Q&A: Lin-Manuel Miranda caps a huge ‘Hamilton’ year with ‘Moana’
Lin-Manuel Miranda is almost tired. When he slides into a chair at a restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire hotel — “Is this the same place from ‘Pretty Woman’?” he’ll ask later — Miranda explains that he flew in from London that morning. He’s spending a few months across the pond shooting a “Mary Poppins” sequel with Emily Blunt, so he moved his wife and young son to the U.K. “According to my body, it’s 8:45 pm. Just cresting into the night.”
Busy days and nights are no strangers to Miranda: Until he took his final bow on July 9, he had been holding down the lead in “Hamilton,” for which he wrote the book, lyrics and music, and won an armful of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy and three of the production’s 11 Tonys. Turns out, while he was burning candles like, well, a person who burns lots of candles, he was also writing the songs for “Moana,” a new animated musical about Disney’s first Polynesian princess — teaming with “Tarzan” composer Mark Mancina and world-music superstar Opetaia Foa’i.
He got the job before “Hamilton” exploded on the world; he simply caught the eyes and ears of John Musker and Ron Clements, two Disney veteran directors who in 2013 were just starting their “Moana” journey.
“In our astute minds, we thought [‘Hamilton’] might come and perhaps go with no accolade,” Musker says. “Of course, once we saw it, we knew it deserved all of that it received and more. We were happy we met Lin before he was engulfed in the ‘Hamilton’ tsunami.”
Since that tsunami hit, Miranda has hosted “SNL,” committed to costarring in the “Poppins” sequel, written a ditty for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” signed on for Disney’s live-action retelling of “The Little Mermaid” and prepped “The Hamilton Mixtape,” an album of songs inspired by the cultural juggernaut. He also co-wrote (and stands by) the statement that actor Brandon Victor Dixon read from the stage of “Hamilton” Friday night to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, asking the incoming administration to defend and uphold the “inalienable rights” of “diverse America.”
Before the “Moana” press siege began in earnest (he would do almost 100 interviews while in Los Angeles) and before “Hamilton” became a political inflection point, Miranda sat with The Times to talk about his nascent legal career, high school productions of “Hamilton” and polka.
What’s the first thing you were a nerd for?
I think my love for Weird Al Yankovic prepared me for my career in everything else. When you’re little you like a song that’s funny. A song that’s funny is better than a song that’s not funny. Duh: simple math. But if you actually, as I did, become a completist about it, you’re like, “Oh, well I want all this guy’s albums.” You learn another lesson, which is that genre is fluid. These things that people define themselves by, I’m a punk rock guy, I’m a metal guy, I’m a pop guy. Weird Al took the Rolling Stones’ entire catalog and played it on his accordion as a polka. The lyrics and melody didn’t change, but the orchestration changes. So you learn that genre is fluid and there’s good melodies and there’s bad melodies, there’s good songs and bad songs. And the good songs survive whatever you do to them.
What was the first thing — album, musical, movie — that truly spoke to you and clarified for you that music was your first, best destiny?
I can draw a direct line back to “The Little Mermaid.” That movie came out when I was 9. I saw it three times in the theater. I used to get up on my desk, sing “Under the Sea” in fourth grade. I remember pretending to be sick so that I could be home to buy the VHS at the local drugstore on the day it came out.
Even though I didn’t have a definition of what a Disney movie was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing Caribbean rhythms in a Disney movie. “This is a calypso song!” When you think of Disney you think of “Someday my prince will come....” You think of these lush orchestral tunes. We’ve had so much innovation, it’s hard to realize how totally out of the box it was for a crab to start singing in patois.
When did “Moana” come to you?
I can trace the journey of “Moana” in the journey of my son’s life. I found out I got the job on “Moana” the same day I found out I was going to be a father. My wife was going on a business trip and she was leaving first thing in the morning. She turned to me and said, “You’re gonna be a father. I gotta go catch a plane.”
And I went, “What? That’s great.” And fell back asleep. I had to call her back for confirmation. Then I got the call later that afternoon that I got the job. They called me again and said, “We’re all going to New Zealand this weekend; you’re leaving first thing in the morning.” It was pre-“Hamilton.” So I’ve been working on this for two years and seven months. My son [just] turned 2.
It was really kind of an incredible journey. And the “Hamilton” phenomenon happened while I was writing it.
How did you split the time?
I had to really protect my writing time. In one sense it was really great, because, you know, when something is as successful as “Hamilton” everyone wants a piece of you. Everyone wants 10 minutes to talk about their pitch, or press, or what have you. The things that come with the success of a thing.
I got the luxury of having to say no to a ton because I was like, “Tuesdays and Thursdays are full-time ‘Moana’ writing days.” I would meet via Skype with the creative writing team at 5 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, then I would go to the chiropractor, then I would get into costume for a 7 p.m. show. It was built into my performance schedule.
I also had the luxury of amazing singers in the building — so a lot of my early demos for “Moana” is [the “Hamilton” cast]. Pippa [Phillipa] Soo, who played my wife, singing Moana’s tunes, and Chris Jackson, who played George Washington, singing Maui’s tunes. He’s actually in the movie: He’s the singing voice of Moana’s dad.
How much input did you have on the story?
