The Strange Origins of 17 Popular Songs

Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Central Press, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You’ve hummed along to them in the car, belted them out in the shower, performed them on karaoke night, and possibly even danced with your grandparents to one of them at your second cousin’s wedding. But do you really know the dark origins behind Van Halen’s “Jump” or the existential conversation that is Hanson’s “MMMbop”? The answers may not be as obvious—or innocent—as you might have thought. Here are the surprising origin stories behind 17 popular tunes.

1. “MMMBop” // Hanson

Yes, Hanson’s 1997 hit “MMMBop” contains such lyrics as “Mmm bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du.” And it was written and performed by a trio of young brothers ranging from 11 to 16 years old at the time. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t deep. “It’s the most misunderstood successful song of all time,” Zac Hanson told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “Even at the height of 1997, it’s a song nobody understood. [Ninety-nine] percent of the people who have any reference from it don’t understand it.” One month later, Zac gave an even more explicit answer about the meaning behind the song while appearing on the Kyle and Jackie O. Show, stating:

"'MMMbop' represents a frame of time: 'In an MMMbop they're gone' it says in the lyrics of the song. The whole song's about the fact that almost everything in your life will come and go very quickly. You've got to figure out what matters and you've got to grab onto those things."

So that’s what “ba duba dop ba du” means.

2. “The Way” // Fastball

Don’t let the catchy beat fool you: Listen to the lyrics of Fastball’s 1998 hit “The Way” and you might just notice that the tune is coming from a pretty dark place. While lines like “And it's always summer, they'll never get cold / They'll never get hungry / They'll never get old and gray” could be mistaken for describing a kind of utopia where one would want for nothing, the song in question is about the disappearance of Raymond and Lela Howard, an elderly Texas couple who headed out one night to attend a local fiddling festival and never came home.

The couple was found dead in their car two weeks later near Hot Springs, Arkansas, several hundred miles from their home. Police concluded that the Howards had gotten lost on their way to the event, became disoriented, and accidentally drove off the road. (Raymond had recently suffered a stroke and Lela had been exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease.) Suddenly "The Way" doesn’t sound as upbeat.

3. “Ticket to Ride” // The Beatles

There’s some contested history between John Lennon and Paul McCartney about what “Ticket to Ride” was referring to, even though the song’s lyrics were credited to both of them. In McCartney’s version, the ticket in question is just that: a British Railways ticket to Ryde, a seaside town on the northeastern coast of the Isle of Wight, where McCartney’s cousin owned a pub (he and Lennon once hitchhiked their way there). Lennon, however, had a different—and saucier—explanation.

According to journalist Don Short, who logged a lot of time traveling with the band back in the day: “The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking—you always had to be careful with John like that—but I certainly remember him telling me that.”

4. (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) // Beastie Boys

In 1986, the Beastie Boys gifted teens across American with a legendary party anthem in “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).” There was just one issue: The song was written specifically as a mockery of party anthems. “There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ who were oblivious to the fact that it was a total goof on them,” band member Michael “Mike D” Diamond said. “Irony is oft missed.”

5. “I Will Always Love You” // Dolly Parton

Thanks in large part to Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” in the hit 1992 movie The Bodyguard, the Dolly Parton tune became a battle cry for deeply in-love couples who for, whatever reason, could not be together. But Parton’s song wasn’t about a romance—failed or otherwise—at all.

In 1967, country music star program Porter Wagoner invited Parton, then an up-and-coming singer, to be a regular performer on his weekly TV show, The Porter Wagoner Show, as well as to join him on the road. Five years later, Parton was itching to move on from the show but Wagoner didn’t want to see that happen. Parton knew that she owed a huge debut to Wagoner and, as she explained to the Tennessean in 2015, wondered: “How am I gonna make him understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go? So I went home and I thought, ‘Well, what do you do best? You write songs.’ So I sat down and I wrote this song.”

6. “Mother and Child Reunion” // Paul Simon

Paul Simon had a major hit on his hands with the 1972 song “Mother and Child Reunion,” a reggae-infused meditation on death that came about from the loss of a family pet. “Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972. “It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss—one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was [my wife] Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it.”

