As a joke, the team at Disney likes to say that they "discovered" Lin-Manuel Miranda.
While it's true that Miranda was hired to pen the lyrics to Disney's first foray into Polynesian culture, "Moana," several months before the his Broadway mega-sensation, "Hamilton," made its debut, the reality is, Miranda has been working non-stop for well over a decade. In 1999, he penned the first draft of his previous hit show, "In the Heights," while still in college. The show didn't hit off-Broadway until eight years later, and it took one more year for it to reach Broadway audiences in 2008 (it won two Tonys and a Grammy). In between "Heights" and "Hamilton," he also appeared in a number of television shows, like "The Sopranos," "House," "Modern Family," "Smash," "Sesame Street," and more. Miranda has also performed for President Obama at the White House, and has racked up a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy, multiple Tonys and an Emmy.
So, technically, Disney was a little behind on their discovery.
Miranda is attached to three more Disney films after "Moana," including "Mary Poppins," the live-action "The Little Mermaid," and the untitled Jared Bush movie. We got a chance to sit down with the one-man pop-culture sensation to talk about his whirlwind past few years, creating the sound of "Moana," and his feelings being called "a hero" by many.
So, you have had quite a whirlwind two and a half years. "In the Heights" was beautiful, but from there, you have, "Hamilton," "Moana," and now you're adding "Mary Poppins" and "The Little Mermaid." Can you describe what this experience has been like for you?
Did you ever see when Wile E. Coyote used to strap himself to a rocket to try to catch the roadrunner? That's been my year. That's how it feels, honestly. What has kept me sane and grounded is my family and friends, who make fun of me at every opportunity and keep me humble. But the joy of getting the opportunity to contribute to the Disney canon -- I'm here because Sebastian the crab rocked my world when I was nine years old. I'm really proud to be a part of this tradition in my small way.
How is this playing into your role as a father? All of this started when you found out you were pregnant with your son, and now, here you are part of the Disney legacy and he's going to grow up with this.
Yeah, it's exciting. It's really thrilling. For many years, I contributed to "Sesame Street," and if there's one person outside of the family whose name my son knows, it's Elmo, and that's also really exciting, too. It's always exciting to write something that you know your kid's going to like. I just feel really proud and tickled by that, it's not going to really dawn on him until much later that a lot of the music he heard growing up was before the rest of the world heard it. He knew "Moana's" songs before any of y'all. He's been singing "Aue, Aue" for a year. That's been a joy. He's also my litmus test. I've got a kid, if I find him singing the song then we're going to be ok, this passes the test, this passes the Sebastian test. It's just a joy.
Your styles of music for 'In the Heights" and "Hamilton" are somewhat similar -- but here, in "Moana," you take on the Polynesian sound. How was that process, especially considering you were writing this while you were performing "Hamilton"? How did you clear your head in order to get into the different sound of "Moana"?
A lot of the advantages of what you're talking about were already in place because the filmmakers established this Oceanic Story Trust. Any time I had a question about the culture or the rhythms, there was an answer there for me, and then there's Opetaia [Foa'i], who is such a great musical ambassador for his culture. Everything that comes out of him sounds like that part of the world and so we let that lead.
Your job as a songwriter is to be a chameleon. You know, I also wrote a musical called "Bring It On: The Musical," and there, we're chasing the pop sounds of a cheerleading rally, and on that show, which doesn't get talked about as much as "Heights" or "Hamilton," I really learned how to let percussion lead. We're chasing this "clap-clap-clap" beat, and how do you write a song that tells a story, when this is the beat? I learned a lot about working backwards from rhythm and that was really important on this because Ope's rhythms are very unique to this part of the world and then we start from there to write the song that will tell our story. That was very valuable, everything you do kind of helps you learn more for your next gig.
Can you talk a little bit about what your process is, right now, for "The Little Mermaid" and then for "Mary Poppins"?
"The Little Mermaid" is in really early talks. We don't have anything yet, other than talking to Alan Menken and being really excited to make a live-action adaptation. My job right now is to be the number one fan. No one likes "The Little Mermaid" more than I do. No one has seen it more times than me. Except for maybe Ron [Clements] and John [Musker], who directed the movie. I sort of see my role as just helping find the people that will make that transition to live-action as exciting and surprising as possible. I don't know whether that means I'm writing music, or whether I'm just supervising, or whether I'm just helping pick the creative team. I just have my number one fan hat on, and then we'll see what form that takes.
Touching back a little bit on culture, and when I told people I was going to be talking to you, the biggest thing I heard, from almost everybody, was "He is my hero." This was from a lot of Latinos, in particular. For Latinos who have been trying to break into entertainment, especially on Broadway, there's so very little out there for us. What does that mean to you to be called a hero? What is that responsibility like?
Well, I've got to say, a lot of this is selfish. I started writing "In the Heights" because I wanted a life in musicals and I don't dance well enough to play Bernardo or Paul, and if you're a Latino dude, those are the only ones in the canon. "In the Heights" came out of desire to write my way into this field that I love so much. That's my answer. The notion of "hero" is scary because I am the same person I was before any of this attention got here.
I make mistakes, and I yell at people in traffic, and I'm just as flawed and messed up as anybody else. But at the same time, I feel very honored by the fact that, I worked really hard to get here and I had a lot of luck, and when the luck presented itself, I was ready, because I had been working so hard, I had written so many drafts of songs and shows. If my success is a testament to anything, it's that, it's just getting your reps in, and getting your ten thousand hours of practice in so that when that opportunity comes, whether it's in the form of an audition or a chance meeting, you're ready to meet the moment.
I follow you on Twitter, and you're so positive and uplifting. You're always talking to your fans. These past couple of weeks have been very very hard for so many people. Is there a message you want to send out to them?
Well, I can't change reality, and I can't change the effects that will inevitably come from the outcome of this election. What I can tell you is that the values we fought for in this presidential campaign didn't go away. There are millions of people who voted for tolerance and respect and those didn't vanish on Wednesday [after the election]. I've been as mindful of Twitter as anyone else this week, and what I see is I've seen a lot of people projecting their fear and a lot of people projecting their concerns, and that's absolutely fine; feel however you want to feel. That's important. I've been just trying to be this beacon of, the people who love you didn't go anywhere, your allies didn't go anywhere. These peaceful protests that have been happening all weekend, they're proof that there's a lot of people for whom, there's a phobia, an ugliness that came out of this campaign, it doesn't represent their values, and we're all still here, and we're still going to fight for those values.
"Moana" is a part of a new Disney renaissance, just like Ron Clements and John Musker was a part of in the '90s. Here you are included in this new era; you're an essential part of it. What are your feelings on it?
I feel thrilled. You're talking to someone who got Alan Menken's autograph when he was 10 years old. The chance to be a part of it, part of your world, pardon the pun, is really overwhelming and wonderful and I'm also really proud. I think it's exciting that the corner of the world that we're representing on screen, which doesn't often see themselves represented on screen, I'm hoping that they see this movie and they can point at it with pride and I hope we've done everything we can to make that the case.
Disney's "Moana" opens everywhere November 23.