This week, I had the amazing experience to attend the Moana Press Junket in Los Angeles, which included the Red Carpet Premiere of the movie, as well as interviews with Dwayne Johnson & Lin-Manuel Miranda. Take a peek at what the Tony-Award winning genius, Lin-Manuel Miranda said in my exclusive interview with him.
Last summer, in the middle of a 15-hour road trip, I downloaded an album from iTunes. I was bored and needed a distraction while I drove. Over the next 4 hours, I proceeded to listen to Hamilton, where I was so caught up in the lyrics and the story, I found myself moved to tears several times. I shook my head in disbelief at how one man could pull together a hip-hop musical from American History.
It’s that good y’all.
My 15-year old daughter started listening to it and was moved the same way. She was excited to have amazing and fun music that was about our founding fathers. She commented several times over the last 6 months that she felt she knew our county’s birth story better because of Hamilton. And now, Hamilton is the soundtrack to our mornings. It has become this amazing bond between my daughter & myself.
When I found out I was going to interview the man behind Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, I literally screamed. If you know me well, that doesn’t really happen. Ever. I am cool. I contain my excitement in a professional way. But I was so excited to have the opportunity to meet this musical genius that it slipped out. And I became nervous. Y’all. It was crazy – I’ve interviewed George Clooney. Matthew McConaughey. John Stamos.
But no one compared to Lin. And nerves immediately set in. I had never been this nervous to meet anyone before. Excited, yes but nervous?? I couldn’t sleep the night before and moments before he walked into the room, my palms were sweating and my heart was racing. I’m getting all flustered just writing my experience here.
But the moment he walked into the room, in his casual cardigan, carrying a cup of coffee, I relaxed. I was in the company of musical greatness and I was going to absorb everything he said.
Lin-Manuel Miranda & Moana
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the lyrics for 9 songs in Moana. Having seen the movie twice now and having bought the soundtrack (it’s working it’s way into our morning routine), the songs that Manuel has written are gold. If you hadn’t told me that he had written the songs, I would have immediately known that he did. Manuel has a certain style, a lyrical cadence, an “accent” as he calls it, that is recognizable. And it works so very well in Moana. And the words he wrote in Maui’s catchy “You’re Welcome” are just as memorable as Moana’s ballad “How Far I’ll Go.”
And now, he can add Disney Songwriter to his list of accomplishments.
What is it like to be a part of the Disney family now?
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. But, no, it’s amazing. I mean, from the first moment, the most exciting part, for a Disney geek like me, was the story meetings. There’s nothing like the Disney story experience. You sit at a table, a lot like this, and the notes are not from movie 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. Everyone who actually makes the thing, they 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. That was, that was my way into the room. So it’s been a real joy.
The Weird Day That Changed His Life
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. And 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.
Moana was a great oasis, as I did the writing during Hamilton, because any time I was sick of the founders, I’d go sail across the sea over to Maui and Moana. We just built it into my crazy schedule. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I didn’t do any press or meetings, I just wrote all day, and 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].
It’s Not About Being Miserable Where You Are……
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?
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.
Lin’s In It? Can I rap?
All of the songs are beautiful in Moana but the one the you will remember the most is Maui’s “You’re Welcome” in which Miranda wrote for The Rock, Dwayne Johnson.
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, she (Auli’i Carvalho) 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.
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.
Those are the Moments You Chase as a Songwriter…..
Is there anyone that you look up to, or is there a written lyric, that is your favorite?
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 Alan 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, Howard Ashman is sort of the master of the lyric that is both iconic, and conversational. Think of The Little Mermaid 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.’ It’s my favorite part, because you’ll see her 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, ‘uh, pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir, that depends who’s asking — oh, well, sure.’
That just feels like the way people talk. That’s always what I’m chasing in a really good lyric. It just feels like the way people actually speak. It 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 are 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.
My Desire to Start Writing Began with that Movie.
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. And 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. I wanted to get it that day, and I wasn’t going to wait. So I was sick, I had a stomach ache! And I saw Little Mermaid at ten a.m.
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. They just had “Kiss The Girl” and “Under The Sea”. And the rest of the songs were 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. It’s sort of that level obsession.
Sebastian the Crab’s song was unlike any other Disney tune I heard. I was like, that has a Caribbean rhythm to it. I’m from the Caribbean. It just felt like you can go anywhere. I think my desire to start writing stuff, began with that movie.
I very much subscribe to the Moana feeling of listening to that voice inside you.
What’s next for you?
For me, it’s a balance of 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. So, to that end, is Mary Poppins Returns. Who would dream that there’d be a sequel to Mary Poppins? And then there’s the ideas that are still in my head, that were around before Hamilton, that was like, ‘hey, we were here before you were cool. Don’t forget to write us!’ I will continue to sort of balance those things. But I also want to stay open.
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. I very much subscribe to the Moana feeling of listening to that voice inside you.
And being the cool guy that Miranda is, he asked to take our picture and tweeted it out to his fans.
Thanks, guys. I gotta take a picture of this, ‘cause it’s really — this is like just too much love in one room. Alright, say hi to Twitter:
Moana opens in theaters nationwide Wednesday, November 23, 2016
Days later, I am still pinching myself that I spent time in the room where it happened (ok, I had to get in at least one Hamilton lyric….). Reflecting back on his words, I realized that I had gotten to see into the mind of this musical genius. And it was incredible.
Manuel collaborates with 2 other incredible musicians, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina to make a beautiful soundtrack for Moana. The songs are moving, catchy, and memorable and help make the movie as special as it is. Take your family to see Moana this weekend and experience the beauty yourself.
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Other Articles from the Moana, The BFG Blu-ray Event, ABC TV Event & Stuck in the Middle Event you may enjoy:
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That Time I Met Musical Genius Lin-Manuel Miranda
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A Conversation with the Cast of Disney Channel’s Stuck in the Middle
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The BFG Blu-Ray: A Perfect Holiday Gift
Behind the Scenes on the Set of Speechless
A Conversation with The BFG Roald Dahl’s Daughter, Lucy Dahl
Behind the Scenes on the Set of ABC’s Dr. Ken
Nicole Scherzinger Had To Play the Role of Moana’s Mother
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Disclaimer: Disney sent me to Los Angeles on an all-expenses paid press trip, in exchange for my coverage of the red carpet premiere of Moana. All opinions are my own.