Mi­randa shares his top movie mu­si­cals

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY JULIE BLOOM

An in­fant float­ing down the Colorado River in a bas­ket. This scene from the 1964 movie mu­si­cal “The Unsink­able Molly Brown” is seared into the mem­ory of Lin-Manuel Mi­randa. “It’s my dad’s fa­vorite movie of all time, and it was re­quired view­ing grow­ing up,” Mi­randa re­called re­cently.

That movie and a slew of other screen mu­si­cals were in reg­u­lar ro­ta­tion through­out Mi­randa’s child­hood in In­wood in Up­per Man­hat­tan. “My mom loved Shirley Tem­ple movies, and my dad loved ‘Sound of Mu­sic,’ ‘My Fair Lady,’ any­thing with Deb­bie Reynolds, and ‘Mary Pop­pins,’ early and of­ten,” he said with a laugh.

Now Mi­randa is star­ring op­po­site Emily Blunt in a se­quel of sorts to one of those beloved movies: “Mary Pop­pins Re­turns,” di­rected by Rob Mar­shall, ar­rives in the­aters Dec. 19.

The movie mu­si­cals Mi­randa watched grow­ing up have played a for­ma­tive role in his de­vel­op­ment as a com­poser, lyri­cist and per­former on the stage (“In the Heights,” “Hamil­ton”) and the big screen (“Moana”). It’s an art form he clearly reveres, as he told me in a phone in­ter­view.

“One of the hard­est things to do is to make a suc­cess­ful mu­si­cal,” he said. “I don’t mean fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful, I mean ar­tis­ti­cally. Where all the art forms – the chore­og­ra­phy, the mu­sic, the danc­ing, the sets, the songs, all build to­ward these mo­ments. When they’re all work­ing in tan­dem, I do not think there is a more thrilling art form, full stop.”

But, he added, the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing those mo­ments be­comes even greater on­screen. “When you make a movie mu­si­cal, the sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief is much higher, and it’s harder to buy peo­ple singing,” he said. “Maybe it’s be­cause the set­tings are more real­is­tic, but when some­one bursts into song in a movie, for some rea­son we real-

ly have to earn it.”

And still more art forms have to work to­gether with film: “You’re adding cine­matog­ra­phy, and you’re adding cam­era move­ment, so it’s even harder to make the magic trick, but when it does it’s even more pow­er­ful.”

Mi­randa dis­misses crit­ics who find mu­si­cals too corny or un­re­lat­able. “There are some peo­ple who say, ‘I don’t re­ally like mu­si­cals,’ ” he said. “That means that mu­sic is very di­vorced from their life ex­pe­ri­ence and they’re not will­ing to let mu­sic bleed into ev­ery­day speech or an ev­ery­day mo­ment. Grow­ing up in a Latino house­hold, it’s the most nat­u­ral thing in the world for mu­sic to bub­ble over into con­ver­sa­tion.”

He knew the set­ting for his first show, “In the Heights,” had to be Wash­ing­ton Heights: “You can’t walk a block with­out hear­ing mu­sic com­ing out of some cor­ner or car. And so I think that’s why it feels nat­u­ral to me.”

I asked Mi­randa to tell us about his top five movie mu­si­cals. Here they are in no par­tic­u­lar or­der.


“My own con­tri­bu­tions to the mu­si­cals in the VHS player at home re­ally be­gin with ‘The Lit­tle Mer­maid,’ ” Mi­randa, now 38, re­called. “I don’t know why I loved it so much, but it re­ally grabbed ahold of me. I was ob­sessed with it. I was in about fourth grade when it came out, and I re­mem­ber see­ing it on a play date with a friend and I re­mem­ber go­ing home and mak­ing my sis­ter take me and then my par­ents again. I re­mem­ber the day it came out on VHS, leav­ing early from school so I could get it from the store and not have to wait un­til the end of the school day.”

Why was it so in­flu­en­tial? “It’s a com­bi­na­tion of things: The mo­ment ‘Un­der the Sea’ be­gan, I was trans­ported. I re­mem­ber feel­ing weight­less. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘You can do a mu­si­cal num­ber un­der the freak­ing ocean.’ That was rev­e­la­tory. And it’s a ca­lypso num­ber, the fact that it felt con­tem­po­rary, was huge. Steel drums and Caribbean sound­ing mu­sic, it rocked my world. ‘Kiss the Girl’ when you’re 9 is the most ro­man­tic thing in your life,” he added. “I was kind of the per­fect age for that Dis­ney golden-era re­nais­sance of the an­i­mated movie mu­si­cal in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” He ticked off a list that in­cluded “The Lit­tle Mer­maid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King”: “pretty per­fect an­i­mated mu­si­cal movies.”


