Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mark Mancina & Opetaia Foa'i on Creating Disney's 'Moana' Music as 'Hamilton' Exploded

 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection


Nearly three years ago, as they started work on the music for Disney’s new animated feature Moana, Lin-Manuel Miranda mentioned to his collaborators -- Grammy-winning composer Mark Mancina and Somoan artist Opetaia Foa’i -- that he was writing a musical called Hamilton.

“I said, ‘That’s cool,'" Mancina recalls with a laugh. “I had no idea it would be the biggest thing. He went from somewhat unknown to I’d say, ‘I’m working with Lin-Manuel Miranda,’ and people are calling me saying, ‘How’d you get that chance?’”

For the ancient story of a teenage girl, Moana, who sets sail in Polynesia with a demigod, Maui, to help save her people, Disney wanted music that drew upon the traditional South Pacific culture combined with pop and Broadway sensibilities. As founder and leader of New Zealand traditional music outfit Te Vaka, Foa’i was able to provide expertise on music from Polynesia and ensure authenticity.

“I have spent 20 years of my life dedicated to telling the stories of my ancestors onstage by touring the world, 40 countries, and through songs,” says Foa’i, who lives in New Zealand. “It’s something I’m very passionate about and I’m glad to say that I’m very happy with the way it’s represented in this movie.”

To further help them find their way musically, Disney sent the trio to a traditional vocal and dance festival in New Zealand, which exposed them to beautiful choral harmonies and rhythmic drumming. “A lot of conversations were about ‘if we get the rhythm right, we’re halfway there,’” Miranda says. 

“[Disney] drove us straight from the festival to a studio. The combination of the three of us was great,” Mancina says. “We realized all of us can go different places. It wasn’t like one person is the classical guy, one person is the lyricist… we can all interchange.”

So immediate was their chemistry that in the studio they finished the initial writing for one of the main songs, “We Know the Way,” a song Foa’i began after his first meeting with the Disney team in December 2013. “Opetaia brought it in to the studio and it was in an entirely different language, so I set about writing English lyrics that paralleled the adventures we’re going on and wrote a melody and then Mark started playing with chords,” Miranda says. “So it was a really wonderful way to begin, because it was, ‘Let’s honor this part of the world we just spent two days immersed in.’”

“It’s a song that conjures up pride, confidence and power all in one emotion for me, and I’m very proud that it’s the theme track of Moana,” Foa’i adds.

From there, the three worked in person in Los Angeles when they could until Hamilton exploded and consumed Miranda’s time. “The one thing that was a drag was when Lin became the most famous man in the world, it was just hard to schedule being together, so we ended up working by video conference on the songs,” Mancina says. “That worked out great, but I just had so much fun with them in the studio working together. We could have written this movie 10 times over if we had been together, but we just couldn’t do it. I don’t know how he took on the lyrics. He’s an amazing talent and very bright and sharp.”

By then, Miranda notes, they had established such a sense of trust “that when Opetaia would go off and write a section, I knew he was fine. Then I would start a song. It was all hands on deck,” he says.

For Miranda, one of the most fun tracks to write was “You’re Welcome,” a hilarious song performed by lovable, arrogant Maui, voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

“I’m a huge fan of The Rock -- as a wrestler and [as] a movie star. He can literally be pile-driving you as a wrestler and you’re like, ‘Oh, I love that guy,’” Miranda says. “We did a lot of research into the different beliefs about Maui in [Polynesia], and sometimes he’s responsible for pulling the sun, sometimes he’s responsible for the invention of coconuts, so I loved the idea of this demigod being like, ‘I know it’s overwhelming to meet me. You’re welcome for everything.’ Only Dwayne could pull that off. In my head it was a mix of [the Beauty and the Beast song] ‘Gaston’ and Aladdin’s ‘A Friend Like Me,’ where the whole thing is built on Robin Williams’ incredible charm.”

While the three wrote the songs together (and individually), Mancina also composed the 64-minute score and produced both the songs and the score. As he knew from his work on Tarzan and Brother Bear, animated features often call for rewrites; even changing the color of the sky can change the mood. “As you’re getting the updated picture, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I should change this.’ They can change it really late in the game, even on the scoring stage.”

Mancina utilized Polynesian vocals and percussion on the score, but added in other elements such as guitars and strings. “I’ve got real Polynesian vocals all over the score. While we were still writing, we sent [people] to Fiji to record a Pacific choir. Opetaia and his family and his band came here and we went piece by piece. I’d say, ‘At this section, can you do a traditional war chant?’ and they’d start going and it was amazing.”

Additionally, Mancina used woodwinds made from bamboo from the South Pacific, as well as traditional hide-covered Tyka drums, but, he adds, “We didn’t want it to sound like a Polynesian documentary. We wanted it to salute their culture but have it be a hybrid.”

For Foa’i, he hopes that Moana helps shed light on the music from Polynesia and “that people get to see and understand more of our beautiful cultures here in Oceania, more than what you see at a tourist resort,” he says. “Traditional music is where it’s at. For example, when you hear an ancient chant that makes your hair stand on end, that’s because it’s real. It has meaning.”