Magazine Feature

Lin-Manuel Miranda on Writing Songs for Disney's 'Moana'... and Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Jesse Dittmar/Redux

Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of "Hamilton," stands for a portrait at the Edison Ballroom on Aug. 15, 2016 in New York. 

Walt Disney himself couldn’t have scripted a happier coincidence: During the same week in early 2014 in which Lin-Manuel Miranda learned he was going to write songs for Disney’s animated feature Moana, the Hamilton creator also found out he was going to become a first-time dad. “So I had a new goal,” the 36-year-old tells Billboard: “to make songs my son was going to be singing one day.” The huge Disney fan, who’s also co-starring in the Mary Poppins sequel set for Christmas 2018, discussed how he captured the sound of a mythical Polynesian island — and wrote the perfect song for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — before Moana opens Nov. 23.

Disney sent you and co-writers Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i to a traditional New Zealand music festival when you signed on to Moana. How did that influence you?

This was my whirlwind week: You’re having a baby, you got the Moana job, you’re getting on a plane to New Zealand. We heard a lot of choral singing and watched so many dance troupes — our conversations were about, “If we get the rhythm right, we’re halfway there.” We were in this weird studio on the other side of the world, and most of the initial writing for the song “We Know the Way” happened. It was like, “Let’s honor this part of the world we just spent two days immersed in.”

Compare working on Moana, which was a collaboration, with working on Hamilton, which was your vision.

It’s actually the same skill set: Hamilton prepared me perfectly for this, since theater is about collaboration. If I wanted to write and not work with anyone else, I’d be a recording artist or have a studio in my basement. Instead of feeling like a fish out of water, I felt like I went into a bigger pond.

Courtesy of Disney
Disney's Moana (2016)

What was it like writing “You’re Welcome” for Dwayne Johnson, who voices a lovably arrogant demigod named Maui?

I’m a huge fan of The Rock. He can literally be pile-driving you as a wrestler and you’re like, “Oh, I love that guy.” We did a lot of research into the different beliefs about Maui in Polynesia — sometimes he’s responsible for pulling the sun down, 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 the song was a mix of Beauty and the Beast’s “Gaston” and Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me.”

Will this be your son Sebastian’s first movie?

Yeah. He has seen so many cuts of it that he calls it “Agua,” Spanish for water. He’ll be going, “Dada, Agua, Agua!” 

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.