Lin-Manuel Miranda on the music of Moana
Lin-Manuel Miranda expects to do the unexpected. He is, after all, the man who turned the story of 18th century American politician Alexander Hamilton into a hip-hop musical now causing unprecedented levels of hysteria on Broadway.
So when the New York-born Puerto Rican was asked to pen the songs for Disney's Moana, its recently released animated adventure set on the islands and waters of the Pacific, he did not hesitate to accept - despite knowing almost nothing about the region, its culture, or its sounds.
Miranda's introduction to it all came by way of Auckland's Pasifika Festival, the world's largest celebration of Pacific Island cultures.
"The job offer came with a plane ticket - I was on a plane the next day to New Zealand!" Miranda recalls of his 2014 baptism by fire.
At Western Springs, he found himself on stage as an enthusiastic contestant in an impromptu dance contest.
"I don't like to play games I can't win, so when I jumped up on that stage I shook my hips like my life depended on it, and I won!"
The songwriter admits his heritage gave him an edge.
"Luckily, Puerto Ricans know how to move their hips too, so I had a cultural way in."
Miranda was joined in Auckland by Opetiaia Foa'i from Pacific group Te Vaka, and American composer Mark Mancina. The trio knew they had been tasked with an enormous responsibility.
"We all went in keenly aware that this is a part of the world that doesn't get to see themselves on screen that much," says Miranda.
"Opetaia...is an amazing songwriter and ambassador for his people and culture. We were always keen on getting the details right - making sure those rhythms felt real and rooted, [and that] those harmonies that are so singular to that part of the world made their way onto the screen."
Their work bolsters the emotional heart of the film, which follows the plucky daughter of an island chief (played by Hawaiian newcomer Auli'i Cravalho) as she braves the ocean to enlist demigod Maui (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson) to save her dying homeland.
One of the musical moments Miranda's proudest of happens before the film even begins, as the voice of Foa'I's daughter Olivia Foa'i soars above the iconic Disney castle logo in the Samoan-Tokelauan opening song 'Tulou Tagaloa'.
"This is not Disney princess land, this is a new part of the world," Miranda says. "And I'm thrilled by that, it's exciting to be a part of it."
Moana has been hailed as groundbreaking as far as Disney "princess" films are concerned. Not only is she the first Polynesian princess, she also shirks the usual perfectly coiffed, hourglass-waisted look and conspicuously doesn't have a love interest.
The new direction has paid off for Disney - the film opened strongly worldwide, contributing to the company's record US$7 billion box office takings for the year.
Moana will earn Miranda a new legion of fans who have never heard of Hamilton. But is the Pulitzer, Grammy and Tony Award-winner prepared for that?
"Um, no!" he laughs. "I've just survived Hamilton and I wasn't even remotely ready for how big that would be! So I'm just along for the ride."