Lin-Manuel Miranda: From Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ to Hollywood’s ‘Moana’

Lin-Manuel Miranda: From Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ to Hollywood’s ‘Moana’

Dwayne Johnson and Lin-Manuel Miranda broke into song at the 'Moana' premiere.

An EGOT is the Mount Rushmore of entertainment awards and Lin-Manuel Miranda is ¾ of the way there. He won Tonys and Grammys for In The Heights and Hamilton. He won an Emmy for the 67th Tony Awards show. For good measure, he won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant. With all of those trophies on your bookshelf, what do you do? You go after the Oscar of course. I don’t want to count the chickens, or course, but Miranda might be on the fast track to completing his EGOT after writing the songs for Moana.

For centuries, the greatest sailors in the world masterfully navigated the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, 3,000 years ago, their voyages stopped for a millennium – and no one knows exactly why. The latest from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Moana, tells the story about an adventurous teenager who is inspired to leave the safety and security of her island on a daring journey to save her people. Inexplicably drawn to the ocean, Moana (newcomer Auliʻi Cravalho) convinces the mighty demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to join her mission, and he reluctantly helps her become a wayfinder like her ancestors who sailed before her.

Together, they voyage across the open ocean on an action-packed adventure, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills her quest and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. Moana is directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and features music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina (Speed, Twister, Tarzan, Planes) and one of the most successful Pacific Island musicians of all time, Opetaia Foa‘i.

Miranda has written two of Broadway’s most recent blockbusters and Moana is predicted to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the 2016 holiday movie season. He recently talked about the creative process between the filmmakers and musicians.

The Moana soundtrack might be the most anticipated soundtrack of the year and critics have been vocal in their praise. The songs might resonate because the creative team were on the same page thematically.

“To be able to wayfind or navigate, you literally have to keep your home in your mind so you know where you’re going. Literally, there are no maps, no compasses. You have to be able to chart your position by the stars. And you always have to remember where you’re coming from. To me, that’s such a metaphor for what we aspire to do in real life. If we never forget where we came from, that will always help guide our way.”

It also helps to write crowd-pleasing songs if you relate to the characters you’re writing for.

“I really related to Moana in a lot of ways. I love characters with drive. Moana knows exactly who she is and what she wants to do. Since she was a little girl, she stared out into the ocean and wanted to know what was on the other side of that horizon. She had responsibilities at home and this family that she loves and this island that she loves, but there’s this inside voice that’s calling. To be able to quiet life enough to hear that inner voice of who you really are. That’s something that’s really worth writing about.”

The Moana co-directors are Ron Clements and John Musker. This is the seventh animated film they directed together with Moana being their first CGI movie. Miranda was excited to work with the animation legends.

“What’s really wonderful about working with them and working in the Disney experience is you’re always getting ideas from people. Ron and John are some of our greatest animators. You’re in a meeting and they’re doodling. At a normal job, doodling is frowned upon but at a good Disney meeting, everyone is coming away with like four or five good doodles. They think visually and they have this entire visual vocabulary. I try to match that musically. There were moments when I would bring in just a verse of a chorus and say, ‘I think this is where we’re heading with this song.’ Then they’d say, ‘what if Tomatoa [the giant crab character] had all these jewels and the reflections are what’s singing?’ So they’d help inform the song in turn of visuals informing music, always to advance the story.”

When you think of any of Disney’s animated blockbusters, a song from that film inevitably pops into your head. Little Mermaid? “Under the Sea.” Beauty and the Beast? Um, well, “Beauty and the Beast.” The Lion King? “Circle of Life.” Though he doesn’t admit it, Miranda had to feel at least a little bit of pressure to create a catchy tune. He thinks he found it with “We Know the Way.”

“I was sort of the last man on the team. The fun of that was jumping on a plane and flying halfway around the world. Then two days later, you’re in the studio with Opetaia and Mark in New Zealand, watching lots of local groups perform. You really got a sense of the musical diversity in this part of the world. We were in the studio two days later and one of the first things that came from that experience was the song you hear in the trailer, “We Know the Way.” It was the first song we all wrote together for the movie. Opetaia brought in the melody and the lyrics in his native language. Mark and I went in and just started playing with it.”

The songwriters might have written another classic as well.

“’Where You Are’ is another one where we wanted to start in the rhythmic world of the Pacific Islands. I’m sure there’s video of Mark and Opetaia and I on the drums, just playing different rhythms that we liked. I remember on that one, Ope [pronounces it like Opie] just started improvising. We recorded all of it and I went away and used my favorite of his improvisations and built a melody out of that. A lot of the lines are just from Ope improvising and Mark and I playing drums. The message of that song was a very tough needle to thread. Moana loves her island, but her mind is always drawn to the sea. Looking or thinking about the sea is her default mode.”

Dwayne Johnson projects a big public persona and Miranda wanted to write a song that fits the star’s image.

“Dwayne has such incredible charm. He’s such a humble guy even though he has no need to be modest about anything. I just thought, ‘what would be the most fun thing to hear The Rock sing? It’s “You’re Welcome.” You’re welcome for my existence. You’re welcome for the fact that you get to meet me.’ It so plays into his charm and his confidence and cockiness.”

Some of my favorite Disney songs are sung by the villains. I’m not sure if that says more about the songwriting or my psyche, but let’s not go there. I think of “Cruella De Vil” from 101 Dalmations, The Lion King’s “Be Prepared” and, my personal favorite, “The Siamese Cat Song” from Lady and the Tramp. Tomatoa, the token baddie crab in Moana needed a song worth his salt water. Tomatoa’s song, “Shiny,” is garnering praise from critics perhaps due to our 15 minutes of fame, judge a book by its cover culture.

“The villain song? Man, Disney has some good villains. Jafar, Scar, Cruella, Ursula – poor, unfortunate souls. So we get to meet this murderous, mean crab, Tomatoa. It was fun for me to learn that Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords was going to provide the voice which is such a great, distinctive voice. We sort of wanted to write the anti-lesson of the movie. If Moana’s journey is about finding her inner voice and who she really is, Tomatoa comes in and says, ‘that doesn’t matter. Who cares? It’s about how you look.’ He’s from the deepest, darkest part of the sea. His armor is important. His glitter that attracts prey is important. He’s like, ‘who cares what you are on the inside? It’s about being shiny.’”

This is the first animated film set in the Pacific Islands. The filmmakers and music team want the music to hit the right notes. Miranda is confident the team did its job and that audiences will approve.

“We’re trying to do a lot of things with the score of this movie. It’s a huge canvas. The ocean is literally a character in this movie. What does that sound like? It’s set in the Pacific Islands. What does that sound like? There’s a rich musical culture from that part of the world. At the same time, it’s also about this young woman’s journey. As she goes further from the island, the music encompasses so much more. You have a lot to look forward to when watching this movie. What’s really exciting about Moana is that it has a little bit of everything. It’s both sweeping in scope yet intimate. It’s the story of this young woman fearlessly discovering who she is. But she’s doing this with demigods and below the sea and fighting monsters. It’s got lots of action, but it’s really funny in places. It gives us a glimpse into this part of the world, inspired by stories of the Pacific Islands. It’s a glimpse into a world you’ve never seen before.”

Moana is now playing in theaters.

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