Speaking with PEOPLE at the L'ATTITUDE conference in San Diego — where he co-hosted a fireside chat with Amex Group President Anna Marrs to discuss the power of partnerships and community to help Latinx small business owners thrive and grow — the Hamilton creator shares what it has been like collaborating with Disney on the upcoming remake starring Halle Bailey.
"It's a great joy and privilege to be a part of it," he says of working with the company. "Disney knows that when they have a movie that is set in a certain part of the world, the eyes of the world are on them, and they take that responsibility really seriously."
While Moana and Encanto were historic in their own right, he says that working on The Little Mermaid is extra special as the film holds special significance for him as a creator.
"The Little Mermaid was the movie that made me fall in love with musicals," he says. "I still think about that moment when those opening notes of 'Under the Sea' started and the feeling of the hair going up on the back of my neck and not believing that I was seeing a musical number happening underwater. Every time I try to write for Disney, I'm trying to get that feeling again."
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In all of his work, Miranda notes that his main goal is "to tell the story as honestly as possible." "With Encanto, our goal was how complexly can we put an intergenerational Latino family on screen? How can we write really honestly, about the way we see ourselves, versus the role in which our family puts us? Sometimes, that is your life's work and finding who you are in the midst of all that," he explains.
"Then that also became the [film's] strength because the variety of characters meant that everyone had someone on screen that they could point at and go, 'That's me. That's your aunt. That's your brother.' It's really gratifying when the challenges actually become what makes the thing special because you worked so hard to meet them."
Miranda notes that one of the reasons he started writing musicals in the first place was because he wanted to offer more representation for Hispanic and Latinx communities. "I found myself in high school by doing the school musical every year," he says. "And there's a moment at which you look at the landscape and go, 'I don't dance well enough to be a Shark [from West Side Story].' And if you're a Latino dude, it's that or Paul in A Chorus Line. So In the Heights in a lot of ways began because I was trying to create the roles I wasn't seeing."
Roy Rochlin/WireImage Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Ramos
"That does have symmetry with the way in which Amex supports local business owners," he adds of his longtime partnership with Amex. "Local business owners ask themselves the same question: what doesn't exist in the world but should? In the Heights is about Latino business owners. It's about how we own our own businesses and we have this community forged as a result of the people you see every day that makes it special."
Miranda became a small business owner himself when he helped rescue The Drama Book Shop in N.Y.C. in 2019. "Community is theater and in my new role as a small business owner it only intensified that theater lesson for me," he says.
"I didn't know this going in, but the Drama Book Shop's fortunes are really tied to the health of the theater community in our neighborhood," he continues. "If you were going to see a show, chances are you'll stop at the Drama Book Shop. On weeks when theater is doing well, we do well. And when we go through bad times, like during the Omicron variant last December, we had a very rough December because theater had a very rough December. So we really are inextricably tied to that sense of collaboration and community that theater provides."
In addition to being a small business owner, Miranda is still busy creating. Along with writing new music for The Little Mermaid, Miranda recently produced the adaptation of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
In all of the projects he takes on, Miranda notes that he is always looking to stretch himself in new ways. "I always try to pick things that I can learn from and things that scare me a little," he says. "If you already know how to write it, there's not much point in doing it. You've already done it in your head. If you don't quite know, but think you can crack it, that's usually worth scratching at."
After making his feature film directorial debut with Netflix's biographical musical Tick, Tick... Boom!, Miranda adds that he would love to direct another movie, but ultimately, the stage is where his heart is.
"I know that there are stories I want to tell and the stage is the place to tell them," he adds, noting he felt especially inspired to create following the death of Stephen Sondheim in November 2021.
"Like everyone who loves theater, I've very keenly felt the loss of Stephen Sondheim. He was our encourager in chief. He was sort of in a class of his own. I look at his work and think, 'My, gosh. What a staggering amount of incredible work he gave us.' His loss makes me want to get back to my piano."