Lin-Manuel Miranda on His Oscar-Nominated 'Moana' Song: 'You Start by Thinking, Don’t Write "Let It Go"'

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Lin-Manuel Miranda at a Moana screening last fall. (Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage)

It’s unusual to schedule an interview during the last quarter of the Super Bowl, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is somewhat pressed for time these days. Miranda, the Oscar-nominated writer-performer-musician whom it’s impossible to describe without at least two hyphens, flew into Los Angeles late on Sunday to attend Monday’s Oscar Nominees Luncheon. There, the man who wrote and starred in the Broadway sensation Hamilton will celebrate his nod for Best Original Song for the stirring ballad “How Far I’ll Go” from the Disney animated adventure Moana. Then it’s back on a plane to London, where he’s filming the live-action Disney musical Mary Poppins Returns. (Emily Blunt plays the title character, and Miranda co-stars as a lamplighter named Jack, a spiritual descendant of Dick Van Dyke’s character from the 1964 film.) “I’m singing and dancing all day and it’s really fun,” Miranda told Yahoo Movies of the Poppins sequel.

While he may not have been in the stadium last night, Miranda was well-represented by original Hamilton cast members Renée Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones, who sang an opening performance of “America the Beautiful” with an added nod to sisterhood. Miranda paused the big game in those nail-biting final minutes to talk with Yahoo Movies about his method for writing a great Disney song, the decision that helped him find Moana’s voice, whether he plans to celebrate his potential EGOT (the acronym for winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, of which Miranda is missing only the Oscar), and the thrill of bringing his 2-year-old son to the Mary Poppins set.

 Watch the “How Far I’ll Go” scene from Moana:

 

Yahoo Movies: So great to see the Schuyler sisters at the Super Bowl!

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Yeah, it was thrilling, wasn’t it? I thought they did great. I FaceTimed with them afterwards — they’re all in a box watching the game. And I found out the same day everybody else did. I was talking to Renée, and she was like, “I’m on my way to rehearse with the girls!” And I was like, “Aaah!” So I just feel like a joyous, proud friend.

The “sisterhood” lyric was a perfect touch.

That was a nice addition, wasn’t it? That was very sweet. I was surprised by that too.

So we’re talking about “How Far I’ll Go,” which is Moana’s big song in the film — what musical theater people call an “I want” song. And writing one for this movie seems like a really intimidating assignment, because when I think about the greatest song in this vein, I think about Disney songs like “Part of Your World.”

You and me both, sister.

So when your job is to write that song, where do you start? 

You start by thinking, “Don’t write ‘Let It Go,’ don’t write ‘Let It Go,’ don’t write ‘Let It Go.’” [Laughs] No, I mean honestly, it is daunting. And I think the only way to get around that, especially if you’re a Disney geek like you and I are, is to just double down on how specific your character story is, and just get to the most honest and specific moment you can. Because that’s actually what you love about the other “I want” songs. What we love about Ariel and “Part of Your World” is not the lyric “part of your world,” it’s those lyrics like “What is a fire and why does it — what’s the word — burn?” It’s those that are so specific to who she is and where she is, that they couldn’t be sung by anyone else. So the only way to not psych yourself out is to be like, “None of these other great Disney songs are telling Moana’s story. You have to tell Moana’s story. So quit thinking about ‘Let It Go’ and do it, Lin.” [Laughs]

I saw a press screening of Moana two days after the election, and I almost didn’t go. But it made me feel so good about the U.S., the art that we make here, and the things that bring us together.

It is seeing a nice young woman save the world without needing a boyfriend at the end of the movie. She’s just gotta save the world — she ain’t got time for that!

And it’s very respectful and celebratory of Polynesian culture. When you were working on the film, did you have certain values that you wanted to convey with this movie?

