Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of the most decorated theatrical composers of our time, with Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, Olivier Awards, and a freaking Pulitzer cramming his trophy case. He’s best known for the phenomenon Hamilton, of course, but his work also includes In the Heights and Bring It On: The Musical. (The dude is all of 36 years old too, so… whoa.) He collaborated on the music to Disney’s newest animated feature Moana, and spoke to the press about the project during a recent junket for the film.
(Note: This interview took place before the controversial performance of Hamilton attended by Mike Pence.)
Question: How did you ramp up to face the challenge of this movie and these songs?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I got the job and with my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand where everyone was already. The Pacifica Music Festival was going on, with musicians and choirs from all the different islands in the Pacific. We sort of immersed ourselves in this world and then jumped into a studio and just started banging on drums. We started really trying to find the pulse of this thing in a way that honored the unique musical heritage and incredible rhythms that come out of this part of the world.
Q: How did you convince The Rock to sing?
LMM: That’s not what happened here. [Laughter] When Dwayne accepted the role, he said, “So what are you giving me to sing?” He was really excited for this. For me, I went to YouTube where the answers always lie. I’m a big fan of his wrestling days, and there was a time during his stint as a heel, where he would pull out a guitar and taunt whatever town he was in. He’d be “I can’t wait to get out of Sacramento…” [Laughter] And someone had a super cut up of all of those moments. [Editor’s note: we found it. And to quote our new favorite demigod, you’re welcome. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zae_VcHDKYw&list=RDzae_VcHDKYw#t=267 ] So I got a really good sense of his vocal range from that cut, and then the rest of it was just writing lyrics that embody the spirit of Maui. He’s this trickster god and that informed the songs for him. Once I had the title, You’re Welcome, which only Dwayne can pull off and still have you love him and root for him, we were off to the races.
Q How did you approach the challenge of making traditional, authentic music for a big Hollywood production like this?
LMM: When I first interviewed for this job I walked into a room with the directors, makers of my favorite Disney film of all time, and I said, “You’re the reason I even get to walk into this room.” I probably scared them a little bit because I’d quote some obscure section of Little Mermaid they had since forgotten about. So that’s part of it: I love those movies and you want to maintain the best of the Disney traditions. At the same time, we’re telling this very unique story from this very unique part of the world, so you need to set that aside a bit. The first time I sat down at my piano to work on something, I remember thinking, “don’t think about Let It Go, don’t think about Let It Go, don’t think about Let It Go…” But you solve that problem by just really, really getting inside the heads of your characters. My way into Moana, in particular was the way she feels the call of the sea. That’s the way I felt about writing music and making movies and singing songs. I remember being 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan and thinking, “the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large.” So I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.
Q: What was that feeling like seeing the finished film with your songs?
LMM: I saw a close-to-finished version of the film the day after I hosted Saturday Night Live, with 300 of my closest friends. We were moving to London and so it was a screening/goodbye party and… it was so overwhelming. I made my wife cry, and she didn’t cry at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. [Laughter] She’s a tough crowd. So we got her, and I was like, “we’re going to be okay.” But I was also very moved by the closing credits which we saw at the screening yesterday. Disney has a tradition of listing the names of all the children born over the course of making a movie, and seeing my son’s name at the top of that list was pretty overwhelming.