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Lin-Manuel Miranda caps a huge ‘Hamilton’ year with ‘Moana’

Writer and musician has won an armful of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy and three of the Broadway show’s 11 Tonys. Now he has a Disney hit

Image Credit: AP
This image released by The Public Theater shows Lin-Manuel Miranda, foreground, with the cast during a performance of "Hamilton," in New York.

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 UK. “According to my body, it’s 8.45pm. 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; he simply caught the eyes and ears of John Musker and Ron Clements, Disney 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 Saturday Night Live (SNL), committed to co-starring 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 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 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 catalogue 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.

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 two.

How did you split the time?

I had to really protect my writing time. 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.

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 5pm every Tuesday and Thursday, then I would go to the chiropractor, then I would get into costume for a 7pm 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. Chris Jackson, who played George Washington, singing Maui’s tunes. He’s actually in the movie [as] the singing voice of Moana’s dad.

What was the key that unlocked the character of Moana for you?

The thing that resonated for me 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. 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 villainising the things around her.

Given the love for Hamilton in the world, 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 colour — and that is increasingly rare in our country, which is a good thing — your job is to honour 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.

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 endeavour 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 seven. 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.

Don’t miss it

Moana is currently showing in the UAE.