Disney’s latest fairy tale princess musical “Moana” is heading to a robust estimated $75 million-plus Thanksgiving holiday weekend total. One crucial contributor to this South Pacific animated feature, directed by the “Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” team of Ron Clements and John Musker, is “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who needs only an Oscar to complete his EGOT-qualifying “In the Heights” Grammy and 11 Tony wins for his second Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” plus a Primetime Emmy for his 2014 Tony Awards opening song “Bigger” for host Neil Patrick Harris. (The Pulitzer Prize for “Hamilton” is frosting on the cake.)
While Miranda said he isn’t seeking it, he has been chasing the youngest EGOT-holder to date, Bobby Lopez, “my whole life,” Miranda told me in our video interview. His mentor went to the same elementary school and high school and was working on “Avenue Q” in previews “right when I was getting out of school. He’s a real role model.”
Inspired by various South Sea mythologies, the directors, writer Jared Bush (“Zootopia”) and musical team lead by Miranda, composer Mark Mancina (“Speed,” “Training Day,” “In the Heights” and “Hamilton”), and Polynesian Te Vaka founder and lead singer Opetaia Foa’i, who performs the music of his ancestors, figured out how to tell the story with music.
The movie follows fearless and athletic Polynesian princess (Auli’i Cravalho) as she follows the call of the sea and disobeys her powerful father (see “The Little Mermaid”) to sail past the dangerous barrier reefs and cross the ocean to save her island, enlisting the aid of mighty demi-god Maui (Dwayne Johnson).
“‘Moana’ has been an escape for me for the past two years and seven months,” Miranda said. “I got the job the same day I found out I was going to be a father.” Miranda wrote songs throughout the whole “Hamilton” experience, “acting in the show seven days a week and meeting celebrities when it felt like the focus of the eyes of the world were on us.”
Miranda had to carve out time to write songs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he would share what he had done with the Disney “Moana” team at 5pm Skype meetings. The animators were waiting on him, so he did not have the luxury of taking the entire year it took to write the “Hamilton” hit “My Shot.” In some ways, writing “Moana” provided “joy and oasis,” he said, as his life was getting increasing crazy.
Miranda worked on all of the seven original songs for “Moana,” plus two reprises and two end-credit versions of songs from the film. Of course, Miranda’s Stephen Sondheim-level skills as a lyricist —he effortlessly meets rhyming challenges from some of his 1.1 million Twitter followers —are perfectly suited for a Disney musical.
Foa’i started writing “Where You Are” on his way home from his first meeting with Clements and Musker; Miranda translated into English his lyrics that introduce us to Moana’s island ancestors. At their first song-writing session, Mancina on guitar, Miranda on piano or drums and Foa’i did their first improvisation like a band — and their vocals are still on the song.
“I was the last man on the team,” said Miranda. “Opetai was an amazing musical ambassador in every sense. Everything that comes out of him sounds like this corner of the world. That was essential. We are very aware that this corner of world doesn’t get represented on screen. All you have for a musical theatre antecedent is ‘Bali-Hai’ [“South Pacific”]. I feel like if you’re from this part of the world, you want to see it be accurate.”
Miranda loved his meetings with the Disney/Pixar braintrust led by John Lasseter and attended by the likes of Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee, where he could persuade them that he could tell certain parts of the story in two well-rhymed couplets, if they’d let him. “My job in these many art forms fused together was to find the moment,” he said, “when I think music can do this better than any of the other techniques.” Some sample lyrics:
We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are
“How Far I’ll Go” is a classic “I want” song of yearning (think Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Frozen”‘s “Let It Go”) as Princess Moana (Cravalho) expresses her desire to leave her island for the sea. “Disney’s got the best track record,” said Miranda, singing a bit of “Riff-Raff” from “Aladdin.” “I was fully aware we were in the wake of the success of ‘Frozen.’ ‘Don’t think about Let It Go.'”
Did he feel pressure in the wake of “Hamilton”? “I was fully on the wave of ‘Hamilton,’ not the wake,” he said. “I was in the eye of the storm writing that song. I had to really double down on what the character was going through. Moana and I share the notion of a calling, a little voice in your gut that says, ‘You are not supposed to be here, you’re supposed to be there.'”
Miranda went back to how he felt at Moana’s age when he was 16, “a Puerto Rican kid in upper Manhattan, and the gulf between me and what I want to do with my life seems infinite. That was my way in. It took a couple drafts. It’s not about not loving where you are — she loves her family and she loves her island, she understand the role she plays and is fine with that — but the idea that you’re not supposed to be here and are meant to do something else, was very relatable to me.” Lyrics include:
See the light where the sky meets the sea
It calls me
No one knows how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know
If I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go
Miranda conceived the idea of “You’re Welcome,” which introduces us to the full-of-himself demi-god Maui (legendary cousin to Disney’s narcissistic Hercules). Dwayne Johnson can sing, it turns out. “We didn’t know that until he showed up in the booth,” Miranda said. The lyrics find Johnson boasting:
Open your eyes, let’s begin
Yes, it’s really me, it’s Maui: breathe it in!
I know it’s a lot: the hair, the bod!
When you’re staring at a demi-god
What can I say except you’re welcome
For the tides, the sun, the sky
Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay
I’m just an ordinary demi-guy
Next up: After he left performing the lead role in “Hamilton” last July, Miranda chopped off his hair and devoted his attention to other projects, like finishing up the score and songs for the Questlove-produced “The Hamilton Mixtape,” which comes out December 2 — “Hamilton” star Jonathan Groff raved about it on Jimmy Fallon this week — doing an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” and prepping for his starring role in a live-action sequel to “Mary Poppins” (December 25, 2018) to be shot in London.
He’s not writing songs for “Chicago” Oscar-winner Rob Marshall’s latest musical (that’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the team behind “Hairspray”), but will star in it, opposite Emily Blunt as Poppins. She revisits grown-up Jane and Michael Banks, living in Depression-era London, and introduces Michael’s three children to her magical skills—and lamplighter Jack (Miranda). It’s not a remake, Miranda reminds. They have eight Mary Poppins books full of adventures to tap.
In 2011, Harvey Weinstein, the movie and theater mogul (“Chicago,” “Finding Neverland,” “Singin’ in the Rain”), acquired the movie rights in turnaround from Universal for “In the Heights.” Jon M. Chu, director of the last two “Step Up” musicals and “Now You See Me 2,” is in talks to direct a $15-million project for producers Scott Sanders, Mara Jacobs, and Miranda, who starred in the original as a man who inherits money and plans to shutter his bodega and retire to the Dominican Republic. (No word on whether he’ll return in the role.) Original stage book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes is writing the screenplay.
And of course, a film version of “Hamilton” is also in the works.
So how does Miranda go about fielding all the possibilities that are coming to him now?
He’s trying to balance all the things inside him since before “Hamilton” that are “burning to be written and be made, and the opportunities that are so incredible that you would kick yourself forever if you are not part of them,” he said. “Every career is balancing that. I say ‘yes’ to as many as I can while still listening to the little ideas inside me: ‘We were here before you were cool!'”
While he studiously avoids politics even as he wears a safety pin on his lapel, Miranda admitted that “I cannot control the world or its events or how I feel, but I can control what I put on Twitter and what I put out in the world.” That sweet optimism is not all Miranda is capable of, he reminds. ” You can’t write ‘Hamilton’ without going to the deepest pits of despair and of sorrow… and I can choose what I put into the world with my name. I choose to be an oasis for folks when Twitter can feel like it needs one.”