Disney’s MOANA Interview with Musical Genius Lin-Manuel Miranda

If Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t a “household name” for you yet…it should be soon. He’s the musical genius behind the INSANELY popular Broadway sensation, “Hamilton”, and now an integral part of the music duo for Disney’s MOANA. AND…he’ll be doing the music for Disney’s upcoming sequel to Mary Poppins!! As a former musician and theater nerd, his work makes my heart happy…as does Disney music. If you know me well, you know I’ve been obsessed with Disney music since everyone’s favorite red-headed mermaid hit the big screen when I was a kid. I owned the soundtrack to that (on cassette of course) and many Disney movies after. That movie had a big impact on Lin-Manuel Miranda as well…and coincidentally, we’re the same age! 😉 So, talking with him about doing the music for MOANA during the #MoanaEvent press trip was an incredible moment for me…one that got even more fun &  incredible at the end of the interview. Here’s the scoop:
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Q: What is it like to be part of the Disney family now? 

It’s pretty dope. [laughs] 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 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.” You know, that was my way into the room.  So it, it’s been a real joy.

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Q: What was the timeline as far as working on Hamilton and Moana? Were you working on them at the same time?

Yes. So, this is the weird day that changed my life. I woke up one Wednesday, and my wife’s a lawyer, she was off to 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. That offer came with a plane ticket to New Zealand, where the rest of the creative team was already doing music research. So I went and I’m sitting with this secret that we’re five weeks pregnant. 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.

And so, he’s been the marker of time for me. And I’ve been writing. And then Moana 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 Pippa Soo and Chris Jackson singing Maui and Moana, because they were my in-house band.  I have a ton of Pippa demos you’ll hear on the deluxe edition [of the soundtrack]. 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.

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Q: The songs in MOANA have a distinct “Lin-Manuel Miranda sound”. So what was your favorite song to write?

Well isn’t that crazy, first of all? I feel like, style is like an accent. You don’t hear it on yourself, and then everyone’s like, ‘man, you’ve 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.  I wanted to get to my angstiest possible place. I went method on that 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. It was finding that notion of listening to that little voice inside you and being who you are. That lyric 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.  That was exciting to see, the sort of give and take between the songs, and the story at large.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. 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. 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.

Q: Along those lines, what was your inspiration for writing Moana’s song? 

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. 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.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

One of the catchiest songs in the movie is when Maui sings, “You’re Welcome”. We had fun talking with Dwayne Johnson about what it was like to do that song (and RAP!) and work with Lin (you can read the Maui interview with Dwayne Johnson here). So, we of course needed Lin’s take on what it was like writing a song for The Rock! 

Q: The song “You’re Welcome” is super catchy and we can’t stop singing it. What was it like writing for Dwayne Johnson? 

Exactly that fun.  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 Moana. And so those songs were pretty much in place by the time, Auli’i came aboard. But I knew The Rock was involved, and I knew when he had the meeting, he said, ‘Lin’s writing it, can I rap?’ I wasn’t planning to write a patter section, but,  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. 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 cast the wrong actor, it’s Gaston. 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.” That was also the joy of getting to write this really healthy sense-of-self song, and know that it’s going to win people over.

That “healthy sense-of-self” line cracked me up! This song is PERFECT! So much fun! And, in the more pop-version of it in the credits, you can hear Lin-Manuel do some rapping! 😉

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Q: 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. And, you know, 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, because-remember the soft covers with 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.

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, because 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!” And it just felt like, “Oh, you can go anywhere!” And I think, probably, my desire to sort of start writing stuff, I think, began with that movie.

It just so happens that his son’s name is Sebastian. So we asked about that too! 😉 

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, it helps that I already had great affection for the name since my youth.

It feels like we could have chatted with him ALL day. He was so cool – so down-to-earth, SUCH a Disney nerd! I LOVED every minute. And, just when we thought it couldn’t get any cooler, he said he wanted a picture – OF US!!!!!! And then he tweeted it out!!

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!

lin-manuel-mirandas-tweetAhhhhhhhhh! SO much fun! I’m all the way al the end – directly opposite of him, with the jazz-hands! 😉 Then we all had to take a photo with him. Such a great guy and great interview! lin-manuel-group

So go listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s awesome music when MOANA when it sails into theaters on Nov. 23rd!!!! And, just go ahead and buy the soundtrack – it’s SOOoooo good!!!! 


Moana Poster

Three thousand years ago, the greatest sailors in the world voyaged across the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, for a millennium, their voyages stopped – and no one knows exactly why. From Walt Disney Animation Studios comes “Moana,” a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana (voice of Auli‘i Cravalho) meets the mighty demigod Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity.

Disclaimer: I was invited and hosted by Disney the #MoanaEvent as part of an all-expenses paid press trip. As always, all opinions and love of Disney are entirely my own. Photos used in the post are courtesy of Disney and  Louise Bishop/MomStart.com.

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