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When Lin-Manuel Miranda started work on Disney’s animated feature Moana nearly three years ago with his musical collaborators, Grammy-winning composer Mark Mancina and Somoan Opetaia Foa’i, Hamilton had yet to hit the stage, much less become a theatrical juggernaut.
But as Miranda developed into a household name, he remained captivated by the story of a teenage girl, Moana, who leaves her South Pacific island to rescue her community. Among the most compelling songs in the tale, which has grossed more than $225 million since its November release, are Miranda’s yearning, uplifting “How Far I’ll Go,” and the tribal “We Know the Way,” composed with Foa’i, which plays as Moana’s proud ancestors guide her on her journey, using the wisdom of the past to bring her into the future.
Miranda talked to The Hollywood Reporter from London, where he’s working on Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, about creating the music for Moana, possibly becoming the youngest EGOT winner in history and, with Donald Trump’s inauguration coming Jan. 20, his tips for handling the next four years.
Though Moana is an animated feature, how important was it to get the tone right culturally to represent the Oceanic community?
You always want the people, the culture you’re writing about, to be able to see themselves in the thing. I felt the same way when I was writing In The Heights. I was representing my neighborhood and a lot of Caribbean rhythms. It wasn’t just one island. It was Dominican and Puerto Rican and Cuban and Mexican and Latin American, and how do I write a score that reflects all that and has its own voice? I felt like I met the authenticity bar on that show. Opetaia has made a career out of exploring the music of his islands and his ancestors, so we couldn’t have had a better ally and ambassador in him because his gut is right. If I play a rhythm and he makes a face, I know that that’s not a rhythm that would come out of this part of the world and I throw it out and start from scratch.
How did revisiting your own teenage sense of yearning for something more help you get into Moana’s head when writing “How Far I’ll Go?”
Where she and I met was having a calling — not necessarily even understanding the calling, but knowing that it’s there inside. I knew I wanted a life in some creative endeavor for as long as I can remember. For me, I think the song took the final turn it needed when I realized it’s not a song about a young woman who hates where she is and needs to get out, it’s a song about a woman who loves where she lives and her family and her culture and still has this feeling. So what do you do with it? I related to that as well and so that was the final insight we needed to get that moment to really strike a chord because it’s messier, it’s complicated.
How did “We Know The Way” come about after Opetaia brought in some initial ideas?
It’s actually the first song we worked on together, and it worked so organically that it set the template for the rest of our collaboration. That melody is amazing. Opi translated [the words] for us, and we felt this is the perfect thing for the ancestors to sing. One of the things that’s so exciting about this part of the world was this idea of wayfinding, the very literal concept of how you have to keep your home island in mind to navigate to where you’re headed next. I was just doing my best to communicate that in a way that fit in with Opi’s melody. Mark started playing guitar and the chords on the second chorus. That song best represents creating something bigger than the sum of the parts.
You’ve joked that you can’t sing very well, but you’re singing on “We Know The Way.” Were you nervous?
I wasn’t nervous about it because they’re my demo vocals. I didn’t think it would ever see daylight, and here I am in a Disney film.
Hamilton exploded after you began working on Moana. How did you juggle everything?
There’s an adage if you want something done ask a busy person to do it because they’re already in motion. That’s basically how it felt. On the one hand, [Moana] provided an oasis in the general hecticness of my life in the Hamilton era and, on the other hand, I thrive under deadline. Writing is lonely work and, for me, the most fun part is getting to bring it into a room with a bunch of other artists and say, “Let’s kick the tires on it and make it better.” That’s what I got to do every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m. [via Skype meetings]. With a lot of these, I wouldn’t bring in a finished song, I’d bring in a verse and a chorus and go, “Am I headed in the right direction?”, which is a very vulnerable thing to do as a songwriter. But at the same time it was what made the most sense to [my collaborators] because there are so many different art forms being smashed together when you’re making an animated film, you want to make sure the blueprints are looking sound as you head down the road.
If you win the Oscar, you’d be the youngest Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony (EGOT) winner, surpassing Bobby Lopez, who attended the same elementary and high school as you. Is that in your head at all?
You can’t worry about that because you have no control over it. Why would you spend time on that? I lived through the thrill of seeing Bobby win the Tony for Avenue Q and it was the first time I saw someone on an award show I knew personally. I was like, “Oh my god, Bobby Lopez is winning a Tony Award!” Then I’m screaming in my house when he completed the EGOT for Frozen, so I’ve already had all those thrills vicariously through him. I’m good no matter what happens.
You’re calling from London where you’re prepping for Mary Poppins Returns by dancing up to eight hours a day. How’s it going?
I’ve had a couple of dates with an epsom salt bath, but it’s joyous work. Rob Marshall and his producing partner, John DeLuca, are incredible at what they do. They make you feel safe and like you can do anything, and the result is you give them everything you got. I’m really enjoying that part of my life right now.
You’ve also signed on as creative producer and composer for the film and TV adaptations of Pat Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles. How did that come about?
My friendship with Pat Rothfuss is one of the greatest things that came out of Hamilton. We kind of found a mutual admiration society. This is a guy who created a world that thousands of people want to live in. I want to be a part of it, especially because I think he writes about music so beautifully. The main character is a musician, so it’s a very daunting task to have to set to music [because] everyone has imagined it in their own individual way when they’re reading the book. But that’s a really exciting challenge.
Your Twitter feed is sometimes political, yet primarily focused on feel-good tweets. What’s your advice on how to cope with the next four years given that you were a Clinton supporter?
I think it’s important to eat your vegetables and I think it’s important to eat your dessert. By which I mean, if you go down the wormhole with reading the worst news all the time, you’re not going to be of any use to anyone. I think that’s for anyone on Twitter regardless of your [politics]. I try to stay as up-to-date on what’s going on in the world as possible and yet provide an oasis and positivity on Twitter. I can’t control the world, but I can control what I put into the world, so I try to have my timeline be a pretty bright spot for folks who may be fighting great fights elsewhere. Stay informed, but go read a very funny tweet or go read the AV Club — whatever your version of dessert is — but you need to do both.
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