Have you ever had something so incredible happen you don't even know where to begin to tell the story? That was my day last Sunday when I attended the press junket for Disney's Animations 56th feature Moana. I've interviewed so many celebrities in my lifetime that I really don't get awestruck or tongue-tied. In fact, I pride myself on my ability to be able to see a celebrity and just be like, “Eh, it's The Rock. So what if he's the Sexiest Man Alive?” Or sit next to Chris Hemsworth for 20 minutes and not be rattled. But you give me the opportunity to have an exclusive interview with someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda, and my heart literally stops beating. My inner Broadway-loving fan girl melts. It was as if I couldn't breathe being in the room where it happened. In fact, I waited until nearly the end of the interview to ask my question because I honestly couldn't get the words out; I simply couldn't form them…and suddenly I’m Helpless! Oh, look at those eyes. Oh! Yeah, I’m Helpless, I know. In my head, I was totally singing the song from “Hamilton.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the musical geniuses behind the soundtrack of the new hit movie Moana. In case you live under a rock, Miranda is also known for his Broadway hits “Hamilton: An American Musical” and “In the Heights,” among other things. He worked with Mark Mancina (Disney musician legend) and Opetaia Foa'i (Polynesian musician of the band Te Vaka) on the soundtrack, which features a hip-hop-Polynesian fusion sound. In my opinion, it's going to be bigger than Frozen. Just you wait.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is nothing if not animated. He's energetic and lively. His energy filled the room the moment he walked in. He joked that we looked like a “really nice version of that scene from The Godfather.” His story telling is so vibrant and visual. I could have listened to him talk about his experiences working on Moana for hours.
For those of us who are HUGE Lin-Manuel Miranda fans and Hamilton fans, we knew that the Hamilton development timeframe crossed paths with the Moana development timeframe, so we asked about that. What was it like working on those simultaneously and how do you approach two completely different genres concurrently?
This is the weird day that changed my life. I woke up one Wednesday—and my wife's a lawyer—she was off to get on a plane to go to a business meeting somewhere else, and she said, ‘I think you might be a father. I have to go to the airport.' It was like 6 in the morning, and I was like, ‘That’s great—WHAT?' I called her at noon once her flight landed, to confirm that I hadn’t dreamt the thing she told me, and then I got the offer, ‘cause I interviewed for the job.
I got the Moana offer that afternoon. Then that offer came with a plane ticket to New Zealand, where the rest of the creative team was already doing music research at this specific music conference in New Zealand. So I went, too, you know, I didn’t see my wife, and then I got on a plane to New Zealand, and I'm sitting with this secret that we're 5 weeks pregnant. So it was one of those really, like, insane, life-changing weeks. So that was 2 years and 7 months ago. I can remember it because my son turned 2 last week.
And so he’s been the marker of time for me. And I’ve been writing. And then, you know, it was a great oasis, during the writing of ‘Hamilton‘ because anytime I was sick of the founders, I'd go sail across the sea over to Maui and Moana. And then we just built it into the, my crazy schedule. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I didn’t do any press, I didn’t do any meetings, I just wrote all day, ‘cause I meet via Skype with the creative team, at 5 p.m.
Then I would have my 7 o’clock curtain. I did a lot of writing in the theater. A lot of the early demos are Pippa Soo and Chris Jackson singing, Maui and Moana, ‘cause they were my in-house band. I have a ton of Pippa demos, and sort of calling on my friends, like, I think you’ll hear on the deluxe edition [of the Moana Soundtrack] when it comes out, you’ll hear Marcy Harriell singing a cut Moana song that was called ‘More.' Marcy was my Vanessa in ‘In The Heights‘ for many years. So it was sort of all hands on deck to help me demonstrate these songs.
I think I turned in my first demo, and I would just sing into my headphones. And like, the next day, a representative from Disney sent me a better microphone. They’re like, this cannot stand. It was that was the process, but it was happening concurrently. And then weirdly, my work finished just about the time my run ended. So I was having Tuesday and Thursday meetings all the way up to my last show.
On his favorite song, and his accent & style, and going method
Well isn’t that crazy, first of all? I feel like style is like accent. You don’t hear it on yourself, and then everyone's like, ‘Man, you got a strong accent.' That’s just a very funny quirk. I think there’s a couple of songs. I'm really proud of ‘How Far I'll Go.' I literally locked myself up in my childhood bedroom at my parents' house to write those lyrics. I wanted to get to my angstiest possible place.
So I went method on that. And really, because it's a challenging song. It's not ‘I hate it here, I want to be out there.' It's not ‘there must be more than this provincial life.' She loves her island, she loves her parents, she loves her people. And there’s still this voice inside. And I think finding that notion of listening to that little voice inside you, and that being who you are. Once I wrote that lyric, it first appears when Gramma Tala tells it to her in the opening number.
