Lin-Manuel Miranda is ready to talk about Bruno.
The ridiculously talented multihyphenate had an incredible 2021, which saw (amongst other things) an adaptation of his beloved musical “In the Heights” released, a long-gestating animated musical called “Vivo” finally come out, and his debut feature as a writer/director, “Tick, Tick … BOOM!” hit Netflix.
And then there’s “Encanto.”
Miranda’s second feature for Walt Disney Animation Studios after “Moana,” “Encanto” tells the story of a family in Colombia at the turn of the 20th century, each of whom is gifted with a magical ability … all except awkward Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz). While it was released into theaters at Thanksgiving, it really made a splash at Christmas, when it debuted on Disney+. Since then, it has been nominated for three Oscars (including one for Best Original Song), the soundtrack has dominated the Billboard charts, and it has been immortalized in countless TikTok videos, pieces of fan art, and highly sharable memes.
In a wide-ranging interview, Miranda talks about the differences between working on “Moana” and “Encanto,” what he thinks about Disney CEO Bob Chapek calling “Encanto” the company’s newest animated franchise, and sheds some light on what he’s doing for the upcoming live-action “Little Mermaid” adaptation.
“Encanto” directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush told me it was your idea to set the movie in Latin America. Confirm or deny?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I guess so. I don’t remember that. I don’t remember a lot of things. Basically, I remember the day after “Moana” opened, raising my hand and calling Tom MacDougall, who is my boss in the music department, saying, “If you’re doing a Latin themed animated musical, you have to call me. I’ve been preparing all my life”. The joy of it was us figuring it all out together. I wanted to be set in Latin America. That’s certainly true. And then Jared and Byron were the ones who were like Colombia, home of magical realism, home to infinite diversity and biodiversity and lots of different things. It just can hold anything we want it to hold and they were just really inspired by it and I was happy to join them.
You’ve talked about how you came on “Moana” much later in the process. Being a foundational member of this team, did that affect your approach to the songwriting?
Well, I think the biggest thing was that I think the songs are more integrated into the storytelling than any other animated project I’ve ever worked on. And they’re integrated in surprising ways. That’s the really fun part – there’s the world in which you write the opening number, you write the song for the girl, you write the song for the sidekick, you write the song for the villain, and then you keep it moving. But because I was there from the beginning and we set ourselves this incredible challenge of, I think it’s three generations whose story we’re telling. And that means 12 major characters. And it’s about that.
So many stories are the hero and their quest. That’s what you’re going to learn in every screenwriting workshop until the end of time. But the challenge is the relationships among all of these people under this one roof, that’s our challenge. That is our story and uncovering different perspectives and different relationships is the key to it. And as a result, there are songs in this that don’t have a lot of animated precedent in their form because there were ways of solving that challenge. The opening number is like a musical family tree because I raised my hand and said, “If we don’t understand how everyone’s related, we’re so lost. We’re donezo.” And I wrote that. Even before we knew who had which power, I said, “Let me figure out how this sings, because if we can make it sing, then you can’t say it’s too complicated.”
That was an early for proof of concept. And then the other early proof of concept was “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” I said, “If I can write a gossip number, then I can hear from different family members and learn who they are without them having their own song.” Because everyone talks about this one character. And it’s actually a Trojan horse to get to know a lot of different characters.
Those two songs are problem-solving in terms of, how do you get your arms around this whole family? It’s delightful that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the crazy number one hit, but that would never have been my pick. It was my way of just getting to know these other folks who we know we’re not going to have as much screen real estate with.
In terms of you being a story artist and a songwriter, the closest comparison is probably Howard Ashman. What impact did Howard have on you?
Oh my goodness. Well, I’m happy to talk about Howard because he profoundly changed my life. And one, in his work with Alan Menken ushered in the second golden age. The second golden age of Disney movies is the animated musical. And he took all of the storytelling he learned in the theater and brought it to this new medium. When I first got hired for “Moana,” one of the first things I did was get a DVD of his talk to the animators. There are glimpses of it in the Howard Ashman documentary, which is a wonderful documentary, but I’ve watched the whole hour and a half where he breaks down for the animators, “This is how musicals work. And beginning with ‘Fathoms Below,’ we’re going to tell you how this world works, how it sings. Then we follow that one fish. It goes back down into the ocean. And now we’re in our world.”
