Anatomy of a Hit: How Lin-Manuel Miranda Crafted the Blockbuster Benefit Song 'Almost Like Praying'

Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic
Lin-Manuel Miranda attends Tidal X: Brooklyn at Barclays Center on Oct. 17, 2017 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Inspiration struck Lin-Manuel Miranda on Sept. 21, the day after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. The Hamilton creator quickly recorded a demo on his computer and announced that a benefit track for the Hispanic Federation would be released in 10 days. The result: “Almost Like Praying,” featuring 22 acts including Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Digital Song Sales chart. Its key players reflect on the tune’s fast track to the top.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

“Maria” is the name of my favorite song from West Side Story. How could I flip that negative connotation into something [positive]? I thought I could work all 78 towns in Puerto Rico into the lyrics of this song and if we did our job right, these towns will never be forgotten again. What I’m so proud of is everybody on [the track] cares so much for Puerto Rico and they all said yes. You have Pedro Capo and Luis Fonsi sitting on the same track as Tommy Torres and Dessa, who I don’t know that a lot of people even know is Latin. What I always try to do in my work is make sure everybody has a way in. And I think everybody has a way in on this track. 

Riggs Morales, VP of A&R & Artist Development, Atlantic Records

My first reaction was, “Horse blinders; put 'em on, time to work." Especially since Lin unexpectedly set a [release] date for the song. The situation was so drastic and urgent in Puerto Rico that there was no time to question whether we would make it work in time. We had to make it work.

We sent the idea to Trooko, who also produced “Immigrants” off the Hamilton mixtape to fully flesh out. Once the beat was solidified Lin connected with Alex Lacamoire and nailed the arrangment. Next step was who went where, and who sang what. Lin stopped his already crazy schedule to attend and direct the sessions in NY, Miami and Los Angeles. 

Jeffrey “Trooko” Penalva, producer

I mainly attended the Los Angeles sessions. Lin went to Miami and I later met him in New York for the mixing all while still finishing the song. The biggest challenge was time and managing all 22 different voices and finding space for everyone with the limited time. I kept getting stems and vocal parts from different studios all while building the track. 

[At the very end] Lin was taking a nap and so was Riggs. I ran back to my computer and did this last addition of a coquí [the small frog that is native to Puerto Rico and has a unique call] and  gave it to Blue [the mixer]. He played the entire mix and Lin woke up, jumped out of the couch, looked at me and shouted, "You did not just put a coqui!" I said "Can’t have a Puerto Rico anthem without a coqui!" 

Ednita Nazario

"Lin-Manuel texted and said he wanted to do a song for Puerto Rico for the Hispanic Federation. I said yes immediately. I didn’t know what kind of a song it was, but coming from Lin-Manuel it was a guarantee for me that it was going to be great. Then he sent me a letter explaining the logistics. He said we had very little time and then he sent me the demo. I thought it was very clever, very unique to mention the 78 towns. A song is a song is a song and we all identify when the heart is in it. But what a beautiful idea to mention each town individually. I recorded the same day Tommy Torres did. It was one of the first days we got to see each other after the hurricane. We had just finished Irma, we were without power in Miami and we were shaken. When we recorded, some of us hadn’t even contacted our families in Puerto. I think it was the first step towards a healing process."

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of Billboard.