Lin-Manuel Miranda Learned His Most Important Song-Writing Lessons From A Howard Ashman DVD [Exclusive]

2021 is arguably the biggest year of Lin-Manuel Miranda's career so far. The Tony-winning multi-hyphenate just made his feature film directorial debut with "Tick, Tick...BOOM!", his musical "In the Heights" was adapted into a movie this past summer, he worked on the music for two animated musicals (Netflix's "Vivo" and Walt Disney Animation's "Encanto"), and that's not even a comprehensive list of all his credits this year. In the words of Aaron Burr from Miranda's smash hit "Hamilton": "the man is non-stop."

It's clear Miranda knows his way around writing musicals, but during a recent interview with him, he told us that when it comes to writing for animation, his biggest lessons were learned thanks to an old DVD featuring a legendary figure in the history of Disney movies.

"I Learned More From That Hour-Long DVD Than Anything"

We spoke with Miranda in support of Disney's "Encanto," and naturally, the subject of musicals came up. With several high-profile musicals being released this year in both live-action and in animation (some of which work better than others – *cough* "Dear Evan Hansen" *cough*), we asked him why he thinks animation lends itself to the earnestness that is inherent to the musical form. It turns out that Miranda learned at the metaphorical feet of Howard Ashman, the Oscar-winning lyricist behind movies like "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin."

"Oh, I would need so much longer than the nine minutes we have. But I'll tell you, when I first started working on 'Moana,' one of the first things I did was I got a – I was behind the scenes over at Disney Animation. I got this incredible DVD of Howard Ashman basically holding a class on musical theater storytelling for all of the Disney animators that working on the movie. And he went beat by beat through 'Little Mermaid' and why this song is here and why it matters and why we're going on it. 'We're going to establish the world of fathoms below and we're going to go from above the world that we know down below the world. And that's how we're going to musically intro...'

I learned more from that hour-long DVD than anything, because more than anything, animation can move at the speed of thought in a way something on stage can't. You see it in this movie, I wrote this song 'Surface Pressure' for Louisa and I'm in my corner of the world writing rhymes for the word nervous. 'Nervous, Cerberus, have they seen how big the iceberg is?' But then the animators take that and they just let their imagination go wild with it and cut to me watching this incredible number. And we are going to all of the places the lyrics go to, which is really free associative, but animation can move at the speed of free association. It can go anywhere and in any direction. And so, it's really thrilling for a songwriter because what comes back to you is so much more than you could have imagined."

For more on Ashman and his contributions to the world of musicals, check out the 2018 documentary "Howard" streaming now on Disney+. "Encanto" arrives in theaters on November 24, 2021.