Lin-Manuel Miranda tells PEOPLE the surprising story behind crafting his Oscar-nominated Moana track "How Far I'll Go"

By Dave Quinn
February 24, 2017 01:13 PM
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In musical theater, it’s called the “I Want” song.

Typically a ballad found within a musical’s first few scenes, the tune is an opportunity for composers to put into words the leading character’s desires and motivations so that the audience can have a clear sense of where the story is going.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is well-versed in the phrase, having written the scores to In the Heights, Hamilton and Disney’s Oscar-nominated animated musical Moana — for which its “I Want” song, “How Far I’ll Go,” is nominated for Best Original Song.

Disney has a long cannon of “I Want” songs themselves (see The Little Mermaid‘s “Part of Your World” or Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s “Out There“). But “How Far I’ll Go” is a major turn for the studio — in fact, it’s the studio’s most unique ballad yet.

Unlike every other Disney character — princess or otherwise — Moana doesn’t want to leave her current life to be part of another world. Instead, she’s looking to grow so she can be better for her world.

"The Hamilton Mixtape" Album of the Year
Credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for PEOPLE En Espanol

“That’s what I relate to most in Moana — that yearning,” Miranda tells PEOPLE. “For me, that’s wanting to write musicals or make movies. For Moana, that’s longing to set sail across the ocean and provide for her village. She loves her culture, she loves the role she plays; she’s grown to accept it and be proud of it. And yet there’s that pull.”

Writing a song that encompassed those feelings was satisfying for Miranda.

“To me that’s much more complicated than, ‘I hate it here and I want to get out,’ ” he says. “To say, ‘I love it here, I love my parents, but why can’t I stop walking to the ocean and fantasizing about getting out of here?’ And questioning that instinct? It’s even more confusing. And that’s a valid story too. It’s internal, and I think internal is interesting.”

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Miranda admits he didn’t start off with plans to change Disney’s path. “My first draft, which I’m very proud of, was a much more conventional Disney “I Want” song,” Miranda explains. “Like, ‘I’m bored here — I want more.’ ”

Credit: Disney

Things changed when Miranda started writing another of the film’s track — the early tune “Where You Are,” which describes Moana’s world.

“We were celebrating everything in the village and really falling in love with her world. So once we fell in love with this world, Moana’s song couldn’t be about, ‘Let’s get out of this world!’ ” Miranda laughs. “It had to be about, ‘I love it here so why do I keep hearing this voice in my head?’ ”

Bringing Moana into the driver’s seat help pave the way for the rest of the score — but that doesn’t mean Miranda wasn’t a little nervous throughout.

“It was a little nerve-racking,” the lifelong Disney fan says of writing Moana‘s score. “But working with Disney itself, what’s most joyous about it is what a collaboration it is. I feel like we were given so much agency to sort of pipe up and say where music can speak and what music can do. In that way, it was very much like writing theater. You don’t get into writing theater because you like being alone or protected. You get into theater because you like collaborating. And you love getting into that mindset where the best idea wins. So it felt like that times a thousand!”

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Some of Miranda’s collaborators early-on were cast members from Hamilton, who helped by lending their voices to demos in-between rehearsals. ”

I had the great luxury of when I was writing these songs, I was in a building with incredible singers,” says Miranda — who roped friends like Phillipa Soo (Eliza) Christopher Jackson (George Washington) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Angelica) into recording.

“So I have Phillipa doing a lot of drafts of Disney songs. I’ve got Marcy Harriell, who played Vanessa in In the Heights, singing some,” Miranda says. “There’s even a version of “Where You Are” with Chris and Renée playing the parents — who, by the way, played Simba and Nala together in The Lion King on Broadway. The Disney connection runs deep!”

While Miranda’s already released a demo from one of those cut tracks — “Warrior Face” — he said that more could pop up here and there.

“Maybe they’re saving that for the 10th anniversary,” he joked.