The 'Hamilton' creator, a first-time nominee (for 'Moana'), gets personal as he recalls his childhood watching "this impossibly larger-than-life thing," his 'Seabiscuit' interpretive dance and the moments he'll never forget ("It was as if she reached through the screen to talk to me").
During college, Lin-Manuel Miranda and a friend used to improvise interpretative dance tributes to best picture nominees at their annual Oscar party. "It was a lot of breathing and rolling around," recalls the creator of the Broadway smash Hamilton. "We had a great Seabiscuit dance one year."
For the New York-born son of Puerto Rican parents — his father a political consultant, his mother a psychologist — it was just another phase of a lifelong fascination with the Oscars that began when he was growing up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, playing and replaying the telecasts that his family recorded on their VCR. At 37, Miranda is about to cross the threshold from superfan to participant: "How Far I'll Go," which he wrote for the Disney film Moana, is nominated for original song, and on Feb. 26, Miranda (with his mother) will attend his first Academy Awards. It's an auspicious step in a career that will see him star with Emily Blunt and Colin Firth in Disney's 2018 Mary Poppins Returns and collaborate with composer Alan Menken on the studio's live-action The Little Mermaid, one of Miranda's favorite films and, he reveals here, the gateway to his Oscars obsession.
My brain is a compendium of Oscar moments: Tom Hanks' beautiful acceptance speech when he won best actor for Philadelphia in 1994. Roberto Benigni climbing over chairs and wanting to make love to everybody in the world when Life Is Beautiful won best foreign-language film in 1999. Kim Basinger presenting in 1990 and telling the audience that one of the best films of the year, Do the Right Thing, was not nominated. For her to take a stand, 25 years before #OscarsSoWhite, was incredible — and impressive because time has shown the prescience of that film.
I expect we'll see more of that this year. It's a political time, so I imagine the Oscars will look exactly like your Twitter or Facebook feed. Why should we ignore for three hours what we're talking about 24 hours a day?
The Oscars were always a family affair when I was a kid. One sort of unintentional tradition we had every year was during the "In Memoriam" part of the show. My family called it the "She died?" section because my dad, who is pop culture-oblivious, would always go, "She died? He died? She died?!" the whole time. So, it was very sad and yet also very funny watching my dad catch up.
When I was a kid, the Oscars felt like this impossibly larger-than-life thing. The first time I felt like I had a horse in the race was in 1990. I was 10, and The Little Mermaid was up for best song and best score. They did that crazy "Under the Sea" number with the late, great Geoffrey Holder and dudes in scuba outfits tap-dancing with flippers. We had a tradition of recording the show on our VHS, and I must have watched it a million and a half times. There was also an amazing Chuck Workman montage at the beginning of the show that depicted 100 years of filmmaking with classic scores. I was already in love with movies, but this was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen in my life.
Akira Kurosawa got the lifetime achievement Oscar in 1990, and that montage made me want to see his movies. I'd never heard of him until then. Now Seven Samurai is one of my favorite films.
That was the period when Billy Crystal was hosting, and I would memorize his musical spoofs of the year's top films. He did them with Marc Shaiman, whom I'm working with right now on Mary Poppins Returns. I remember he got the biggest laugh I'd ever heard with his homage to The Godfather: Part III.
This is the story 'bout a man named Corleone
This man killed everyone so now he's home alone
Not a very nice guy
Shot Moe Greene in the eye
So tell me why his hair is 7 inches high
Godfather III, let there be more
And put Duvall in Godfather IV
Crystal's entrances became a thing. One year he came in on a horse, another as Hannibal Lecter with the face mask, and one time, Jack Palance dragged him onstage. I was a huge fan of those moments and musical numbers — they showed a genuine love of movies while still poking fun at them. I may also be the only person in America who laughed his ass off to "Uma, Oprah. Oprah, Uma." David Letterman's commitment to that bit was enough to put it over the top for me. He didn't care if no one got it. In his head, it was funny.
