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Lin-Manuel Miranda pauses for a little Sondheim

Lin-Manuel Miranda somehow manages to squeeze out more stuff in his day than other mere mortals.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lin-Manuel Miranda somehow manages to squeeze out more stuff in his day than other mere mortals.

You name it, the Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist of Broadway's "In the Heights" is probably doing it. A rap album about Alexander Hamilton? OK. A musical about cheerleaders? Oh, yes. Taking his sketch comedy group onto TV? Indeed.

So it seems perfectly natural for the 32-year-old to find himself this month in a Stephen Sondheim musical. Miranda is starring in a revival of "Merrily We Roll Along" at the New York City Center from Feb. 8-19 as part of its popular Encores! musical theater series.

The musical, which runs backward in time from 1976 to 1955, examines the lives of three people whose friendship is tested. It features some of Sondheim's best songs, including "Not a Day Goes By," "Old Friends," "Our Time" and "Opening Doors."

But, naturally, that's not all that's on Miranda's plate. The night before he sat down for a recent interview, Miranda was up late writing a song for a TV pilot based on his freestyle hip-hop comedy crew Freestyle Love Supreme that's slated to land on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim."

Miranda is also working on a full-length recording of "The Hamilton Mixtape," a 12-song hip-hop retelling of the life and death of the Founding Father, which he premiered in front of the first family at the White House in 2009.

And then there's the score to "Bring It On: The Musical," which he's co-writing with Amanda Green and Tom Kitt. That musical, based on the popular cheerleading movies, is touring the U.S. and Canada, and Miranda is making tweaks as it goes.

He is getting some top-notch help along the way — from Sondheim. They are friends, having worked together on the Spanish translations for the 2009 Broadway revival of "West Side Story." Miranda, a born-and-bred New Yorker from the rough-and-tumble Washington Heights neighborhood, now sends demos of "The Hamilton Mixtape" to the legend himself.

AP: Did you ever think one day you'd be sending songs to Stephen Sondheim?

Miranda: Never in a million years, but it sure as hell makes me step my game up. It is not the demo I would send to friends and say, "Look what I recorded last night!" I make sure it's good. It forces you to put your best foot forward. I've been very, very lucky that he's sort of encouraged me, as he's encouraged many other writers.

AP: The show "Merrily We Roll Along" was considered a flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1981, running for only a few weeks. It tells the story of a friendship backward, right?

Miranda: Right. You see the beginning and end of a friendship. You see where it starts and where it ends but you don't see it in that order. You see the end of the friendship and then we, scene by scene, go back a couple of years and you see that relationship grow and change in reverse order. You really see, with the benefit of hindsight, how certain decisions undo certain things.

AP: How has the experience of doing this musical been different?

Miranda: This is my first time professionally that I'm in a musical that I did not write. It is an entirely different rehearsal process. I mean, I wrote the score to "Heights" so learning music was the one thing I didn't have to worry about. I had to worry about rewriting songs, being in previews and 50 other things, but I didn't have to worry about learning music and this is challenging, amazing music.

AP: What are your plans for "The Hamilton Mixtape"?

Miranda: I first want to make sure the songs make sense on their own terms. I want to provide the kind of listening experience I had growing up listening to cast albums and not knowing they were shows. Just loving "Jesus Christ Superstar" or loving "Man of La Mancha" and the songs really told the story in their own way. And if there's a future theatrical life for it, that would be fantastic.

AP: How is it different from other let's-rap-about-something-no-one-raps-about projects?

Miranda: My challenge with "Hamilton" is to use no contemporary pop culture references. I want to really thread the needle in using this music and using this energy but I don't want to have any references that have a shelf life of less than 250 years. That's why so much rap music is so "disposable." You listen to it 10 years later and you don't know what the hell the guy is talking about anymore. With "Hamilton," I really want to write rap battles that are about ideas and use this music — and use that turbulent energy — and match it to the turbulent energy that I love about hip-hop.

AP: Speaking about your own music, how has working on a Sondheim musical influenced you?

Miranda: It certainly changes me as a performer. When you sing the music right, you have very little work to do as an actor. It's like doing Shakespeare — say the words loudly and clearly and it will pull you through emotionally. If you say it wrong, that's wrong and you feel wrong. It is like Shakespeare in that sense. Your job is to deliver the material and you'll go on the ride as a result.




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