Though lyrics like “I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day” made it clear that it wasn’t supposed to be a necessarily happy song, the strangest part of this tale is where the title came from: “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained. “There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’”

7. "Born in the U.S.A." // Bruce Springsteen

America experienced a renewed sense of patriotism in 1984, when Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."—the song and the album—dominated the music charts. The Boss's raspy repeat of the fact that he was "Born in the U.S.A." made the song seem like an American anthem for the 1980s. Except it was more of a protest song, questioning the country's involvement in the Vietnam War.

For his part, Springsteen called it "the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.'" In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Springsteen said: "But when you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve been back—surviving the war and coming back and not surviving—you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment when they were just really generous with their lives."

8. “Walk This Way” // Aerosmith

While putting together their iconic 1975 album Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith knew they wanted to play around with a song that would infuse elements of R&B and funk and get people up out of their chairs and dancing. Ultimately, that song would become “Walk This Way.” But the tune was one of those occasions where the music came before the lyrics.

“‘Walk This Way’ was this really cool riff and we got this whole thing together but had no idea what we were gonna do on top of it, vocal-wise, melody-wise,” guitarist Brad Whitford told Spin. “And then we watched Young Frankenstein … There was a part where the main character arrives at the train station in Transylvania and he’s met by this classic evil assistant, who takes his suitcase for him and hobbles down the steps and says ‘Walk this way,’ and to humor him he follows him down the steps the same way. So we told Steven [Tyler], you’ve got to call the song ‘Walk This Way.’ Steven was like, ‘You can’t tell me what to call the song, I haven’t even written the lyrics yet!’ But we told him he had to do it. So he did." Fair enough.

9. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” // Aerosmith

“Walk This Way” wasn’t the only time Aerosmith turned a joke into a song title. There was also “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” which came about from an experience Steven Tyler had at a bar: As he glanced around the room, he saw what appeared to be a young blonde woman with teased out hair. Upon further inspection, Tyler realized that the “woman” in question was actually Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe. Tyler later showed the tune, which he had renamed “Cruisin’ for the Ladies,” to songwriter Desmond Child.

“I listened to that lyric, and I said, ‘You know what, that’s a very boring title,’” Child recalled in 2016. “And they looked at me like, ‘How dare you?’ And then Steven volunteered, sheepishly, and said that when he first wrote the melody he was singing ‘Dude Looks like a Lady.’” But the band was concerned that using that as the title could be offensive to the LGBTQ community. “I’m gay, and I’m not insulted,” Child said. “Let’s write this song.” (For the record: Vince Neil did learn that the song was about him and, according to Desmond, “He had a good laugh.”)

10. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” // Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt's “I Can’t Make You Love Me (If You Don’t),” a melancholy ballad about unrequited love, was a major hit in 1991. But the song’s story and refrain came from an even more unfortunate (and violent) real-life love affair. The song was penned by popular Nashville songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, and the idea originated with Reid after he read an article about a man who got drunk and shot up his girlfriend’s car. While standing trial for the incident, the judge asked the man if he had learned any lessons, to which he replied: “I learned, Your Honor, that you can't make a woman love you if she don't.”

Raitt’s recording of the song went on to become one of her biggest hits: It landed the eighth spot on Mojo Magazine’s 2000 list of the greatest songs, came in 339th in Rolling Stone’s ranking of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.

11. "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" // Green Day

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, no graduation ceremony or going away party was complete without someone playing Green Day's 1997 hit "Good Riddance." Between the title, its upbeat tune, and the repeated "I hope you had the time of your life" lyric, it had all the makings of the perfect ditty for bidding farewell to a great couple of months, or years, of your life. In reality, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song as a bitter farewell to his girlfriend, who was leaving him and moving to Ecuador. "I wrote the song as a kind of bon voyage," he told Guitar Legends in 2005, where he admitted it took less than 10 minutes to write. "I was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out a little bit bitter anyway." Try telling that to the class of '97. Or '98. Or '99. Or ... you get the point.

12. “Rosanna” // Toto

In 1982, the same year actress Rosanna Arquette won an Emmy Award for her role in the TV movie The Executioner's Song, Toto released their hit song “Rosanna,” which was partly inspired by the actress (who was dating Steve Porcaro, the band’s keyboard player, at the time). In the years since, the band—and Arquette herself—have played down the idea that the song is about her … though it does seem a bit too coincidental.

Fun fact: While he has never confirmed it, rumors have long circulated that Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (the song that Lloyd Dobler blasts from his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything) was also written for Arquette, who was romantically involved with Gabriel for several years. (The fact that the opening line to Toto's tune is "All I want to do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes" only adds credence to the argument that both songs were written about Arquette.)

