This story about Lin-Manuel Miranda first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Lin-Manuel Miranda insists that he turns a lot of things down, but the actor-director-singer-songwriter has had the busiest imaginable 2021. In July, the film version of his first Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” hit theaters. In August, Netflix released “Vivo,” an animated film for which he wrote 11 new songs and provided the voice of one of the main characters. In November, the animated Disney film “Encanto” premiered and featured eight more of his new songs. And the same month, his directorial debut, “tick, tick… BOOM!,” was the opening-night film at the AFI Fest 2021.
“This year wasn’t supposed to be this hectic,” he said with a laugh. “I can withstand a certain amount of hectic, but it all kinda got crushed into one year, and as the pandemic schedule lined up, we realized, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a very long year.’”
In all of those films except “tick, tick… BOOM!,” Miranda wrote songs that will compete in the Oscar race. For “In the Heights,” he said that writing a new song was not a priority for him, “because I was fighting for the real estate of the songs that were already there.” But when he got the opportunity to add a new song to the closing credits, he decided that the relationship between Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Nina (Leslie Grace) wasn’t really highlighted in the film.
“I thought of being home all summer, and what a lovely feeling that is. And I wrote the kind of summer jam that only I could write, because I’m a homebody. It was written pre-pandemic, but it came out when we were all home all summer.”
“Vivo” was also begun pre-pandemic, with Miranda writing all the songs and voicing the part of a raccoon-like kinkajou named Vivo. But the song “Keep the Beat,” an ode to resilience that Vivo sings after his plans go awry, was written at a pivotal time.
“I wrote that in April or May of 2020,” he said. “It was probably the first song I wrote after figuring out what our lives were like — after figuring out how to get the dog out of the apartment building safely for her three walks a day, and how to work the kindergarten Zoom class and protect our children and the elders in our family. If you look at that song, it’s so intensely about, ‘What do you do when everything you thought was going to happen is not going to happen?’”
At that point in the process, he had already written “My Own Drum,” a stomping statement of purpose for the fiery young girl Gabi (Ynairaly Simo). “It was exciting to write that,” he said. “Here was a character who was gutsy with spiky purple hair, who takes every lonely-kid trope and flips it into a superpower. I wanted to write a lonely-kid anthem, even though it would never occur to her that she’s lonely.
“When I first made the demo, I was inspired by Missy Elliott, who busted all these boundaries. And then it came full circle when Missy responded to the track and added a verse for the closing credits, which was unreal.”
The last of the projects that called for new songs was “Encanto,” which Miranda worked on while also directing “tick, tick… BOOM!” One of its songs, “Dos Oruguitas,” turned out to be the first song he wrote entirely in Spanish.
“The song came out fully emerged in Spanish,” he said. “The metaphor itself came to me in Spanish, which is very rare for me. I’m pretty English-dominant, though I’m conversationally fluent in Spanish. But I wanted a song that felt like it always existed, that it had been sung around campfires as a lullaby for many years. And the best of those songs, to me, are always nature metaphors. So the notion of two caterpillars in love, who have to let go because that’s how they become their next selves, felt like a perfect metaphor for the family in the movie.”
He listened to old Puerto Rican and Colombian standards for inspiration, then tried to write a simple song that would resonate. And because the song doesn’t advance the plot, he was never concerned that it would be sung entirely in Spanish.
“It felt thematically right to go to the source language of the country where the movie is set,” he said. “You get all the meaning you need out of it, in the same way that you would out of an aria in the tragic moment of an Italian opera.”
He laughed. “Even in the English translation of the song, I don’t sing ‘two caterpillars,’ because caterpillars does not sound as good as oruguitas. It just doesn’t sing in the same way.”