An interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda about Moana, Hamilton, and The Little Mermaid!
The wait is almost over for Moana! Disney’s newest animated masterpiece opens tomorrow and the music is just incredible. Fans of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton will notice Lin-Manuel Miranda’s finger prints all over this movie. The music of Moana is true to Disney, honors the Polynesian culture, and is 100% Miranda all at the same time. It is brilliant and I cannot wait for a new audience to be introduced to Miranda’s music. Interviewing Lin-Manuel Miranda was a dream come true for this musicals geek and I am thrilled to share it with you!
From the moment he walked in the door we knew this was going to be a fun interview. We all sat at a oval table, leaving a spot at the head of the table for Lin. He walked in and everyone clapped. He joked that the seating arrangement was “like a really nice version of that scene in The Godfather.” and then assured us that he was an “open book“. Typically I share just my favorite highlights of an interview but this interview was the highlight of all of the interviews past, present, and future, so you get the whole thing!
Question : You’re such a huge Disney fan. What is it like to be a part of the Disney family now?
Lin – Manuel Miranda : It’s pretty dope. I’m waiting ‘til my son gets a little older to cash the one-time ‘here’s your guided tour, go to the front of the lines at Disneyland’ thing. But, no, 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, 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. That was my way into the room. So it’s been a real joy.
My Question : So what was the timeline as far as working on Hamilton, and Moana? Were you working on them at the same time?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah. I ‘ve got this 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, 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; I interviewed for the job. I got the Moana offer that afternoon. 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 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.
*cue all the ‘awwwws’ from the rest of the room’*
He’s been the marker of time for me. And I’ve been writing. 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, over to Maui and Moana.
And we just built it into the, 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 pm. 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. I have a ton of Pippa demos….. I think you’ll hear on the deluxe edition, when it comes out, you’ll hear Marcy Harriell singing a cut Moana song that was called “More”. Uh, Marcy was my Vanessa, for, in The Heights for, for many years….. So, you know, 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.” So that was the process. But it was happening concurrently. 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.
Question : So we saw the movie last night, and we heard all the songs. Had I not known that you’d written those songs, I could’ve said, hey, that sounds like a lot like Lin-Manuel Miranda, that’s amazing. So what was your favorite song to write?
Lin-Manuel Miranda : Well isn’t that crazy, first of all? I feel like, like, style is like accent. Like, 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’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. Um, I wanted to get to my angstiest possible place. 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, like 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 in, 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. Everything just seems so far when you’re that age. So that’s what I sort of tapped into to write that tune.
When asked about his inspiration for Moana he talked at length about the ocean, culture, his own calling, and gave us a peek at his depth of process….
A lot of the template was set by our, 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. 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, 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. Looking around it, 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, Moana with.”
Lin was asked if there is anyone he looks up to….. and this is about where I started crying (on my insides ‘cuz I am super professional on the outside. Business on the outside, ridiculous choir geek fan girl on the inside).
“It’s so many. I mean, 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. You know, 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, you know, “look at this stuff…” as she’s stumbling, and trying to find the words, you know? “…..dancing around on those, what do you call ‘em? Feet.” 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 chase that in, in Hamilton, when, “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. Uh, because it just feels like the way people actually speak. And then 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?” If you make the lyric feel really conversational, it’s much easier for them to bridge that gap.”
The next question was more of a series of questions : “So what’s next for you? I know you’re working on Mary Poppins Returns. And what motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s your end point? What do you want to do?”
Lin – Manuel Miranda : Uh, 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….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.
And so, Mary Poppins Returns. 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’s the ideas that are still in my head, that were around before Hamilton, that was 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 kind of got past the sell by date on this.” I’m not connected to the initial spark that was the idea. A lot of that’s about staying open. I’m going to live in London for six 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 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 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.
Question : The song “You’re Welcome” is super catchy, and we can’t stop singing it. What was it like writing for Dwayne Johnson?
Lin – Manuel Miranda : Um, 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. 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 and said, “Oh, Lin’s writing it, can I rap?” So, I wasn’t planning to write a patter section, uh, 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. So we got to write our version of him. And who else can pull off the lyric, you’re welcome, and still have you like him? You know what I mean? You know, you go, you cast the wrong actor, it’s Gaston. You know, it’s, 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, um, and know that it’s going to win people over.
Lin was asked if he had a favorite Disney movie growing up and once again, it was just such a cool peek inside his brain.
The Little Mermaid is like, 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. It was not with my family. It was my friend, Alex. And this crab starts singing a Caribbean calypso tune….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. I wanted to go to the drug store that morning, ‘cause remember the soft covers? Um, 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….. 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 like, nautical themed Disney movies throughout time. So I know all the words to “Whale of a Tale”, from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. ‘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. It just felt like, oh, you can go anywhere. I think my desire to sort of start writing stuff began with that movie.
And the last question : So is your son’s name an adage to that?
Lin – Manuel Miranda : It is a nod to that. It’s not the only reason. I don’t think my wife would let that fly. 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. But it helps that I already had great affection for the name since my youth.
And just like that, our 20 minute interview was up. I could have listened to more of that all day friends!
My sweet friend gave me her spot in our group shot line up because she knew I was a fan…. only problem, she is taller than me so I am barely peeking behind Lin! Gah….. question, do you think it still would work for my Christmas card? Haha!
Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda for taking the time to sit down with us. It was honestly and truly a dream come true. On a completely different note, thank you from the bottom of my heart for creating the song that just might replace ‘Let it go’ in my house. One can hope!
Make sure to get out and see Moana which opens in theaters on November 23rd!