Comparing Notes: Kitt, Kander And Miranda Broadway composer and performer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created and starred in the Tony-winning musical In the Heights, sits down at the piano with John Kander, the legendary composer of Chicago, and Tom Kitt, composer and winner of this year's Tony for the musical Next to Normal.
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Comparing Notes: Kitt, Kander And Miranda

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Comparing Notes: Kitt, Kander And Miranda

Comparing Notes: Kitt, Kander And Miranda

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If you've ever been to Broadway, you'd know those musicals are polished works of art. Well, now let's step behind the curtain and learn how this music comes together. This is part of our Open Mic series, when someone we'd normally be interviewing puts together a radio piece. Today it's Broadway composer Lin- Manuel Miranda. He's the creator and the original star of the Tony Award- winning musical "In the Heights."


GREENE: Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) What good is sitting alone in your room...


GREENE: And Lin also spoke to Tom Kitt, who won this year's Tony for the musical "Next to Normal."


GREENE: (Singing) I am the one who knows you, I am the one who cares, I am the one...

GREENE: And before we get to the piece, we've brought Lin in to talk to us about it. Lin, thanks for being here.

LIN: Yeah, what up, NPR?

GREENE: There we go. So tell me how this idea came about.

MIRANDA: Well, I guess my brain went into dream dinner party mode. Who would you like to have over for dinner to talk about writing? And all I said to NPR was provide them mics and a nice piano and we'll provide the sparkling conversation.

GREENE: Okay. Well, let's give a listen here then to your conversation with Tom Kitt and John Kander.

MIRANDA: My first question will be to you, John. What was your piano training and how do you think that helped or didn't help your writing when you went into composing?

JOHN KANDER: Well, I've been playing the piano since I was four, and the keyboard became just like another way of speaking to me. So if I'm talking about a musical idea, sometimes my hands just start playing it as if I can't talk about it without my fingers doing something. So my fingers seem to have a life of their own. That sounds really goofy.

MIRANDA: I think you're in the one room where that doesn't sound goofy. Tom, are you the same way? What was your piano training?

TOM KITT: My training began at four. I started at four as well, classically trained, and then about 12 I started to merge my classical training with pop. And then after that I started to discover jazz and musical theater, and so it was really wonderful to have this classical background because I think that when you have that, you can really apply it to anything.

KANDER: Boy, would I ever agree with that.

MIRANDA: Okay, full disclosure, NPR audience: I'm the novice pianist of this group. I write on piano, but my music education is limited to about a year of piano lessons and music theory in ninth grade. Do you guys find that there are certain habits your hands go into? I find whenever I sit at a piano, I always play...


MIRANDA: When your hands are doodling, do you find there are habits you fall into pretty easily?

KANDER: Most of the time I just let them go. If I'm working on a song - say, that's for a particular character, and I've thought about the character a lot and the sort of rhythms that are in his character, that's in my brain. And then it's like you put your hands on the keyboard and they will always do something. Is that true for you, Tom?

KITT: Yeah, I think so. I find that sometimes I get into habits of the way I'm playing or just a certain place where my heads is and that's the reason why collaboration in this art form is so important and so wonderful, that with the lyricist, you know, certainly working with Brian Yorkey on "Next to Normal," that they can sometimes shake me out of habits.

KANDER: Collaboration is everything. When Fred and I worked, before we did anything we talked endlessly about the character of the moment, what we wanted the audience to feel. Sometimes if you have a phrase in your head, it may not be an entire lyric, but it's a phrase that that character is saying, and suddenly you can build a whole world out of that phrase.

KITT: Absolutely.

KANDER: The vamp to "New York, New York."


KANDER: So it comes out...


KANDER: (Singing) Start spreading the - (speaking) becomes the underpinning for a whole song.


KANDER: And...


KANDER: was the first very first thing we wrote for "Cabaret." It told me everything that I learned about the score from that.


MIRANDA: We're all privileged to be in the room to watch him play that vamp.

KITT: Well, I think the lesson - there are many lessons I've taken from John. John's music tells a story before anybody starts singing, and that, you know, I mean - and you take "All That Jazz" and you hear that opening vamp and you're in it.

MIRANDA: And you know exactly where you are.

KITT: You know - yeah, and then the song just continues to unfold and it's more and more pleasing as you discover, and I think what I try to do, like John said, is what does the story of the song? Like, for example, there's a song in "Next to Normal," "So Anyway." Brian sent me the lyric and the first thing I saw on the page was - I can't spoil, I can't spoil the show. Sorry.

MIRANDA: Play an instrumental so you don't give away.


KITT: And it's just simple, but in conjuring that I also felt like I had the history of musical theater, so many things I had studied where the music tells the story for a second before the lyric starts.

KANDER: How do you get started?

MIRANDA: How do I get started?

KANDER: I'm saying this Lin. How do you get started?

MIRANDA: What we're all describing is, you know, we're sort of actors in a way. We figure out the motivation, we figure out the beat, we figure out where this character is, and then we sit down and get to work. Sometimes there'll be a chord progression that I just - I really like. It hasn't worked for some song for some reason or another and I'll find another way to use it. For instance, there was a song in the original version of "In the Heights." The chord progression was...


MIRANDA: (Singing) I can't sit still at all tonight - (speaking) and I wanted it live in our score somewhere. So I made it sort of Vanessa's theme, and so in "It Won't Be Long Now" she's singing - (singing) the elevated train by my window doesn't phase me anymore.


MIRANDA: But because I don't play as well as you guys do, a melody has got to be pretty indestructible for it to make its way through the piano intact. And I've lost really nice songs that way in the translation from where they were in my head to the piano.

GREENE: We've been listening to Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who interviewed two fellow composers, Tom Kitt and John Kander. Lin, you said you were expecting this dream dinner date with these guys. And I guess I'm wondering - I mean, do you composers get together often for these kinds of chats to share trade secrets, or is this pretty rare?

MIRANDA: Actually, one of the unexpected gifts of getting a show on Broadway is you get to meet your heroes pretty quickly, and you find that it's such a hard endeavor. You work anywhere between three and seven years to get a show on Broadway that there's sort of a really shared mutual level of respect. So I've been able to have conversations like this with other composers and they're all by nature collaborators. So you learn a lot by talking to your heroes and by talking to your colleagues.


GREENE: Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was at our Open Mic today. And you can hear more of the discussion he brought us if you go to


GREENE: (Singing) Come on, babe, why don't we paint the town, and all that jazz, I want to bruise my knees and roll my stockings down, and all that jazz...

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