Lin-Manuel Miranda: from jingles to Jack

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the American composer, rapper, and actor, is taking a giant leap of faith into a children’s musical about a British nanny – a far cry from the hip hop, pop, rap, show-tune music of the award-winning 2015 Hamilton: An American Musical.  From the history of the founding fathers to the diversity of character casting, Hamilton is virtually the opposite of his new venture, the reprisal of the 1964 movie, Mary Poppins, with the 2018 Mary Poppins Returns. In it, Miranda plays Jack, a lamplighter.

But is it?

Lin-Manuel Miranda has already collaborated with Walt Disney Animation Studios on songs for the 2016 Moana, soundtrack, a musical animation about the daughter of a Polynesian chief who saves her people by sailing in rough seas to search for Maui, a legendary demigod. For his work on Moana, the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes nominated Miranda for the Best Original Song, for ‘How Far I’ll Go.’

Miranda has already won a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, three Grammy, an Emmy, and two Olivier Awards. In 2015, he was the recipient of a ‘Genius Grant’ from the MacArthur Fellows Program and the Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Award in the history category. In 2016, Time magazine included Miranda as one of the ‘Most Influential People in the World’ in its annual Time 100 list, and in November 2018 he received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

He is currently nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musicial or Comedy for Mary Poppins Returns.

Born in New York City on 16 January 1980, with grandparents from Puerto Rico, Lin-Manuel Miranda represents an interracial and musical background. As a child, he wrote jingles and starred in a 20-minute musical school play. As a student at Wesleyan University, Miranda co-founded a hip hop comedy troupe, called Freestyle Love Supreme, and wrote the music for In the Heightsduring his sophomore year of college in 1999 – long before it played on Broadway in March 2008 to critical acclaim. Apart from musicals, he also acted in Shakespeare productions in college, before his graduation in 2002.

Shakespeare and Mary Poppins – both quintessentially British. Miranda is not unfamiliar with Britain, because the West End production of Hamilton was held at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London in December 2017, winning seven Olivier Awards in 2018, including Best New Musical.

In his film role in Mary Poppins Returns, he does not reinvent the role of Bert, the chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke in the original. Instead, Miranda plays Jack, an apprentice to Bert – the next generation of lamplighters in the East End district of London. Miranda admits that he didn’t know what a lamplighter was, but when it was explained, he realized that he played a similar role in his first show, In the Heights, playing Usnavi, a street lighter.

Why was he chosen to play Jack? Director Rob Marshall admired Miranda’s musical talents, for sure, but also his ‘inner child’ – a distinct advantage in the Mary Poppins film, a pure children’s fantasy film. Miranda was keen on the prospect of his character climbing the iconic Big Ben clock in the Elizabeth Tower during the finale.

“I started writing musicals because I knew my musical theatre dream role didn’t exist. I wasn’t going to be able to play Bernardo in West Side Storyor Paul in A Chorus Line. I don’t dance like that. And for a Puerto Rican dude, that’s the canon,” he says. “This seemed like the fruit of the harvest. It’s a direct line from there to me hanging onto Big Ben,” said Miranda for USA Today in December 2018.

He moved his family to London in 2016 to film Mary Poppins Return. The famed Big Ben timepiece was re-constructed to exact scale on a Shepperton Studios soundstage. On the day of the Big Ben shoot, Miranda brought his son Sebastian, 4, to watch.

But “the hardest ten seconds of my life,” says Miranda, was not the Big Ben scene. It was the bike scene. “I light a lamp, get on the bike, steal the apple, toss it to the orphan, all while singing in a Cockney accent over bona fide British cobblestones,” he laughs. “It was not just riding a bicycle, it was one with a Fred Flintstone piece o’ meat on the side,” he says. “And you’re making it feel like that’s the most natural thing in the world.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Miranda knew the songs in the first Mary Poppins film by heart, from childhood, due to his father’s love of the film. To be starring in the sequel is a dream for Miranda, given his childhood obsession with the original.

“There are dreams that are too audacious to dream,” says Miranda. “Like, you could dream of maybe being on Broadway someday, you could dream of writing a show. Then there are dreams that you didn’t even have the audacity to have, like that there would be a sequel to Mary Poppinsand you could be dancing with Mary Poppins someday. Who would have the audacity to have that dream?”


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