Truth be told, I freaked out a little when I heard I would be interviewing Lin-Manuel Miranda. My kids have been listening to the soundtrack from Hamilton for about a year now. I was late to the party, and now I’m hooked, too. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius, and he’s just getting started.
I was shocked to learn that he was working on Moana the entire time he was performing in Hamilton. I guess I just assumed Hamilton had been around for so much longer, but Moana took five years to make! Now that I’ve seen the movie three times, I’ve also bought the soundtrack and can’t stop listening. Word on the street is that there is a very good probability that Miranda is going to complete his “EGOT” award status with Moana. We’ll have to wait for the Oscar’s to see!
This was a fun interview, and Lin-Manuel was easy to chat with. In fact, the first thing he said when he walked in the room was, This is like a really nice version of that scene in The Godfather. [LAUGHTER] You’re all just so happy and smiling. Alright. I’m an open book.
And I knew I liked him right away. I also knew he was a huge Disney fan. What was it like to be a part of the Disney family now?
Lin-Manuel: It’s pretty dope. [LAUGHTER] I’m waiting ‘til my son gets a little older to cash the one-time, like, here’s your guided tour, go to the front of the lines, at Disneyland thing. But, it’s amazing. I mean, from the first moment, I think the most exciting part for a Disney geek like me was the story meetings. I’ve had a little Hollywood experience, and there’s nothing like the Disney story experience. You sit at a table, a lot like this, except it’s perfectly round, and the notes are not from execs. The notes are from Jen Lee, the co-director of Frozen, from Pete Docter, who’s working on Inside Out, and did Big Hero 6.
Like, everyone who actually makes the thing, [LAUGHTER] are the ones who are kicking the tires on your story, and making it better. And that was my favorite part of the process. And getting to meekly raise my hand, and being like, ‘I think a song could do that better.’ [LAUGHTER] That was my way into the room. So it’s been a real joy.
We talked about working on both Hamilton and Moana at the same time.
Lin-Manuel: This weird day 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.’ [LAUGHTER] It was like, six 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, and 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. So 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 five weeks pregnant. So, it was one of those really insane, life-changing weeks.
That was two years and seven months ago. I can remember it, because my son turned two last week. So, he’s been the marker of time for me. And I’ve been writing. And then it was a great oasis, during the writing of Hamilton, because any time I was sick of the Founders, I’d go sail across the sea, [LAUGHTER] over to Maui and Moana. And then we just built it into my crazy schedule.
Like, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I didn’t do any press, I didn’t do any meetings, I just wrote all day, ‘cause I’d meet, via Skype, with the creative team, at five p.m., and then I would have my seven 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. So I have a ton of Pippa demos, and [I was] sort of calling on my friends. It was sort of all hands on deck to help me demonstrate these songs. I think you’ll hear on the deluxe edition, when it comes out, Marcy Harriell singing a cut Moana song that was called “More”. Marcy was my Vanessa for In The Heights for many years.
I think I turned in my first demo, and I would just sing into my headphones. The next day, a representative from Disney sent me a better microphone. [LAUGHTER] They’re like, this cannot stand. So, that was the process. But it was happening concurrently. And then weirdly, my work finished just about the time my run ended. I was having Tuesday and Thursday meetings all the way up to my last show.
Lin-Manuel spoke at a larger interview just after this one, and the question of the timeline came up there, as well. Below, you can see a short video of his response.
One of the bloggers in our group told Lin-Manuel that had she not known he had written the songs, she would have said, that sounds a lot like Lin-Manuel Miranda. So true! She asked, what was his favorite song to write?
Lin-Manuel: 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. [LAUGHTER] So, that’s just a very funny quirk. I think, there are 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. 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 gap 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.
We wanted to know, on those same lines, what inspired him while writing Moana’s song.
Lin-Manuel: A lot of the template was set by our creative team. 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’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 [CHUCKLES] with the water when we were kids. And that sequence is such a powerful reminder of it. So, 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, and looking around, [with] everyone 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.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical genius. We had to ask, is there anyone that he looks up to, or is there a favorite written lyric?
Lin-Manuel: So many. If I were to limit it just to Disney, I could talk to you for three hours about it. I think that’s how you figure out who you are, is you chase your heroes. I chased Ashman Menken, I chased Sondheim. I chased Jonathan Larson, I chased Biggie, I chased Tupac. And in falling short of all of those, I end up with that style that is an accent I can’t hear. With Disney in particular, for me, Howard Ashman is sort of the master of the lyric that is both iconic, and conversational. I think of ‘Part of your World’, and ‘Look at this stuff’, as she’s stumbling, and trying to find the words. ‘Dancing around on those, what do you call ‘em? Feet.’ [LAUGHTER] Or Belle in Beauty and the Beast, saying, “It’s my favorite part, because you’ll see’ — you know, interrupting her thought to say something else, because she’s so excited. Those are the moments you chase, as a songwriter, because they’re the ones that really feel real. I chased that in Hamilton, when, ‘Uh, pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir? That depends who’s asking. Oh, well, sure.’
