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Chatting With Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Musical Genius Behind Moana #Moana

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Lin-Manuel Miranda was sitting just a few feet in front of me last week y’all!  Lin-Manuel Miranda!  Just to let y’all know; he is adorable, just adorable!  He walked into the room with a smile on his face and pep in his step.  I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that he walked into a room filled with 25 women applauding him.  I’m not sure if you knew that Lin-Manuel Miranda did the music for Moana, but in case you didn’t already know; now you do!  I cannot even begin to tell you how loud my 17 year old daughter squealed when she found out I was going to be interviewing the creator of Hamilton LOL  She is in love with him!  He did such an amazing job on the music with Moana as well.  When I’m listening to it (50 times a day) it is incredible how he infused so much modern music and concepts with Disney.  You can hear the Polynesian culture infused into every single track of Moana, but you also hear Disney, and some old-school Disney styles that are so comforting and fun to share with my children.  You are going to absolutely love Moana and all of the music!

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As I said before, Lin-Manuel Miranda is adorable.  His love for music and what he does just oozes from his being!  He was so excited to just sit and talk about what he does and it was apparent in every word he spoke!

Lin-Manuel Miranda started the conversation off just as he was pulling up his chair to the table full of anxious bloggers:  “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.”

Okay, so you’re such a huge Disney fan. What is it like to be a part of the Disney family now?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: It’s pretty dope.  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.  It’s amazing. I mean, from the first moment, 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. 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, that was my way into the room. So it, it’s been a real joy.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - NOVEMBER 14: Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda speaks onstage at The World Premiere of Disney’s "MOANA" at the El Capitan Theatre on Monday, November 14, 2016 in Hollywood, CA. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Lin-Manuel Miranda
(Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Lin-Manuel Miranda

So what, what was the timeline as far as working on Hamilton, and Moana? Were you working on them at the same time?

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  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 — ‘cause I interviewed for the job.

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. So, 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.

So, he’s been the marker of time for me. And I’ve been writing.  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.  It just, we just built it into my crazy schedule. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I didn’t do any press, I didn’t do any meetings, I just wrote all day.

continued….I meet, via Skype, with the creative team, at five p.m. I would have my seven o’clock curtain, so I did a lot of writing in the theater. A lot of the early demos are Phillipa Soo and Chris Jackson singing Maui and Moana, ‘cause 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, 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.  The next day, a representative from Disney sent me a better microphone.  They’re like, this cannot stand.  So, that was the process. But it was happening concurrently.  Then weirdly, my work finished just about the time my run ended.  I was having Tuesday and Thursday meetings all the way up to my last show.

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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 amazing. So what was your favorite song to write?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Well isn’t that crazy, first of all? 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.  You know, I think, there are 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.  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 a real key to unlocking her. Really nailing that moment of — it’s not about being miserable where you are.  I was 16 years old, and I lived in, 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.

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

Lin-Manuel Miranda:  A lot of the template was set by our creative team. You know, I think the first thing they animated 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.

So, I think to that end, when I’m writing Moana’s tunes, and that song in particular, it’s a calling.  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.  And 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 related to that. And so that’s sort of what I just tried to imbue Moana with.

(Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Lin-Manuel Miranda

So you’re a musical genius.  Is there anyone that you look up to, or is there a favorite, written lyric, that is your favorite?

Lin-Manuel Miranda:   It’s 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 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, you know?  “dancing around on those, what do you call ‘em? Feet.”  That kind of, that,  or Belle in, 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, when, “pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir, that depends who’s asking — oh, well, sure.”

You know, that kind of, it just feels like the way people talk.  That’s always what I’m chasing in, in a really good lyric. Uh, 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, 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.

(Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Lin-Manuel Miranda

About Disney’s Moana:

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 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 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.


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