13. "Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby" // Counting Crows

Rosanna Arquette isn’t the only actress to have inspired a hit song… although in the case of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” there was no romantic relationship between the songwriter and his muse. In 1998, Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz reportedly developed a bit of a crush on actress Monica Potter after seeing her in Con Air and Patch Adams. Cut to: Approximately one week later, and the band is in the studio getting ready to record more of their upcoming album … including “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” Duritz’s ode to an actress whom he had never met. That’s when a friend called to let him know that she was having lunch with Potter’s agent at that very moment, and they all wanted to meet him (Potter included). Duritz obliged.

As Duritz later told the Broward Palm Beach New Times, Potter then asked him if it was true that he had written a song about her. “Well, no. I mean, not exactly,” he explained. “It’s a song about an imaginary version of you. The song is about what happens when you fall in love with people who don’t exist, like with a person on the movie screen.” When he informed Potter that he actually needed to leave to head back to the studio where he was recording the song, she asked to come along and listen. And it was Potter who, when Duritz decided the song was not ready for public consumption, convinced him that it was great and to keep it on their upcoming album.

14. “…Baby One More Time” // Britney Spears

You could be forgiven for thinking that the 1998 song that turned Britney Spears into a pop princess was called “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” as that was the original title—and is very clearly the song’s refrain. But Spears’ record label was (rightly) concerned that the title would make it sound like the song was about—or even worse, condoning—domestic abuse. The truth, it turns out, is far less controversial: The song was written by Swedish hitmakers Rami Yacoub and Max Martin, who thought the American slang term for “call me” was “hit me” versus “hit me up,” hence the more violent-sounding lyrics.

15. “Jump” // Van Halen

The lead single from Van Halen’s hit album 1984 might be best remembered for Eddie van Halen’s synthesizer solo and David Lee Roth hamming it up for the camera in the video, but the song’s key direction to “Go ahead and jump” takes on a more ominous connotation when you learn that the lyrics came to Roth after he watched a news broadcast about a suicidal man standing on the top of a building and threatening to jump. While the news report may have put the word “jump” in Roth’s head, the band’s song is decidedly more positive.

16. “One Way or Another” // Blondie

With its rock-heavy beat and powerfully delivered lyrics, Blondie’s “One Way or Another” sounds like an anthem for empowerment. But listen more closely and it’s clear that the title is more of a threat.

“I was actually stalked by a nut job, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event,” Debbie Harry told Entertainment Weekly in 2011 of the song’s genesis, which she wrote as a sort of revenge poem to the man who was harassing her. “But I tried to inject a little bit of levity into it to make it more lighthearted. I think in a way that’s a normal kind of survival mechanism. You know, just shake it off, say one way or another, and get on with your life. Everyone can relate to that and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

17. “Sunny Came Home” // Shawn Colvin

“Sunny Came Home” was a hit song off Shawn Colvin’s 1996 concept album A Few Small Repairs that went on to win Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Yet it was also a song that was inspired by the cover art used for A Few Small Repairs. How did that chronology work, exactly?

“The inspiration behind that story came from the painting that I chose to be on the cover of the record,” Colvin explained in 2017. “I just liked Julie Speed’s work and I really wanted something different rather than a photo. In the 11th hour, ‘Sunny Came Home’ was really barely there—in fact I think I had it as ‘Jimmy Came Home’ at one point before I’d written the lyric to ‘The Facts About Jimmy.’ I looked at this cover and I thought, you need to write a story about this woman on the cover who’s got a lit match and a big fire in the background.” And with that, a Grammy Award-winning song was born.

14 Amazing Facts About Lin-Manuel Miranda

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Do you follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter? If not, you should. The Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Hamilton tweets prolifically—and delightfully—about his life and his work, dropping in inspirational messages along the way.

Twitter isn't the only place you can get a dose of Miranda these days: In addition to making the rounds at awards shows for his work as an executive producer on Fosse/Verdon (where he also made a memorable cameo as Roy Scheider), Miranda had a major role as Lee Scoresby in HBO's adaptation of His Dark Materials and had some fun playing a soldier in Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.

This summer, Miranda will produce and star in the big-screen adaptation of his play In the Heights and is preparing to make his directorial debut with an adaptation of Jonathan Larson's musical tick, tick… BOOM. In celebration of Miranda's 40th birthday (Miranda was born in New York on January 16, 1980), here are some fun—and surprising—facts about the creative Renaissance man.