I was pleasantly surprised at how much input we had as the music team. I’m on a three-man music team. There’s Opetaia, who is an incredible composer and songwriter, and everything that comes out of him sounds like this part of the world. And then Mark Mancina, who is so versatile: That guy did “Speed” and “Lion King.” So he’s the glue for all of us. And then I’m the story guy. I’m the one who writes songs that tell stories, particularly with lyrics. At those giant off-site meetings I felt comfortable diving in with, “You don’t need three scenes about that, I can do that in four lines.”
Music can carry story in a way that is supremely economical. “Hamilton” is a really great example in my work of that.
Also, you wrote a David Bowie song for Jemaine Clement, who does the best Bowie.
As soon as they told me he was playing [the jewel-encrusted crab Tamatoa], I said, I’m writing the David Bowie song. I’d been mourning Bowie. I’d been listening to nothing but Bowie. Jemaine’s “Flight of the Conchords” tribute to Bowie is maybe the best tribute to Bowie. It also really organically served the story: We have this crab singing the anti-lesson of the movie, which was it’s not about what’s on the inside that counts. Your outside is important.
So I thought, he’s gonna be covered in jewels. It’s the glam rock era. That’s what I’m gonna write towards. I had enormous fun putting that on. I wish I could play my demo of me doing it. Jermaine’s is much better than mine. To get to play in that world, with that sort of confidence, and that sort of sinewy confidence, is really fun.
What was the key that unlocked the character of Moana for you?
The thing that resonated for me with Moana is she is not someone who hates where she is. Moana loves her family, she loves her island. She knows she’s got responsibilities and she’s ready to embrace them. And yet there is this voice inside her that says you’re not supposed to be here, you’re supposed to be somewhere else.
I can relate to that. I was a kid who was always making stuff. I didn’t know whether I wanted to make action movies or animated cartoons or musicals, but I was always just making stuff. My parents were like, “This is not practical. You’ll be a great lawyer.” And it was never gonna happen. I loved my parents and I loved where I lived, but I also had this voice that was, what’s the distance between me and what I want. That’s what I tried to imbue her with without villainizing the things around her. It’s not “there must be more than this provincial life,” it’s “I love it here and yet; and yet every time I absentmindedly walk I find myself at the water again.”
Given the love for “Hamilton” in the world, given that its journey is not over by a long shot, there is going to be some high school in Kansas that wants to mount a production of “Hamilton” and all of the roles are gonna be played by white kids. Is that missing the point? Or is that the point?
When it comes to kids, I relax all of my rules. When I think from my perspective I got to be a son in “Fiddler,” I got to be Conrad Birdie, I got to play roles that I’ll never get to play as an adult. Once you’re an adult, the world puts you in a box and you’re cast by type and ethnicity. I directed “West Side Story” my senior year in high school. I was one of the only Latino kinds in my school, so my Sharks were white and Asian. At the same time, I was able to flip that into a teaching moment. I brought my dad in to do dialect coaching so it wasn’t [bad] Hollywood accents, it was authentic Puerto Rico accents that these kids were attempting.
I hope there’s enough in “Hamilton” that if you go to a school where there are literally no kids of color — and that is increasingly rare in our country, which is a good thing — your job is to honor the story. For me “In the Heights” has been this. I get joy from both sides of it. I get joy that kids who go to schools that are largely white suddenly are waving Dominican flags around and having to learn Spanish to understand what they’re singing. So they’re getting a dose of cultural education by virtue of doing this show they like. Whether or not they have quote unquote permission to do it. They’re getting it. The medicine is going in. You now have empathy for a group of people that have never been in your school.
I’m grateful for that. Then when a school in the South Bronx does it and it’s all black and Latino kids and the sense of ownership and pride they feel — like this is ours, this is about our families — there’s no quantifying the joy I get from seeing a production like that.
I think keeping kids from art is not something that’s interesting to me. Now, regional productions are a whole different thing. When you’re in a professional production it’s like, cast [it] right. Save yourself the headache of everything that comes with a very important conversation about cultural appropriation.
Is there somebody who has the ‘How to be a Celebrity’ playbook that you’re cribbing from? You’ve navigated the pre-“Hamilton” to post-“Hamilton” transition better than most.
You learn very quickly that the trappings of it is how much you bring to it. If you surround yourself with three security guards and an entourage, people are gonna look at you. As opposed to my friend Josh Groban, who takes the train to work. And he’s Josh Groban. He’s got millions of fans. He wears it lightly. He’s still just a guy. I’m inspired by that. I refuse to sit on a pedestal that people want to put you on. I’ll write a dumb tweet in the morning and someone will be like, “Pulitzer Prize winner. Can’t get his coffee right.”
You can’t stop being the person you were just because more people are looking at you.
Do you ever see yourself writing something that doesn’t have music? Is there a movie in you? A TV show?
Yes, but I have so much more fun writing music than anything else that it’s hard to picture. Music is one of the rare things you can write and it feeds you even as it’s taking from you. Even if I’m having trouble with the lyric for a song I’ve got that melody to sustain me. I find it as sustaining a creative endeavor as I’ve experienced.
I also have a little bit of the “dance with the one that brung ya.” I’ve worked very hard to get good at this thing. I want to pursue every passion that inspires me but at the same time I want to double down on the thing that I’m very good at.
Do you get a special pass into Disney parks now? Is there some kind of magic black card you can just walk in and rose petals fall?
I haven’t been to Disney World since I was 7. I think you get [the magic card], but you get it once. You get the guided tour — you get to go to the front of the line at all the rides. I’m waiting until my son is the age that he won’t be scared by giant animated characters walking around, then I’ll cash in my black card.
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