A hand-made song

Lin-Manuel Miranda has helpfully provided a peek into his process with this video showing him coming up with the freestyle rap(-up) that closed last Sunday’s Tony Award telecast. 

It’s rare we get a glimpse of a musical theatre writer at work.  Obviously, Miranda was under a great deal of pressure.  During the three-hour broadcast, he had to come up with a lyric that cracked jokes about all that had transpired.  Some writers work best under pressure, and I described how I spewed out some lyrics in record time last February in a previous post.  Lin-Manuel Miranda won his Tony for In the Heights, a score he worked on and refined and rewrote a thousand times over the course of many years.  Although the Tony broadcast is the lowest-rated television show to appear on a major network in any given year, and the song was aired after the 11 o’clock cut-off time when many affiliates switch off the national feed, more people heard this freshly-minted ditty than have ever or will ever see In the Heights.  Such is the reach of television.

So, the pressure was on.  Many notable and unpredictable things happened in those three hours, starting with Brooke Shields’ stunning incompetency performing a brief couplet in a comedy song.  At one point, Miranda says he’s got nothing about John Larroquette.  Luckily, in his acceptance speech, Larroquette mentioned he was used to watching the Tonys at home in his underwear, which inspired this:

John Larroquette brought an eloquent mood to the room

I’m still imagining him at home in his Fruit-of-the-Looms

For this task, it was particularly important that the recap contained good jokes; low-quality rhymes would be forgiven, since there was too little time to refine.  It’s particularly interesting that Miranda, in the video, struggles with the title of the winning play, War Horse, because it doesn’t flow from the lips with any percussiveness.  Hard to say, hard to rap.

But hip-hop offers a certain amount of rhythmic freedom.  There’s no tune the words must fit.  There’s also no particular structure.  Rhymes come quickly, but don’t need to come at any particular interval.  The free-styler, in effect, makes the rhythm with the words he chooses to emphasize.

Andrew Rannells sang “I Believe” and he landed it

So well now he’s Mitt Romney’s V.P. candidate

Here’s the happy concurrence of a great rhyme and a great joke.  Miranda trusts the listener to be politically-aware enough to know that presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and the Rannells performance, from The Book of Mormon, enthusiastically affirms tenets of the creed.  A similar joke, matching the musical with the politician, was Newsweek‘s recent cover, which planted Romney’s head on Rannells’ body from the musical’s poster: 

Newsweek was making a joke few would get, since it’s mostly our tiny brood, the musical theatre aficionados, who recognize the image.

Miranda was fashioning a lyric for those with a certain amount of knowledge about Broadway goings-on. For instance, he refers to the widely-discussed topic of who could possibly star in the upcoming planned revival of Funny Girl:

Mark Rylance runs at fences, he’s won the Tony twice

That guy can do it all, his follow-up is “Fanny Brice.”

In comedy, it’s essential to know your audience, to have a sense of what they already understand.  This is a smart reference that rewards the viewer for knowing about the quest to cast Brice and that there seems to be no limit to what Mark Rylance can do.

But let’s clarify that.  Rylance didn’t write his crazy acceptance speeches.  And it peeves me a bit that Neil Patrick Harris gets credit, in certain quadrants, for the witty work of fine lyricists like Lin-Manuel Miranda and David Javerbaum, who wrote the even funnier opening number.  (Javerbaum had more time to do it.)  I suspect that public confusion about who was responsible for the end-credit freestyle led Miranda to put this video up on YouTube.  For those of us who want to learn about a musical-creator’s process, it’s a rare boon.


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