One of my favorite things about some of my favorite Disney movies is the music. Even with my kids being 16 and 18, I still can belt out “Part of that World” fro The Little Mermaid as if I am Ariel herself. Seems a 9-year-old Lin-Manuel Miranda found his love of music in that very same movie.
Lin-Manuel is best known for his musical genius for his most recently Broadway hit Hamilton. He is known for his particular sound of rap, always catchy and lyrically brilliant. The fact he worked on Moana and he was on our list to interview during the Moana Event, well, I checked off a bucket list item I didn’t know I had until after we spoke. Read for yourself in this great interview what’s so special about Lin-Manuel Miranda.
He walks into the room where we are all seated at a long table, and his seat is at the head.
This is like a really nice version of that scene in The Godfather. You’re all just so happy and smiling. Alright, how was work? I’m an open book.
You’re such a huge Disney fan. What is it like to be a part of the Disney family now?
It’s pretty dope. 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. 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, it’s been a real joy.
So what was the timeline as far as working on Hamilton, and Moana? Were you working on them at the same time?
Yeah. 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, 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 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 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. It was one of those really, like, insane, life-changing weeks. So that was two years and seven months ago. I can remember it because my son turned two last week.
And 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 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 my crazy schedule. Like, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I didn’t do any press, I didn’t do any meetings, just wrote all day, ‘cause I’d meet via Skype with the creative team, at five p.m.
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 Phillipa Soo and Chris Jackson singing as Maui and Moana, ‘cause they were my in-house band. I have a ton of Phillipa demos and sort of calling on my friends. 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.” Marcy was my Vanessa, for, in The Heights for many years. 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. That was the process. But it was happening concurrently. Then weirdly, like, my work finished just about the time my run ended. I was having Tuesday and Thursday meetings, um, all the way up to my last show.
Moana has your sound, meaning 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 pretty amazing.
Well isn’t that crazy, first of all? I feel like style is like an 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. There’re 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.
I went method on that. 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 giving and take between the songs and the story at large. That was a real key to unlocking her. Nailing that moment of — it’s not about being miserable where you are. I related to that. I was 16 years old, and I lived on 200th Street, in New York. 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. So that’s what I sort of tapped into to write that tune.
For the song Moana sings, How Far I’ll Go, can you talk about the inspiration behind that?
Yeah. 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.
The opening scene, it’s mind-blowingly beautiful.
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 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, 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 relate to that. And so that’s sort of what I just tried to imbue Moana with.
Who are your musical inspirations?
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 the master of the lyric that is both iconic, and conversational.
You know, I think of “Part of your World” (Aladin), and, “Look at this Stuff” (The Little Mermaid), as she’s stumbling, and trying to find the words, you know? “Dancing around on those, what do you call ‘em? Feet.” 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 chase that in Hamilton, when, “Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir; that depends on who’s asking — oh, well, sure. Sir.”
That kind of 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 then that sorta 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 conversational, it’s much easier for them to bridge that gap.
So what’s next for you? I know you’re working on Mary Poppins Returns. But what motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Uh, my kid gets me out of bed in the morning. Uh, before that, my dog got me out of bed in the morning. I think for me, it’s a balance. I believe 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.
To that end, is Mary Poppins Returns. Who would 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? Then there are those ideas that are still in my head, that were around before Hamilton, They’re 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. And so a lot of that’s about staying open to — you know, 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. 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 really try to trust my gut on, on all that stuff.
The song “You’re Welcome” is super catchy, and we can’t singing it. What was it like writing for Dwayne Johnson?
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. We did a worldwide search for Moana. And so those songs were pretty much in place by the time Alui’i she came aboard. But I knew The Rock was involved, and I knew when he had a meeting and said, “Oh, Lin’s writing it, can I rap?” I wasn’t planning to write a patter section, but, you know, I serve at the pleasure of the president.
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 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. That was also the joy of getting to write this really healthy sense of self-song and it’s going to win people over.
You’ve mentioned a lot of Disney lyrics. What was your favorite Disney movie or character, growing up?
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. 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 drugstore 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. 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 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 that level, obsession. And really, I think because of 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 you can go anywhere. I mean, my desire to sort of start writing stuff, I think, began with that movie.
So is your son’s name an adage to that?
It is a nod to that. It’s not the only reason. 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. It helps that I already had great affection for the name since my youth.
As we finish up, he wants a photo.
Thanks, guys. I gotta take a picture of this, ‘cause it’s really like, just too much love in one room. Alright, say hi to Twitter!
My first interview was all these delightful women. Tag yourselves! pic.twitter.com/UXv8pf5Nl6
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) November 13, 2016
*I was invited by Disney to attend the Moana Event to share my experiences with my readers. All opinions are my own.