Thank you to Disney Studios for hosting me during the Moana Event. All interview photos by Louise Bishop/Mom Start.
Lin-Manuel Miranda and I have a history, even if it’s a bit one sided and mostly exists on Twitter. You see, I’ve been a fan long before most people knew who he was. So when Joss Whedon called him an inspiration, I tweeted that out. And then Lin shared it. And then Broadway World covered it. That was my first entertainment press event and it was kind of a big deal. So long since then I’ve mentioned that tweet at every possible opportunity. Anyone: “I love Hamilton!” Me: “Lin retweeted me once!” You get the idea. Now Lin and I share a totally new Twitter moment…but first we should probably talk about Moana for a bit. That is the reason we met in real life, after all…
What is it like to be a 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, that was my way into the room. So it, it’s been a real joy.
How did he combine working on Hamilton and Moana at the same time?
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 offer-because I interviewed for the job-I got the Moana offer that afternoon. And 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. 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 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, you know, 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 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, I just wrote all day, because I’d meet via Skype with the creative team, at five p.m. 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, because they were my in-house band. So I have a ton of Pippa 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. 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!” That was the process. But it was happening concurrently. And 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.
The songs have the distinct Lin-Manuel Miranda feel. What was his favorite song to write?
I feel like style is like accent. 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 think, there’s 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. So 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. 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, 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 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. 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.
Does he have a favorite musical hero or lyric?
It’s so many. You know, 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 and 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. And so with, 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 “Look at this stuff…” as she’s stumbling, and trying to find the words. “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…” 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, “Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?” “That depends, who’s asking?” “Oh, well, sure.” That kind of… it 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 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, [they’re] 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.
What’s his end point? What gets him out of bed in the morning?
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…and it’s always been like this. But now, it’s sort of lopsided on the other side. 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, to that end, is Mary Poppins Returns. You know, who’d 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 are like, “Hey, we were here before you were cool. Don’t forget to write us!” So, you know, 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 don’t…I’m not connected to the initial spark that was the idea.” 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, and by nagging at me, I very much subscribe to the Moana feeling of listening to that voice inside you. 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. I’ll read them, 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 all that stuff.
What was it like writing for Dwayne Johnson?
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 she came aboard. But I knew The Rock was involved, and I knew when he had the meeting he 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. You know, 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 know what I mean? 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!” So 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.
What is his favorite Disney movie?
The Little Mermaid is 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. [My son’s name] 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.
And then Lin said, “I gotta take a picture of this, because it’s really-this is like just too much love in one room…”
So this happened:
And then this happened:
There’s so much more in the comments on that tweet. You may henceforth refer to me as “Third from the left”.
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 once-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. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess & the Frog) and produced by Osnat Shurer (Lifted, One Man Band), Moana sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.
Stay tuned for more exclusive interviews and extras coming soon! You can find all things Moana here, including full event coverage!