We were very aware that we were representing a part of the world that doesn’t see itself onscreen very often, and Disney has a big megaphone. We worked with a story trust and people on the islands at every major point in character development, making sure we were being authentic and truthful to this world. Speaking for the musical department, [co-songwriter] Opetaia Foa’i was our touchstone. Opetaia has made a career out of representing his ancestors and speaking to them through his music. And so every rhythm that you hear in this movie is vetted by him, and the harmonies have to be true to that part of the world as well. So we took all that very seriously. And then you have fun with your characters and you figure out your story.

So that was the fun of the journey, because the thing we fell in love with about Pacific culture is this lost art of navigation: navigating without compasses, and reading the sky, the stars, the way the waves are falling, and what birds signify. The metaphor knocks you out, but it’s literal here, which is: You actually have to keep where you’re from in your mind at a fixed point to get to where you’re going. So you always have to remember home. That’s the way the system of navigation works. It’s called wayfinding. And what better metaphor could there be for our character and her journey than remembering where you came from, so you can go to the next place?

Were there early drafts of “How Far I’ll Go” that had different hooks?

Yeah, and actually you can hear them on the deluxe edition of the CD. There was a song called “More” that was sort of my first crack at it. And it’s a great tune, I’m very proud of it, but at the same time it wasn’t specific enough. And I think the turning point for this song happened when we realized: Moana’s not bored with her island — Moana loves her island and she loves her people, and she wants to be the daughter of the village chief — and yet there’s this voice. And I think that’s a much more interesting and subtle distinction to make: I love it here, I love my people, I know the role I’m supposed to play, and yet there’s this voice that the further I push it down, the harder it asserts itself. And I think that’s very relatable and specific at the same time. So that’s sort of the extra step we took to find “How Far I’ll Go” — this notion of everyone here knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and I know what I’m supposed to be doing, and yet there’s this voice that’s telling me, “Run to the sea.”

It’s something that really sets Moana apart from other heroines: She finds herself without running away from her home and culture. In some ways it seems like a bolder choice.

I had a similar thing when I was working on [Miranda’s first Broadway musical] In the Heights. I got a lot of notes from producers, who didn’t end up being involved, being like, “You gotta give Nina stakes! What if she got pregnant at school? What if her boyfriend beat her?”

Oh my God!

Believe me, that’s not the worst of the notes I got. Not from our actual producers, but from people who would see the show in process. And what we were trying to accomplish was so much more subtle, which was, this is a young woman who’s been built up to be the star of her neighborhood all her life, and then she goes to a place where everyone’s the star of their neighborhood. And so she sort of comes home with her tail between her legs. And we fought for that. Even though it was more subtle than a more soap-ish plot line, I can’t tell you how many young Latina and Latino men and women have come up to me saying, “I was the first in my family to go to college, and Nina spoke to me.” Because we reached for the more subtle storyline, the more specific storyline than “some dramatic event happened and I couldn’t hack it.”

When Frozen songwriter Robert Lopez got his Oscar for “Let It Go,” his daughter made him an EGOT necklace.  

Oh I know, I remember!

Does your family have any arts-and-craftsy EGOT plans if you win?

[Laughs] I don’t think so! My son is only 2, so — I was going to say, hopefully I’ll get a performance of “How Far I’ll Go,” but frankly I get a performance of “How Far I’ll Go” about 20 times a day from my son. That’s his default chorus to go to. It’s that and Daddy Yankee. So yeah. That’s what I live for, is the fact that he’s grown up singing these songs because he heard them first.

And is he with you in London?

I actually brought him to set for the first time yesterday, so he got to see Daddy singing and dancing. And he heard my voice on the playback when he was still outside the studio, and he went, “That’s Daddy! Daddy’s singing!”

How are things with Mary Poppins? Is there anything you can tell me?

Not too much I can tell you, other than It’s a full-on musical and it will be out Christmas of 2018. So it feels like a very long time to wait. But we’re going to be filming most of the year, so it’s really exciting to be a part of it.

Watch Dwayne Johnson talk about his jitters singing for Moana:


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