1. As a kid, Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t make it all the way through Mary Poppins.

A photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda at an event for Mary Poppins Returns.
Gareth Cattermole, Getty Images for Disney

In 2018, Lin-Manuel Miranda starred alongside Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns—but he didn't see the original movie all the way through until he was an adult. Miranda recalled to Vanity Fair how, as a kid, certain songs would make him “burst into tears.” Those songs included Stevie Wonder's “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and a track from Mary Poppins.

“I couldn’t get through ‘Feed the Birds,’” he told Vanity Fair. “I was very sensitive to minor-key music, and that song was so sad that I don’t think I saw the ending of Mary Poppins until I was grown, because I would just cry. I loved ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’ I loved Dick Van Dyke. I loved the whole movie but then that one song was so sad I kind of never survived it.”

2. Lin-manuel Miranda's talent for the dramatic was clear from an early age.

Miranda’s father, Luis, wanted his son to be a lawyer—but according to Playbill, it was clear after a young Lin-Manuel filmed an “infamous” video book report about Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War in the third grade that he was destined for the stage, not the courtroom. Miranda posted the video to YouTube noting, “I got an A.” (You can enjoy it for yourself above.)

3. Lin-Manuel Miranda faked an injury to get out of summer camp.

Miranda—who was born and raised in New York City—did not enjoy his trips to summer camp. “Sending me to a place without electricity was a very bad idea,” he told Jimmy Kimmel.

Miranda wrote his parents letters from camp describing his malaise, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display: “Dear Mom and Dad, Please come and take me back to New York, away from this hellhole,” he wrote in one letter. In another—in which he called himself “the kid you ditched in the woods for a month”—he drew “a picture to remind you of me”: an image of himself jumping off a building. Miranda recounted to Kimmel that he finally escaped from summer camp by faking a spinal cord injury—and had to keep up the act all summer long.

4. Lin-Manuel Miranda was profoundly influenced by Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s work.

In a 2004 essay application for the Jonathan Larson Grant, Miranda wrote that seeing Larson's rock musical Rent on his 16th birthday “simply changed everything … Never had I seen a show that spoke to me so directly, that used fresh, new music as a way of addressing contemporary concerns in an honest way. By writing about his friends with the problems and anxieties he faced, Jonathan Larson gave me permission to write about my life, hopes, and fears.” The show inspired Miranda to write his first musical (more on that in a minute), which was then performed at his high school. After that, he never stopped writing.

It wasn’t the last time Larson’s work would inspire Miranda. After graduating from Connecticut's Wesleyan University, Miranda saw Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM!—the story of an aspiring musical theater composer struggling to make it—which, Miranda wrote, “spoke to me and strengthened my resolve.”

He was workshopping what would become his first Broadway show, In the Heights, when he wrote that essay; though he ultimately didn’t get the grant, Miranda tweeted that “it turned out okay anyway. Don’t give up. Don’t you dare.”

Miranda is currently in pre-production on a movie adaptation of tick, tick… BOOM! The film will mark his feature directorial debut.

5. The first musical Lin-Manuel Miranda ever wrote was about … a dissected fetal pig.

Writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda attends the curtain call for the opening night of 'In The Heights' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre March 9, 2008 in New York City
Steven Henry, Getty Images

According to Miranda, the show “involved a dissected fetal pig rising up for revenge.” It was directed by Chris Hayes—yes, MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who was then a senior in high school—and ran about 20 minutes. “I can still hum the tunes of that show,” Hayes said in 2017.

6. Before he was a Broadway star, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a substitute teacher.

After college, Miranda “taught 7th grade English for a year,” he tweeted in 2016. “[T]hen I was a professional substitute teacher UNTIL I got Heights on Broadway.” He was subbing at his old high school, Hunter College High School, for a while, he told Playbill, when he was asked to “stay on to continue to teach part-time.” At that point, one of the future producers of In the Heights had also reached out to Miranda because he was interested in his writing.

Unsure of what to do, Miranda asked his father: “Should I keep teaching or should I just kind of sub and do gigs to pay the rent and really throw myself into writing full time?”