You know, it just feels like the way people talk. That’s always what I’m chasing in a really good lyric, because it just feels like the way people actually speak. And that helps you bridge that divide of these people bursting into song. That’s an impossible leap for a lot of people. People who don’t like musicals, like, why are they singing? Why aren’t they just talking? [LAUGHTER] If you make the lyric feel really conversational, it’s much easier for them to bridge that gap.
Lin Manuel has done so many things in a very short span, compared to a lot of people. He’s won awards that most people don’t win for 20 years. But what motivates him? We wanted to know what gets him out of bed in the morning?
Lin-Manuel: Uh, my kid gets me out of bed in the morning. [LAUGHTER] Before that, my dog got me out of bed in the morning. And honestly, I think for me, it’s a balance. And it’s always been like this. 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 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’s the ideas that are still in my head, that were around before Hamilton, that ‘hey, we were here before you were cool. [LAUGHTER] Don’t forget to write us!’ So, 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 kind of got past the sell by date, on this. I’m not connected to the initial spark that was the idea.’ And a lot of that’s about staying open.
I’m going to live in London for six months. Who knows what that will inspire? And 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. 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 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 all that stuff.
Once you see Moana, the song “You’re Welcome” will be in your head! It’s the kind of song you can’t stop singing. We wanted to know, what was it like writing for Dwayne Johnson?
Lin-Manuel: Exactly that fun! [LAUGHTER] There were only two vocalists that I knew who I was writing for when I was writing. We did a worldwide search for Auli’i, 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?’ [LAUGHTER] So, I wasn’t planning to write a patter section, but 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. So, we got to write our version of him. And also, 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. 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. [LAUGHTER] So that was also the joy of getting to write this really healthy sense of self song, and know it’s going to win people over. (This is so true! Check out my interview with Dwayne The Rock Johnson to read more about that!)
It’s no secret that Lin-Manuel is a Disney-nerd. We wanted to know what his favorite Disney movie or character was growing up.
Lin-Manuel: The Little Mermaid is the number one. That movie came out when I was nine years old. I saw it when I was on a play date with my friend. So I went with a friend, not with my family. It was my friend, Alex, and you know, this crab starts singing a Caribbean calypso tune. [LAUGHTER] And I was never the same again. I used to get up on my desk in fourth grade and sing it. I remember calling in sick from school, on March 19th, because that was the day it came out on VHS, and I didn’t want to wait ‘til school ended. [LAUGHTER] I wanted to go to the drug store that morning, ‘cause remember the soft covers- the white border? I wanted to get it that day, and I wasn’t going to wait. So I was sick, and I had a stomach ache! And I saw Little Mermaid at ten a.m. [LAUGHTER] And, you know, I even remember, I’m really going deep cut for y’all. I remember getting the Disney sing-a-long songs, which came out before the movie. Where they just had “Kiss The Girl” and “Under The Sea”. And then, nautical themed Disney movies throughout time. So I know all the words to “Whale of a Tale”, from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. [LAUGHTER] ‘Cause it was on my Little Mermaid sing-a-long songs. So it’s sort of that level obsession. And really, I think because of that, Sebastian the Crab, that song was unlike any other Disney tune I heard. I was like, that has a Caribbean rhythm to it. I’m from the Caribbean. [LAUGHTER] And it just felt like, you can go anywhere. I think, probably, my desire to sort of start writing stuff began with that movie.
Lin-Manuel’s son is named Sebastian. Was it because of his love for the movie?
Lin-Manuel: It is a nod to that. It’s not the only reason. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think my wife would let that fly. But, it’s mainly my son’s name because Sebastian’s one of the great bilingual names. Like, Sebastian, en Español, is a bad ass name. [LAUGHTER] But it helps that I already had great affection for the name since my youth.
Lin-Manuel had to head out to other interviews, but he seemed to enjoy the interview as much as we did!
Lin-Manuel: Thanks, guys. I gotta take a picture of this, ‘cause it’s really just too much love in one room. Alright, say hi to Twitter! Tag yourself.
Visit the official MOANA website and see it in theaters beginning November 23.