Music Interviews
4:17 pm
Thu August 2, 2012

Lin-Manuel Miranda On Learning From Ruben Blades

Originally published on Fri August 3, 2012 7:59 am

All summer, All Things Considered has been digging into Mom and Dad's record collection, asking listeners and guests to name one song that inspired them, changed them or taught them something about their parents.

Lyricist, composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Tony Award for Best Score for his Broadway musical In the Heights when he was just 28. This summer, he's back on Broadway: He wrote the music and lyrics for Bring It On: The Musical, which opened Wednesday.

Miranda says his appreciation for stories told in song began at a young age, when he would dance to the records his parents played at parties. Among their favorites was Panamanian salsa singer Rubén Blades, whose song "El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andres," Miranda says, haunts him to this day.

"This is an incredibly danceable song ... but the subject matter is incredible," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "The title is 'Father Antonio and His Altar Boy Andres,' and it's almost like a [Gabriel] García Márquez short story.

"It's about this priest who comes from Spain to preach in Latin America and the altar boy [who is] sort of disinterested in religion. He just does it because it's one of the things you have to do when you're a kid. And they get murdered over the course of the song."

Miranda says he didn't notice how dark Blades' song was at first — because the melody was so catchy, he listened to it again and again. Eventually, he says, he figured out what a powerful trick Blades had pulled off.

"It's really heavy, but you would never know that," Miranda says. "As you listen to the song, you realize it's church bells, it's mourning bells. It's really an incredibly complex short story based around a very simple hook."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, we dig into Mom and Dad's Record Collection. All summer, we're asking about one song from your childhood that inspired or changed you or taught you something about your parents. Today, we meet lyricist, composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I'm getting tested. Times are tough on this bodega. Two months ago, somebody bought Ortega's. Our neighborhood started packing up and picking up. And ever since, the rents went up. It's gotten mad expensive, but we live with just enough.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) In the heights, I flip the lights and start my day. There are fights and endless debts and bills to pay.

CORNISH: Miranda won a Tony Award for Best Score when he was just 28 years old for his Broadway musical "In the Heights." It was a vivacious portrait of the Dominican-American barrio of Washington Heights in New York City. And this summer, Miranda is back on Broadway. He wrote music and lyrics for "Bring It On: The Musical," which opened yesterday. For our series, though, he did not choose a show tune.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I picked "El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andres," which is a song by Ruben Blades off his album "Buscando America."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: My parents have a famously eclectic taste in music. You know, we danced to Ruben Blades, and we danced to "Gran Combo" at the parties my parents threw, and then we'd clean up to "Man of La Mancha" and "Camelot" and the show tunes. So, you know, I was digging in their crates often.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: And this is an incredibly danceable song as you can hear, but the subject matter is incredible.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Yes. Let's talk about that a little bit more because I have a little translation here of the song, and it's not very cheerful. It's about a priest, right? Tell us a little bit about it.

MIRANDA: It's not - the title is "Father Antonio and His Altar Boy Andres," and it's almost like a Garcia Marquez short story. It's about this priest who comes from Spain to preach in Latin America, and the altar boy, who's an altar boy, but he's sort of disinterested in religion. He just does it because it's one of the things you have to do when you're a kid. And they get murdered over the course of the song. It's really heavy, but you would never know that. And I probably danced to this song a thousand times before I ever actually listened to the lyrics.

The hook is (foreign language spoken) - those bells ring, one, two, three. And as you listen to the song, you realize it's church bells. It's mourning bells. And it's a really incredible - incredibly complex short story based around a very simple hook.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

CORNISH: It's interesting because you're known for being a storyteller. I mean, you, obviously, wrote and starred in the musical "In the Heights," but recently, you also wrote a hip-hop song cycle based on the life of Alexander Hamilton?

MIRANDA: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: The first U.S. treasury secretary, which I think is awesome, but it seems like it's the sense of story that appeals to you.

MIRANDA: Absolutely. We all love dancing to Latin music, but the fact that Ruben Blades sneaks this short story in - under this incredibly danceable hook, and then the last four minutes are just the most - it's just a killer piano solo. It's this killer section where they go into 12/8 time. I mean, the musicianship is incredible. But if you listen, you'd notice he's telling an incredible story in the mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: Oh, this is my favorite part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: So in the middle of his sermon...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: ...the killer came in...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: ...and without confessing his guilt...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: ...fired.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: Antonio fell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: And without knowing why, Andres, the altar boy, fell at his side without ever having met Pele.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: And between the screams and surprise, agonizing once again, there was Jesus Christ nailed to the wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

MIRANDA: They never knew who the criminal was. "El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andres"...

(LAUGHTER)

MIRANDA: ...I mean, this is heavy stuff.

CORNISH: This is heavy stuff.

MIRANDA: But when I finally lurched into realizing what the story was about and the way he throws it away...

(Singing in foreign language)

Christ stuck to the wall while all of this chaos is happening, it really moved me in a really fundamental way as a kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

CORNISH: When you hear this song today in the presence of your parents, what happens?

MIRANDA: We dance. We dance, but you know what happens that didn't happen when I was a kid is we sing along to every word of it. You know, it was - I'm really glad it was around in our house because it's really - it's a very personal song for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

CORNISH: Lin-Manuel Miranda, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MIRANDA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

CORNISH: Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer, lyricist, performer, talking about a Ruben Blades song introduced by his parents for our series Mom and Dad's Record Collection.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PADRE ANTONIO Y SU MONAGUILLO ANDRES")

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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