Hosting the Oscars is not a thing I would ever want to do. I am a huge Seth MacFarlane fan, but you could tell how uncomfortable everyone in the room was with his "We Saw Your Boobs" number. You always have to do this dance as a host: You're playing to a billion people at home, and you're playing to anxious contestants in a room, and that's an insanely hard thing to divide. It's the most thankless task in the world. I have a pretty healthy ego, but it does not extend in that direction. I'd much rather be the guy writing the opening tune than having to deliver it.
Crystal was great. I love Steve Martin, too. He brings his own thing and is incredibly funny. And Whoopi Goldberg. Those are probably my top three.
Another Oscar moment that really stuck with me was when Whoopi won her best supporting actress for Ghost. I'll never forget, at the top of her acceptance speech she said, "Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted this," which is so rare. Then she said, "As a little kid, I lived in the projects, and you're the people I watched. You're the people who made me want to be an actor." For me, it was like she was saying, "If you want this, you can get it, too. I'm proof that you can."
I had been seeing myself in this world since I was old enough to do anything, and it was as if she reached through the screen to talk to me. I was that kid. Even my mother used to say, "Remember what Whoopi said."
That speech was the inspiration for the opening song I co-wrote for Neil Patrick Harris, "Bigger," for the 2013 Tony Awards:
There's a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there, living for Tony performances singin' and flippin' along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses / So we might reassure that kid and do something to spur that kid / 'Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight, We were that kid and now we're bigger
It all came full circle for me when Whoopi presented me with the Tony for best musical when In the Heights won in 2008. That moment changed my life. And I remember jumping up onstage and salsa dancing with her.
What the Oscars mean to me has evolved over the years. When I was a little kid, it was the summit of success in this industry that I was looking at with giant glass eyes wanting to be a part of. And then you grow up, and it changes. I'm a big entertainment news reader. I read my Hollywood Reporters and my Entertainment Weeklys, and I've come to learn how much more of a crapshoot it all is.
I don't think of it as the be-all and end-all — I think of it as a collection of moments. It's a glimpse behind the scenes of Hollywood and a glimpse of actors and filmmakers being themselves in a very unguarded, public moment. It's Sally Field saying, "You really like me." Or it's Denzel Washington winning the best actor Oscar on the same night that Sidney Poitier got the lifetime achievement award and saying, "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me. What do they do — they give it to him the same night." Which was the great line of the night that year. It's a chance of seeing artists being themselves and not hiding behind a role.
It's also a glimpse at what really goes into making movies. I loved seeing Industrial Light & Magic win for Terminator 2: Judgment Day and seeing all those guys — the guys who created f—ing morphing! — go up onstage and win that award.
I'm more moved by seeing a veteran get an ovation or a beginner eke out a win on her first nomination. I was moved by Lupita Nyong'o winning for her performance in 12 Years a Slave in 2014 and her speech being so poised and incredible. When you see a first-timer, you see his or her life change in an instant.
Another of my favorite moments was in 2005, when they had Antonio Banderas sing "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from The Motorcycle Diaries, which was nominated for best song. And then when Jorge Drexler, who composed it, won, he went onstage and sang it, like, "This is how it really goes." It was so funny and ballsy and great. I'm happy whenever Latinos win anything, so I was thrilled by both performances.
So these days, that's what I watch for, and as I've gotten older, I've found that I'm not very good company at Oscar viewing parties because I don't like it when people talk over the awards. If I'm at a social gathering where the Oscars happen to be on, I'm like, "Shut up!" I'm intently watching.
I can't tell you what it feels like in that room because this will be my first time at the Oscars, but I can tell you why the Oscars matter. It's a night when the arts and artists are formally honored, and this recognition is seen by millions of people across the country and around the world. The show inspires people to keep pursuing their craft, or to seek out the nominated films or the overall body of work of the nominees, and through that exposure, people gain a greater appreciation of what the art of filmmaking brings to our culture.
For all of THR's Oscars 2017 coverage, head here.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.