It then had huge story repercussions, the screenwriters took that ball and ran with it, and that was exciting to see, the sort of give and take between the songs, and the story at large. But that was a real key to unlocking her. Really nailing that moment of it's not about being miserable where you are, it's about I related to that. You know, I was 16 years old, and I lived on 200th Street in New York, and I knew what I wanted to do for a living, and I knew where I was, and the gulf just seemed impossible. I mean, everything just seems so far when you’re that age. And so that’s what I sort of tapped into to write that tune.
On his inspiration from the Polynesian culture and the water
A lot of the template was set by our creative team. You know, I think the first thing they animated that they showed us was that water test when Baby Moana interacts with the water, and it's playing with her.
And to me, that tap—one, that’s so reflective of Pacific culture, that really treats the ocean as a living thing. And two, I think it taps into a really primal chord of any little kid who goes to the beach, who punches back at the waves or builds a moat to protect their castle. You’re talking to the water. It feels that individual. That’s a thing we forget, when we grow up, that we had this relationship with the water when we were kids. And that sequence is such a powerful reminder of it.
I think to that end when I'm writing Moana's tunes, and that song in particular, it's a calling. It's a calling, the way I felt a calling to write music. It's a calling to see what’s on the other side of that horizon line. And looking around it, everyone's content where they are, and being like, ‘How are you content? Look what’s out there, and we don’t know what’s there.' I very much related to that. And so that’s sort of what I just tried to imbue Moana with.
I asked Lin-Manuel Miranda what he was up to next because he's so prolific and has earned so many awards that people in the industry for another 20 or 30 years haven't yet earned. Of course, it was in verse, using ‘Hamilton' lyrics. Because I could. Or because I wasn't going waste my shot. Obviously will never be satisfied with what you’ve done, and you will continue to write like you are running out of time. So what's next for you? I know you're working on Mary Poppins Returns. What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What's your end goal?
And he called me out on my Hamilton quote shirt. Winning. I'm in the club.
My kid gets me out of bed in the morning. Before that, my dog got me out of bed in the morning. Honestly, I think for me, it's a balance of—and it's always been like this—it's sort of lopsided on the other side. I think you balance the things you’ve been dying to do all your life. And the opportunities that come along, that you didn’t maybe think of, that are so amazing, that you’d kick yourself if you didn’t try to be a part of them.
So, to that end, is Mary Poppins Returns. You know, who do you dream that there'd be a sequel to Mary Poppins, much less, you get to go and sing and dance with Mary Poppins all day. And then there are the ideas that are still in my head, that were around before ‘Hamilton‘ that are like, ‘Hey, we were here before you were cool. Don’t forget to write us!' I will continue to sort of balance those things. But I also want to stay open. I think every writer's had the experience of having a really good idea, waiting to write it, and then once you write it, you’re like, ‘Oh.'
I like, kind of got past the sell by date, on this. I don’t, I'm not connected to the initial spark that was the idea. And a lot of that’s about staying open to—I'm going to live in London for 6 months. Who knows what that will inspire? So staying open to changing the plan if that’s what’s nagging at me. And by nagging at me, I think I very much subscribe to the Moana feeling of listening to that voice inside you. Like, if you’re thinking about the idea in the shower. If you’re thinking about the idea while you’re walking your dog, there’s probably something to it.
I take the same approach to criticism. I'll, I read reviews, I'm not going to lie to y'all. Like you know, I'll read ‘em, but then, the next day, I'm able to sort of shrug them off. But if something sort of sticks the next day, there’s probably something to it. I just sort of really try to trust my gut on, on all that stuff.
On writing for Dwayne Johnson and the catchiness and fun factor of “You're Welcome”
Exactly that fun. He's one of the few. There were only two vocalists that I knew who I was writing for when I was writing. You know, we did a worldwide search for Auli'i [Cravalho]. And so those songs were pretty much in place by the time she came aboard. But I knew The Rock was involved, and I knew when he had the meeting, he said, ‘Oh, Lin's writing it, can I rap?' So I wasn’t planning to write a patter section, but, you know, I serve at the pleasure of the president.
So that was fun. It allows us to get a lot of information in about Maui. Maui plays a different role in almost every island. In some, he’s more of a trickster god, in some, he’s a really super-serious demigod. In some, he’s Bugs Bunny. We got to write our version of him. And also, like, who else can pull off the lyric, ‘You’re Welcome,' and still have you like him? You know what I mean? You cast the wrong actor, it's Gaston. You know, ‘It's that guy's a jerk.'
But he sings it, and he arches his eyebrow, and he grins, and you’re like, I love this guy. So that was also the joy of getting to write this really healthy sense of self-song and know that it's going to, it's going to win people over.
At the end of the interview, Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “I've got to take a photo for Twitter.” And he Did. “Tag Yourselves.” So much fun. We almost broke the internet that morning. And when we saw him in the hallway a couple of hours later he said, “Hey squad!” Great memories.
My first interview was all these delightful women. Tag yourselves! pic.twitter.com/UXv8pf5Nl6
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) November 13, 2016
Read more about our Exclusive Interview Lin-Manuel Miranda Talks Disney
MOANA arrives in theatres everywhere on November 23rd!