This past July Lin-Manuel Miranda finished his now legendary run on Broadway in his Tony and Pulitzer Prize Award winning musical “Hamilton.” He’s barely stopped since.
He collaborated with Jennifer Lopez on a charity single for the victims of the Pulse tragedy in Orlando. He finished the “The Hamilton Mixtape” which featured artists such as Wiz Khalifa, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, Sia and Chance the Rapper, among others, providing their contemporary musical interpretations of the Broadway classic (it debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200). He campaigned for Hillary Clinton. He made deals to produce different media adaptations of “The Kingkiller Chronicle” novels. He began rehearsals to star alongside Emily Blunt in Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” And then there was the arrival of “Moana.”
Miranda co-wrote a majority of the songs for the John Musker and Ron Clements directed feature about a Polynesian girl (the title character voiced by Auli’i Carvalho) who teams up with the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to save her people from a mystic entity that is corrupting the ocean and her native island. This wasn’t a tiny project, however. As Musker and Clements noted in an earlier interview, Miranda would Skype from his “Hamilton” dressing room with new demos and song ideas right before going on stage. It was an unconventional creative process for all involved, but years later it finds Miranda on the verge of earning his first Oscar nomination in the Best Original Song category (likely for “How Far I’ll Go”).
The Grammy, Tony and Emmy winner (yep, he’s that close to EGOT) took some time to candidly chat on the phone about balancing his duties on “Hamilton” and “Moana” over the past few years.
The Playlist: Hi. How are you doing?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I’m great, how are you?
Good! Congratulations on “Moana.” My first question for you is what did Ron and John tell you that convinced you to come on to the picture in the first place? What made you think that this was worth your time, with everything else you actually had going on at the time?
Well, it’s very sweet that you think they needed to talk me into it, because I was desperately trying to get on that movie. I got the job about seven and a half months before we started rehearsals for “Hamilton” on Broadway, two years and seven months ago. I was one of several song writers who sent in my stuff and interviewed on it. I will tell you the first thing they showed me that really blew me away was what we call the water test. You know it in the film as the scene where young Moana meets the water for the first time. I saw a storyboard version of that with the music that you hear on it now, which is Opetaia’s music, which is gorgeous. It just struck such a primal chord for me. It made me remember something that I’d forgotten, which is that when we’re young we think we have a personal relationship with the water. I remember building sand castles and moats in Puerto Rico, punching back waves and trying to keep them from knocking down my castle. We anthropomorphize the sea. To see that actually happen in an animated sequence made me remember a slew of childhood memories I had forgot. It just made me really excited, like, “Wow, this is tapping into something that, if we’re lucky enough to see the ocean when we’re kids.” We forgot. It’s one of those Peter Pan memories you forget when you grow up. That was really exciting. Also the notion of the incredible Pacific culture and their heritage of navigation, of wave finding, of getting from tiny island to tiny island without any compasses or maps, but literally knowing where you came from and keeping it fixed in your mind, to know where you’re going. The metaphor of that knocks me out. The fact that it’s the literal truth is incredible. That are the two things that really made me excited to be a part of the project. I just thought those were beautiful notions that were both very specific to Pacific culture and universal.
From my layman’s knowledge, even if you’re working on a stage musical it takes sometimes years to get the right songs to make it work. You’re always working on it. You’re always moving numbers around to make the overall piece the best it can be. That’s basically how an animated movie is constructed. When you joined up and then “Hamilton” exploded were you at any point thinking, “Oh wow, I’ve got too much on my plate. This is a lot.” Did it ever feel like it was a lot?
Sure. Yeah. At the same time, what ended up happening was that they kind of performed different functions in my life. They ended up being very nicely complimentary muscle groups. When I was sick of doing research and hanging out with the founders, I’d go sail the ocean with Moana. That actually was great. I spent years writing “Hamilton,” and I was writing them, for a while, concurrently. What was so exciting about working on “Moana” was once “Hamilton” opened, I was still a writer. I wasn’t just performing seven times a week. I still had to work that muscle in my brain. Also, in the craziness of the “Hamilton” phenomenon as it was unfolding and we were in the eye of it, Moana was my oasis. I had to say no to certain things to clear [my schedule for it]. Every Tuesday and Thursday were sanctified writing days where I had nothing on my plate because I have a Skype call with Burbank at 5 PM and I’m on stage at 7 PM. It actually became an oasis in my life, where I just got to be a writer and drift and work on these songs. It provided oasis in a life that really needed it.
When people first hear you’re part of a project like this they likely assume, “Oh, Lin-Manuel. He must have just done three songs for them. I’m sure it’s great, but he just contributed.” If I’m counting this correctly, you wrote eight songs that got into the movie? Am I right?
Yeah, something like that. I don’t even know if that’s including the songs that we wrote that didn’t make the final cut. I was sort of surprised and thrilled to see how many demos they put on the deluxe edition of the soundtrack. You’re literally hearing me in the Richard Rogers dressing room singing as Tamatoa the crab. There were more demos, which includes the song I wrote prior to getting it right with “How Far I’ll Go.” I don’t even know if you’re count includes those, but yeah, this was my primary focus throughout “Hamilton” and for seven months prior.
My follow up is are you the sort of song writer that can knock something out quickly in an afternoon or is it something that usually takes you a couple days or weeks to get a song that you’re happy with? Or is it all over the place?
The answer is every song is different. I’ve had songs that take me years to write. I’ve had songs I’ve written in 15 minutes. It really depends on the thing itself. I was the last man on the three person team, with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina. We had a very collaborative process on this. The first weekend we met, we began to work on “We Know The Way” which is Opetaia’s melody and Opetaia’s lyrics. We just thought it was the perfect feeling song for Moana’s ancestors. I began writing English lyrics to his melody and I came up with a counter melody. Mark started playing with chords. We all added our sense to it. That was the spirit in which the rest of the collaboration occurred. We’re very aware that we’re representing a culture that doesn’t see itself on screen that often. To that end, Opetaia really took charge on making sure we were in the right direction or steering us if we were in the wrong direction, particularly when it comes to rhythms and harmonies. Making sure we’re reflecting this part of the world in a way that feels authentic. There’s that bar to clear first off, before you start thinking about the story. That’s exciting. It sort of forces you to challenge yourself and write something I wouldn’t ordinarily write if my hands went to the keyboard. Then on top of that, you’re serving a story that changes. Disney is famous for its story sessions. People write songs for a screening and then Moana is not 8-years-old, she’s 16-years-old. “We’re not going to learn that much about Maui in the first act. We’re not going to learn about the parents until the third act. You can’t put all that information in the opening number.” As the story changes, you’re flexible with it. I feel like writing for the theater really served me well because I’m very comfortable with bringing in a half a song. I’m very comfortable with bringing in a verse and a chorus and saying, “Is this where we’re headed? Let’s kick the tires on it. Let’s make it better.” I’m very egoless in that sense. I thrive on collaboration to make me better and learn.