Luis wrote his son “a very thoughtful letter, in which [he] said, 'I really want to tell you to keep the job—that's the smart 'parent thing' to do—but when I was 17, I was a manager at the Sears in Puerto Rico, and I basically threw it all away to go to New York, [and] I didn't speak a lot of English. It made no sense, but it was what I needed to do ... It makes no sense to leave your job to be a writer, but I have to tell you to do it. You have to pursue that if you want.’ That was very opposite advice from, ‘Be a lawyer,’ and I'm glad I took it.”

7. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote music for local politicians.

Luis is a political consultant, and while his son was working on getting In the Heights to Broadway, he used his connections to get Lin-Manuel gigs writing music for ads for many of New York's leading politicians, including former governor Eliot Spitzer. “He’d say, ‘I have a Sharpton radio ad—I need 60 seconds of smooth jazz,'" Miranda told The New York Times in 2012.

According to Miranda, the music he composed was “generally accompanied by footage of the candidates shaking hands, doing very task-oriented things,” so the music needed to be “generally hopeful.” Music accompanying an attack ad, on the other hand, would have “sad strings” before transitioning to something more upbeat. “It’s a little like movie scoring,” Miranda told the Times. “If you’ve got a scary scene, you’ve got to write music for the scary scene.”

8. The version of In the Heights that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in college is drastically different from what ended up on Broadway.

Writer/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda attends the after party for the opening night of 'In The Heights' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre March 9, 2008 in New York City
Steven Henry, Getty Images

Miranda began writing In the Heights as a sophomore at Wesleyan. The college version, he told The Guardian, “was really just a love story set in” New York City's Washington Heights neighborhood. But when he came back home after college and saw the changes happening in the neighborhood, that began to change, and the show became, “In a sense ... a time capsule of a Washington Heights that's not going to exist in 10, 15 years,” he said. “All I know is I wanted to write a little show that captures what it was like, as I remember it. And so that will exist. My little memory of the neighborhood, through the show.”

In the Heights—which Miranda also starred in for a time—ran on Broadway from 2008 to 2011; it was while Miranda was on vacation between the show’s off-Broadway and Broadway runs that he read the biography by Ron Chernow that would lead him to Hamilton.

9. Lin-Manuel Miranda was really nervous when Hamilton author Ron Chernow came to see In the Heights.

Christopher Jackson, who played Benny in In the Heights and George Washington in Hamilton, recalled to Rolling Stone how Miranda told him about the idea for his next musical just a few days after he got back from vacation: “When Ron Chernow came to see Heights, I had never seen Lin that nervous,” Jackson told Rolling Stone. “He said, ‘Ron Chernow’s here!’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And he said, ‘The show needs to go well today.'”

10. Lin-Manuel Miranda's favorite Hamilton verse is in “WE Know.”

The moment occurs when Hamilton is accused of embezzlement. “I decided that when Hamilton is backed into a corner, he gets super internal rhymey,” Miranda told Katie Couric. As he’s telling Jefferson, Madison, and Burr about the Reynolds Affair, Hamilton raps:

She courted me
Escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner
That’s when Reynolds extorted me
For a sordid fee
I paid him quarterly
I may have mortally wounded my prospects
But my papers are orderly
As you can see I kept a record of every check in my checkered history
Check it again against your list n’ see consistency
I never spent a cent that wasn’t mine
You sent the dogs after my scent, that’s fine.

“Those are enormous fun to put together,” Miranda said. “When Hamilton’s mad, it’s, like, Super Eminem, I’m going to destroy you with my mind.”

11. Lin-Manuel Miranda identifies with The Little Mermaid’s Sebastian.

“As a child, the [character in The Little Mermaid] I related to the most was Sebastian the crab, and I think as an adult he’s still the one I relate to the most,” Miranda said in WIRED’s autocomplete interview. “He just wanted someone to sing in his concert, poor guy. He’s a frustrated musician! I relate.”

12. Lin-Manuel Miranda compares himself to other people, just like the rest of us.

Miranda has packed a lot into his 40 years. To name just a few of his accomplishments: He has created Hamilton and In the Heights, co-written the music and lyrics for Bring It On: The Musical, penned a mini-musical called 21 Chump Street for This American Life, and translated the lyrics of West Side Story into Spanish for a 2009 Broadway revival. He has also appeared in The Sopranos, Modern Family, the revival of The Electric Company, and Sesame Street, among other shows.