Once Mi­randa got to col­lege at Wes­leyan Univer­sity and was study­ing both the­ater and film, he fell in love with the MGM era of movie mu­si­cals. “Con­sid­er­ing my dad’s love for Deb­bie Reynolds, it’s strange that ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ didn’t play more in my house, but I didn’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it un­til I was older,” he said. “It is a per­fect movie. Ev­ery num­ber in it is kind of glo­ri­ous. What I love about both these movies is I don’t think you could make them to­day be­cause we don’t make stars like that any­more. The long takes of Gene Kelly and Fred As­taire, re­spec­tively. Don­ald O’Con­nor in the num­ber ‘Make ‘Em Laugh.’ I can watch that scene a mil­lion times and it shouldn’t still make me laugh, but it does. Lots of times you watch in won­der that it even ex­ists.”

When it comes to “The Band Wagon,” Mi­randa said, “I joke to peo­ple, the last scene is how I would like the last scene of my life to go. It’s Fred As­taire, he’s worked on this mu­si­cal out of town and he thinks they’ve got a big hit, but no­body is cel­e­brat­ing, and so he sings in a lit­tle funk, ‘I guess I’ll have to find my way.’ And then he goes into the room and every­one he loves is in one room and they all sing ‘So he’s a jolly good fel­low,’ and Cyd Charisse says, On top of mak­ing this mu­si­cal with you, I love you. And then his best friends show up and then they all sing ‘That’s En­ter­tain­ment.’ I mean, what a way to go.” The movie was also a rev­e­la­tion to this child of the ’80s, who grew up try­ing to do the “Smooth Crim­i­nal” moves of Michael Jack­son. “It’s en­tirely taken from the se­quence at the end of that film,” he said. “The suit, the dance; you see what an in­flu­ence Fred As­taire was on one of our big­gest he­roes grow­ing up.”

“CHICAGO” (2002)

“What I al­ways say about Rob Mar­shall is he should have been born in the MGM era, and I think he’d be the first to ad­mit that too,” Mi­randa said. “He’s kind of the clos­est di­rec­tor we have in terms of tak­ing to­day’s stars and craft­ing in­cred­i­ble mu­si­cals with them.” He cited the “Cell Block Tango” from Mar­shall’s ver­sion of “Chicago.” It’s “about as thrilling a piece of mu­si­cal the­ater moviemak­ing as ex­ists. It could sit along­side any of those old movies from that era, and yet what amazes me about it is the way he frames the story and that we very firmly go into peo­ple’s heads and we have li­cense to do what­ever we want once we’re in there. And it’s so clear. In a lot of bad movie mu­si­cals, the edit­ing is such that you can’t even tell who is danc­ing or what’s go­ing on, and Rob uses edit­ing to do the op­po­site, he uses edit­ing to il­lu­mi­nate the gifts of the peo­ple on screen.”

“LABYRINTH” (1986)

“I don’t think peo­ple would think of that as a movie mu­si­cal, but it is to­tally a David Bowie movie mu­si­cal,” Mi­randa said. “Un­less you saw it as a child, you’re like, what is go­ing on here? Who green­lit this very strange movie? And while it’s a kids’ movie, there’s re­ally dark scary stuff and David Bowie is wear­ing su­per­tight pants, but it was a huge movie for me grow­ing up. My sis­ter was ob­sessed with it. She would say, ‘And I’m not go­ing to go to the Labyrinth to get you. I will just be very happy with David Bowie, my gob­lin king hus­band.’ It was a very real threat. But also those songs are great. I paid ho­mage to it when I wrote the songs for ‘Moana.’ Tam­a­toa the crab is a love let­ter to a David Bowie song, be­cause for my gen­er­a­tion, our first ex­pe­ri­ence with David Bowie was as a movie mu­si­cal vil­lain. I’m sure ‘Labyrinth’ doesn’t make any­one else’s top 10 mu­si­cals, but it wields a strange power in my life and in our house grow­ing up.”


Lin-Manuel Mi­randa says movie mu­si­cals were a fam­ily main­stay as he was grow­ing up.

JOAN MAR­CUS The Pub­lic The­ater

Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, fore­ground, has gained his own fame with his hip-hop stage bi­og­ra­phy of Alexan­der Hamil­ton. “Hamil­ton” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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