Certainly there is no one hotter in show business at the moment than Lin-Manuel Miranda, who in June picked up three of Hamilton’s 11 Tonys before leaving the show to venture into a whole raft of other endeavors. The man with one of the hottest Broadway tickets of all time has his first movie score hitting theaters today in the form of Disney’s holiday treat Moana, an animated movie splendor that will make you think you have landed on an island somewhere. Part of its joy are the seven songs on which Miranda is credited as a writer.
His musical contribution already has pundits predicting he could be a contender to pick up a Best Song Oscar to go with his Emmy (for writing a Neil Patrick Harris opening Tony number), Grammys and Tonys, which would make him the youngest-ever EGOT winner in show business history.
But he has more on his mind than that, as he is also about to start shooting a leading role in Disney’s Mary Poppins sequel; he’s been rehearsing in London with co-star Emily Blunt. He also just opened a second company of Hamilton in Chicago, with two more cities to come in 2017. Of course, President-elect Donald Trump gave that show a lot of inadvertent publicity last week, as if it needed any more. But right now it is Moana, a new animated musical about a Polynesian princess that has him talking, and professing his love for all things Disney, as I discovered when I sat down with him in a Beverly Wilshire Hotel suite a few days ago.
DEADLINE: People may be surprised to hear you actually have been working on Moana long before Hamilton ever took the world by storm.
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: Yeah, and it’s funny, because I have been working on this movie since before Hamilton happened, you know? I got the job about six months before we started rehearsals. No, seven and a half months before we started at the Public, and so, it’s been my ocean of calm throughout the Hamilton phenomenon, you know? I’m not going to hang out with celebrities, I’m not going to parties. I have two songs due for Moana next week, and I’m going to go and spend some time with Maui and Moana in the ocean, in my mind.
DEADLINE: Well, that’s great. That is an ocean of calm literally, then, for you. So how did it come about for you to get involved with Moana at that point, then?
MIRANDA: I was one of several songwriters I think they interviewed. I’m a huge fan of Disney animated movies, and I’ve always wanted to write an animated score since I was a little kid. You know, I had the good fortune of being 9 years old when The Little Mermaid came out, that whole run of really beautiful Disney musicals, and so, the fact that I got to interview with Ron (Clements) and John (Musker), who directed The Little Mermaid, I was, like, I just walked in and said, “You’re the reason I’m even here.” And so, it was a real dream come true just to get the job, and yeah, and we sort of got right to work.
I got the job, and the next day I was on a plane to New Zealand, where the rest of the team was already doing research, and meeting with different choirs, and sort of really soaking up the music, the musical world of, the musical heritage of this part of the world. And so, you know, that’s where we began, and then you continue to write as the story changes, and Disney’s really incredible on story, you know? The people you’re turning to for advice are all people making Disney movies, so we had these amazing meetings where you’d see John Lasseter, and then next to him is Jen Lee, the director of Frozen. Next to her is Pete Docter, who’s working on Inside Out. You know, and Big Hero 6, it’s everyone’s engaged in some stage of making their film, and so, the insights you get, you can’t get anywhere else in the world.
DEADLINE: So, you actually had to go to New Zealand?
MIRANDA: The biggest secret weapon we had in regards to really being true to this part of the world, and making sure this part of the world could see themselves in this film in a way that felt positive and accurate, was Opetaia, my co-writer, Opetaia Foa’i, who has a great band called Te Vaka and is an amazing musical and cultural ambassador. And so, we sort of quickly realized every rhythm, Opetaia takes the lead, you know? It’s got to feel, the pulse has to feel like this part of the world, the instrumentation has to be true to that, and so, between him, (composer) Mark Mancina and myself, we really chased that, while serving our story.
DEADLINE: There are seven songs you did, and they don’t all sound like each other. They’re all different. It must have been fun writing for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who plays Maui. I didn’t know he could sing.
MIRANDA: Yeah, that was such a joy. You know, that’s one where sometimes the voice talent is all the inspiration you need. That was certainly true of knowing The Rock was going to sing that tune, and I was like, “Oh, well, have to give him something worthy of his demigod status.” If you know the voice you’re writing for it’s such a shortcut. It’s such a catalyst to creating the kind of energy you want. He was great, and he was so game. You know, I think he trained for singing this song the way he trains for a wrestling match or trains for an action role. He came in and he knew it cold. He didn’t need the music in front of him. He just sort of was ready, and we had a lot of fun in the studio.
DEADLINE: You’ve been Broadway-centric. This is your first movie score. Now you’re moving out. They say, with the Oscars coming up, you could be the latest EGOT winner – and the youngest ever to do it. You know what the EGOT is? Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony? You got an Emmy for writing for the Tonys, the Tonys, and Grammys for Hamilton and In The Heights. All you need is that Oscar now.
