son. So it’s ‘Daddy, nowhere to go but DIAGONAL! Nowhere to go but DOWN! Nowhere to go but SIDEWAYS!’ I’m hearing Sebastian variations all week and that means that Scott and Marc did their jobs.”
Miranda had the following advice for aspiring writers: “Start writing yesterday! And not because your first work is going to be good — it’s not. If you’re anything like me, you may not be like me, but if you’re anything like me, your first work will sound like poor attempts at everything you love. My early musicals sound like warmed over Jonathan Larson and in trying to sound like (insert hero here), you fall short and find your voice along the way. The sooner you get started, the sooner you get the rust out of the faucet.”
MARY POPPINS RETURNS is now playing in theaters nationwide.