A report by Joe Coscarelli for the New York Times.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, the “Hamilton” mastermind, was on a family vacation in Austria when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the island where his parents were born and where he spent countless summers growing up.
Immediately, he wondered, “What can I do with my skill set to help?” Then he started singing in the bathroom.
Two weeks later, what began thousands of miles away as a raw, a cappella demo in commemoration of his spiritual homeland has become “Almost Like Praying,” an upbeat charity single featuring an all-star lineup of Latin artists from across genres and generations, including Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan, Fat Joe, Luis Fonsi, Rubén Blades, Camila Cabello, John Leguizamo, Rita Moreno and Marc Anthony.
The track was released late Thursday across digital music retailes and streaming services, with all proceeds benefiting hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico, where at least 34 people have died and millions are still without electricity, food and clean water.
Rather than creating a mournful number, Mr. Miranda said in an interview, he hoped to capture “the spirit of the island.” As a result, the bilingual “Almost Like Praying,” which takes its title and chorus from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s “Maria,” from “West Side Story,” is bursting with energy.
In addition to referencing the storm’s name — “How can we flip a section of that song to make something positive out of it?” Mr. Miranda thought — the song’s lyrics consist of various artists naming the 78 towns and municipalities in Puerto Rico. Mr. Miranda said those complex verses were inspired by the outpouring of geographic call-outs on social media from those hoping to locate friends and family on the island during the days of “terrible silence” after the storm.
“I was very wary of writing a song that felt like homework,” Mr. Miranda said over the phone on Wednesday from the “Sesame Street” offices in New York, where he was recording another number for disaster relief. “I wanted to write a danceable tune that is just everywhere, and by being everywhere, is doing good.”
On his lively Twitter feed, Mr. Miranda has rallied others to do the same, helping to raise nearly $3 million (before the song’s release) in collaboration with MoveOn.org and the Hispanic Federation, where his father, Luis Miranda Jr., was the founding president.
While working on “Almost Like Praying,” the musician also jumped into the political fray, going after President Trump after Mr. Trump tweeted on Saturday morning that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them” in the recovery effort. Mr. Miranda countered, “You’re going straight to hell.”
“That’s not how I talk,” Mr. Miranda reflected this week. “This is not an everyday occurrence. Then again, I’ve never seen a sitting president attack the victims of a natural disaster.” He added, “I’m not that guy. But it was the only thing I could think to say in the face of an attack on a people already besieged.”
He was far more comfortable focusing on music. After sending his rough draft to the producer Trooko and cutting his vacation short to return to New York, Mr. Miranda “exhausted the Rolodex,” gathering artists to contribute.
“Everyone said yes, sight unseen,” he said, though some notable Latin musicians — Pitbull, Daddy Yankee, Ricky Martin — were too busy with their own relief efforts. (Also featured on the song: Pedro Capo, Dessa, Juan Luis Guerra, Alex Lacamoire, Ednita Nazario, Joell Ortiz, Anthony Ramos, Gina Rodriguez, Gilberto Santa Rosa, PJ Sin Suela, Tommy Torres and Ana Villafañe.)
Over the last week, Mr. Miranda traveled to Miami and Los Angeles to oversee recording sessions. Additional vocals were sent from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. On Tuesday night, Mr. Miranda was working until nearly 5 a.m. finishing the final mix.
“We have this song where every town is mentioned,” he said. “I don’t want anyone in Puerto Rico to ever feel forgotten again.”
Mr. Miranda was too busy completing the track to engage with Mr. Trump’s visit to the island on Tuesday. “If he’s announcing that he’s going to do an unprecedented push for aid, great,” he said. “Short of that I don’t need to watch. I know what he looks like in a windbreaker.”
Overall, he added, “I’m in this weird paradox where I have never felt more hope and belief in my fellow citizens, and that’s amazing. I wish the governmental response was commensurate with that.”
Mr. Miranda also acknowledged the wide swath of humanity in need of support at the moment. He praised the everyday people “breaking the piggy bank” to donate, as well as his fellow musicians and celebrities for stoking awareness. On Wednesday, Chance the Rapper live-streamed a concert online as a fund-raising event for victims of Maria, while Beyoncé released a Spanish-language remix of J Balvin’s “Mi Gente” for hurricane and earthquake relief.
“You can’t make yourself responsible for every bad thing happening in the world,” he said. “But the ones that do hit you — if it’s the Virgin Islands, Mexico, the families in Las Vegas — let that manifest action.”