Lin-Manuel Miranda caps a huge ‘Hamilton’ year with ‘Moana’
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 U.K. “According to my body, it’s 8:45 pm. 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 on the world; he simply caught the eyes and ears of John Musker and Ron Clements, two Disney veteran 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 “SNL,” committed to costarring 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” Friday night 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 with The Times 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 catalog 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.
What was the first thing — album, musical, movie — that truly spoke to you and clarified for you that music was your first, best destiny?
I can draw a direct line back to “The Little Mermaid.” That movie came out when I was 9. I saw it three times in the theater. I used to get up on my desk, sing “Under the Sea” in fourth grade. I remember pretending to be sick so that I could be home to buy the VHS at the local drugstore on the day it came out.
Even though I didn’t have a definition of what a Disney movie was, I couldn’t believe I was hearing Caribbean rhythms in a Disney movie. “This is a calypso song!” When you think of Disney you think of “Someday my prince will come….” You think of these lush orchestral tunes. We’ve had so much innovation, it’s hard to realize how totally out of the box it was for a crab to start singing in patois.
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 2.
It was really kind of an incredible journey. And the “Hamilton” phenomenon happened while I was writing it.
How did you split the time?
I had to really protect my writing time. In one sense it was really great, because, you know, when something is as successful as “Hamilton” everyone wants a piece of you. Everyone wants 10 minutes to talk…