While starring in Hamilton, Miranda wrote songs for Disney’s Moana (with Opetaia Tavita Foa‘i and Mark Mancina) and composed music for a scene in J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He co-wrote Hamilton: The Revolution, wrote a book with illustrator Jonny Sun, and somehow finds time to do monthly "Hamildrops" of remixes and new music inspired by the show.

But despite all Miranda has done, that doesn’t stop him from comparing himself to other people, just like the rest of us.

“I’ve seen people my age and younger shoot to success, and I measure myself against people by age,” Miranda told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Paul McCartney had already ended the Beatles and was midway through Wings when he was my age! Like, the entire Beatles, and he was not 30 yet. There’s always someone to measure yourself against when you’re like, ‘F***, what am I doing with my life?’”

13. Lin-Manuel Miranda keeps a high school math trophy next to one of his Grammys.

Composer, actor Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrates GRAMMY award on stage during 'Hamilton' GRAMMY performance for The 58th GRAMMY Awards at Richard Rodgers Theater on February 15, 2016 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images

In his career, Miranda has been nominated for an Oscar, won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant, and taken home three Tony Awards, two Laurence Olivier Awards, four Drama Desk awards, three Grammys, and an Emmy (among other awards). But, as he told Variety in 2016, he’s “just as proud” of a trophy he won for math in the 11th grade, “Because I got straight C’s in math all through high school.” The award, he said, “is on my shelf next to my Grammy.”

14. Lin-Manuel Miranda works hard to stay grounded.

Despite all that he has accomplished, Miranda doesn’t intend to get a big head. “I think the trap is in getting caught up in the importance of those titles and letting that make you think you’re important. I try very hard to fight against that,” he told Variety. “I have friends who are very happy to remind me that I’m myself,” adding that most of his friends “roast” him whenever they see him: “That’s why they’re my friends.”

12 Enchanting Facts About The Last Unicorn

Mia Farrow and Alan Arkin in The Last Unicorn (1982).
Mia Farrow and Alan Arkin in The Last Unicorn (1982).
Lions Gate Entertainment

It’s been nearly 40 years since The Last Unicorn (1982) reared its magnificent, horn-adorned head in theaters across America. For adults, the animated Rankin/Bass production was a highly innovative, surprisingly introspective film with all the trappings of a quality fantasy, from its magical, motley, quest-bound crew to every winding staircase in its towering castle. For those who watched the film as a kid, on the other hand, The Last Unicorn was a 90-minute nightmare complete with a screeching, three-breasted harpy; a fiery, diabolical bull; and music sung by your chillest uncle’s favorite band.

Rediscover the enchanted world of the cult classic with the following facts—and keep a wary eye out for beasts, brutes, and Mommy Fortuna.

1. The Last Unicorn was based on a book by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the screenplay.

peter s. beagle signs the last unicorn

Peter S. Beagle autographs a copy of The Last Unicorn at Phoenix Comic Con in 2012.

Peter S. Beagle published his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn in 1968, and also insisted on writing the screenplay when it was optioned for film. That resolution coming from another novelist might’ve made film executives a little apprehensive, but it wasn’t Beagle’s first time at the screenwriting rodeo: he had also written the screenplay for Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

“I had the horrors about who else might do it,” Beagle said in an interview. “I never felt I had a choice, whether I particularly wanted to do the screenplay or not.”

2. The Last Unicorn was originally intended for an adult audience.

It’s not just the frightful red bull and permeative sense of terror that make The Last Unicorn seem like a questionable film to show young, impressionable children—there’s also a rather scarring scene in which a lascivious old tree holds Schmendrick captive with her ample bosom. (Not to mention that most of the music was performed by the legendary ’70s folk rock band, America—not quite a kindergarten favorite.)

The overall adult tone is much less odd when you consider that it was, at least initially, intended for adults. Early press referred to the film as an “adult musical fantasy-adventure” and also mentioned that Rankin/Bass had deliberately cast actors who would pique adult interest.

3. The creators of the Peanuts TV specials wanted to make the film.

Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez, the producers behind A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and many other Peanuts TV specials, were very interested in adapting the novel for film, though nothing ever came of it. By Beagle’s own account, one of their partners’ wives pulled him aside at a gathering and earnestly cautioned him against entrusting the project to them.

“Don’t let us do it. We’re not good enough,” Beagle recalled her warning him.