MIRANDA: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. I’ve already heard about it in several interviews. And of course, that’s lovely and that’s fun to add in, and then I remind myself Vincent van Gogh died without having sold a single painting. Like, art is not measured by the trappings that people attached to it. It’s the thing itself, and so, as you know, it’s been a dream of mine to write songs for Disney, and so, it’s really exciting to finally hear. It’s two and a half years.
DEADLINE: What’s your favorite song in the score that you did? Disney is specifically pushing three of them in For Your Consideration ads: “How Far I’ll Go,” “We Know The Way” and “You’re Welcome.”
MIRANDA: It’s hard to pick. I mean, I think the one that is most emblematic of the collaboration that occurred is “We Know The Way.” That’s the first song we wrote for the movie. We actually got it written that weekend in New Zealand, so we’re all in New Zealand, we’re all absorbing this culture, and Opetaia brought it in. He brought in the melody and the lyrics, but the lyrics were in Tokelauan, and so, we talked about what it could mean and whether this could be the ancestor song. So, I started writing English lyrics to sort of the same melody, and then Mark came in and started playing some alternate chords and playing with that, and then I came up with the “We are explorers,” with sort of a counter-melody to Ope’s melody. And so, it happened so organically, that it really, to me, is the most emblematic of our collaboration.
DEADLINE: What was it like doing Hamilton day in and day out knowing it was a show people would practically kill to get a ticket for?
MIRANDA: Yeah, and in a lot of ways, that saves you a lot of work, right? You know, you’re doing the same show every day, and your inspiration, you have to look no further than the fact that you know people travel across the country to see you. In a lot of cases, this is that audience’s only chance to see the thing, and so, that’s what gets you up in the morning, and that’s what gets you giving your best performance on stage, is the awareness that this audience is ready for it, and here to have an experience, and so in turn are you.
DEADLINE: So when are we going to see the movie version of Hamilton? I heard it could be at least 10 years.
MIRANDA: (Sings) “How far I’ll go…”
DEADLINE: Everything’s a song with you.
MIRANDA: Yeah, everything’s a song. I think it’s a ways off, and only because I’m being selfish as a playwright. I want as many people to see the show in its musical theater form as possible before it’s translated, and whether it’s a good act of translation or a bad act of translation, it’s a leap, and very few stage shows manage the leap successfully. You know, the path to musical film glory is littered with A Chorus Lines. But like we said, it’s tough. It’s tough. So, I want to wait for more people to be able to see the show, and right now, you can only see it in two places [New York and Chicago]. By the end of next year, you’ll be able to see it in four places.
DEADLINE: What about In The Heights? That would seem to be something that might have a lot of potential for a big-screen version. Will be seeing that as a movie before Hamilton?
MIRANDA: Well, that one is in the works. The Weinstein Company has the rights. Jon Chu is going to direct. So, that one is in Quiara’s court right now, Quiara [Alegria Hudes], my co-writer on In The Heights, is working on the screenplay as we speak. The Weinsteins’ track record is really good, and Jon Chu in particular, like, the sequences he’s made for some of those Step Up films were so extraordinary. I’m really excited to see how he stages some of these musical numbers in In The Heights. I think it’s a really inspired choice.
DEADLINE: But you’re not personally involved in it?
MIRANDA: I will be more as we get closer, as it becomes a real thing, but I have plenty to keep me busy until there’s an actual green light and we’re going, and then I’ll dig in.
DEADLINE: So, Mary Poppins. You’re about to film the movie in London, but it’s not a remake, obviously.
MIRANDA: No, it’s a sequel. The Banks children have grown up. I play a lamplighter named Jack. Lamplighters are the guys who manually turned on all the street lamps in London and turned them off. That was the gig in the 1930s in London. And so, I can say about three more things before the non-disclosure form is broken, but I cannot think of a better person, outside of Julie Andrews, I cannot think of a better Mary Poppins than Emily Blunt. She’s so lovely and it’s been a joy. We’ve just been rehearsing and singing and dancing.
DEADLINE: You are living the Disney dream, and right now all your work on Moana is about to be seen all over the world.
MIRANDA: Yeah, you know, I saw the sausage being made, and I still look at that water, and I look at Moana’s hair, and I’m just like, “How is this even happening?” It’s such an incredible mix of technical mastery and wizardry. It’s really incredible. It’s layers and layers and layers. It’s not unlike building a musical. It’s really pretty cool.
DEADLINE: I can sense that you want to do more.
MIRANDA: Absolutely, yeah. I felt so nourished by the process of making it, of you’re always engaged with other artists from different disciplines, and it’s about bringing your art form to the table. It’s so many art forms mashed together, and I’m the music guy, I get to wear the music hat, but being able to be that guy in the room is a thrill at this level and caliber.
DEADLINE: To be “in the room where it happens” you mean?