4. Nobody turned down the opportunity to be cast in The Last Unicorn.

The project eventually went to Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. of Rankin/Bass Productions, the company best-known for its stop-motion animation projects like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. As a testament to both the popularity of the novel and the quality of the screenplay, Rankin and Bass weren’t forced to settle for their second choices for any of the voice actors.

“We decided to get the best people we could get,” Bass said in an interview. “And one thing that’s interesting about it, and this is unique, is that every single person whom we approached to do it said yes immediately.”

Those “best people” included Hollywood heavyweights and musical theater legends alike: Mia Farrow as the titular character, Alan Arkin as Schmendrick the magician, Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir, Christopher Lee as King Haggard, Angela Lansbury as Mommy Fortuna, Tammy Grimes as Molly Grue, and more.

5. Jeff Bridges personally asked for a role—and even said he’d work for free.

After hearing that René Auberjonois, his friend and fellow actor from 1976’s King Kong, had been cast as a cackling skeleton in The Last Unicorn, Jeff Bridges called Bass and asked if he could be involved, too. When Bass told him they had yet to cast Prince Lír, Bridges volunteered to lend his time and talents either for free or for whatever Auberjonois was making. Bass hired him on the spot.

6. Prince Lír has a happier ending in the book version of The Last Unicorn.

Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow in The Last Unicorn (1982)
Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow in The Last Unicorn (1982).

Lions Gate Entertainment

In the film, Prince Lír leaves the kingdom to forge a new life for himself after losing just about everything: his adoptive father has died, the castle he should’ve inherited has crumbled into the sea, and his beloved Amalthea has transformed back into a unicorn. In the original novel, however, Lír remains to rebuild the kingdom, and he even gets a second chance at love: When Schmendrick and Molly happen upon a troubled princess (fully human, this time) during their journey, they send her Lír’s way.

7. The Last Unicorn was animated by the studio that would later become Studio Ghibli.

Though the original storyboards for The Last Unicorn were created in the U.S., Rankin/Bass outsourced the film’s actual animation to the experts at Topcraft, a Japanese animation studio with whom they had already collaborated on The Hobbit and many other productions throughout the 1970s. When Topcraft folded a few years later, the company was bought by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki, who rebuilt it as Studio Ghibli and went on to release some of the most celebrated animated features of all time, including 2001’s Spirited Away and 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle.

8. Peter Beagle wasn’t thrilled with Alan Arkin’s performance.

Overall, Beagle has expressed satisfaction with how the movie turned out, commending the animators’ “lovely design work” and calling the voice actors “superb.” One actor, however, did fall short of Beagle’s expectations: Alan Arkin, who voices the affable yet blundering magician, Schmendrick.

“I’m still a little disappointed with Alan Arkin’s approach,” Beagle said in an interview. “His Schmendrick still seems too flat for me.”

(The word schmendrick, by the way, is Yiddish for “a foolish, bumbling, or incompetent person.”)

9. Christopher Lee also played King Haggard in the German version of The Last Unicorn.

Christopher Lee was a fierce supporter of both the film and novel, and considered King Haggard a tragic, rich character similar to Shakespeare’s King Lear. Such was his enthusiasm for the project that he even signed on to reprise his role for the German dubbing of the film (he was fluent in German). According to Beagle, Lee said he “simply couldn’t resist a chance to play King Haggard one more time, even in another language.”

10. German audiences love to hear America perform “The Last Unicorn.”

Evidently, it wasn’t just Christopher Lee’s acting chops that helped establish a German fan base for the The Last Unicorn—it was also the music, composed by Jimmy Webb and recorded by America. Bandmember Dewey Bunnell said in an interview that they often play the title track while touring there, since German audiences love to hear it.

11. Art Garfunkel and Kenny Loggins have both covered songs from The Last Unicorn soundtrack.

A couple of America’s contemporaries have given their own folk rock treatment to songs from The Last Unicorn soundtrack: “That’s All I’ve Got to Say” is the final track on Art Garfunkel’s album Scissors Cut, and Kenny Loggins sang “The Last Unicorn” for Return to Pooh Corner in 1994.

12. Fergie wanted to adapt The Last Unicorn for Broadway.

In 2015, Playbill announced that the Black Eyed Peas’s Fergie, a childhood fanatic of the film, was planning to bring The Last Unicorn to Broadway with the help of then-husband Josh Duhamel. There hasn’t been any news of it since, and, considering Fergie split with Duhamel in 2017, it’s probably safe to say that the project is on hold.

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