It’s a head fake. It’s a head fake of an opening number and it’s so genius. And the other gift, and it’s what I’m always chasing as a lyricist, and Howard is an example of it, but Jay-Z is also example of it within his genre and Gershwin is an example of it in that genre, is a lyric that is both beautiful and conversational. I think “Part of Your World” is the gold standard of I want songs, but the real magic of it is that Ariel doesn’t know half the words to what she’s singing about. And so you get a lyric like, “What’s a fire and why does it, what’s the word, burn?” That “what’s the word” is everything. It’s the difference between me really believing Ariel is who she is and being with her or a pretty song. The playwright element is always what you’re chasing.
And certain lyrics I can point at that I feel proud of because they feel both conversational and they sit on the music well. The one that for some reason just makes me weep, even though it makes no one else weep, no one has ever told me, that’s the lyric that gets me, is Isabella in “What Else Can I Do” when she goes, “I’m so sick of pretty, I want something true, don’t you?” That kills me for some reason, because it really feels like it erupts out of some deeper place that is not what we’ve been hearing so far.
You alluded to the smash success of the “Encanto” soundtrack. When did you realize this was a thing?
Well, it’s funny, because I… Can I curse on this?
I finished all of the movies. “Tick, Tick…” came out and “Encanto” came out and then we did New Year with my family. And then Vanessa and I f–ked off. We went off the grid. We went to an island where no one knows who we are and we had drinks and we took tennis lessons and really unplugged from the world. And then when I got back, my inbox was full of memes and messages from first, close friends, being like, “Hey, my kids can’t stop singing Bruno.” Then it became less close friends, people I hadn’t heard from since college being like, “My kids can’t stop singing. I know we haven’t talked in years, but my kids won’t stop singing this.” And that’s when I realized, oh, this is another thing. I kind of came back to it.
You have such a scholarly outlook on musical theater. Do you know why this has connected? Have you thought about this at all?
Again I’ve been joking. This is my “Send in the Clowns.” “Send in the Clowns” was Sondheim’s only chart topper and it’s like “Send in the Clowns?” It’s a great song. It’s a great moment in act two, but that’s the one? Okay. But in thinking on it, because I’ve been asked this question a lot, it gets back to the fact that the, and we forget this all the time as artists, the challenge you’re most keen to solve, ends up being what’s unique about your piece. And the challenge we were most keen to solve is, How do we make all these characters pop on screen and understand them and understand how they relate to each other? And as a result, you’ve got Camilo stans because they’re crazy about the way he goes “Rats along his back” and the ASMR in his voice when Rhenzy sings it.
And then you’ve got fans of just Dolores’ verse who learned her amazing dance that was created by Jamal and Kai. And because we were trying to get our arms around so much, everyone has an on ramp. Everyone has a way into that tune.
It’s funny. It’s the ones that hit are the ones that you didn’t even feel like you worked on that long. It only took me a week and a half to write that song. I labored over Mirabel’s “I Want” song, but that one just, I was like, oh, it needs to be a spooky montuno, goes and hits a keyboard. It was really joyous to write. And I think that shows and people respond to that joy.
Has there been a meme or a TikTok or whatever that you have been really moved by?
Well, I am moved anytime kids see themselves, whether that’s young kids who see themselves as Antonio and think that’s them on the screen or little Latina girls with curly hair and glasses. That is, again, I’m creating what was missing when I was a child and to see “Encanto” do that for so many kids and feel seen. I’m also really moved by folks who feel seen by the songs of this, by the older siblings who feel themselves in “Surface Pressure.” That’s another lyric, “Give it to your sister. Your sister is older.” That’s a very conversational lyric. If I have broken something or f–ked it up, my parents saying, “Give it to your sister,” as the baby of the family. And in a lot of ways, that song is my apology/”I see you” letter to my older sibling. And so that that resonates is very moving because I’m very much pulling from my own experience to find those details.
There’s been a little bit of Oscar controversy because “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” wasn’t submitted. But “Dos Oruguitas” is a hugely personal song to you. Are you happy that that was submitted?
Yeah. Oh, I’m stoked. And you know what’s funny is what a lovely difficult decision. I remember with “Moana,” it was way harder than “Encanto” in ways because it was like, the job should be, what is the song that exemplifies this spirit of this movie? And we had, “How Far I’ll Go,” but then we also had, but The Rock could sing “You’re Welcome” at the Oscars if you get nominated. How about The Rock in a tux singing a song you wrote? It was quite the tempting siren song, but that doesn’t represent the spirit of the movie. “How Far I’ll Go” is “Moana’s” heart song. That’s what you put forward.
And so with this, it was actually very simple because to me, “Dos Oruguitas” is the foundational story that gives birth to the family that you’ve been with for an hour and change at this point in the film. It was an easy decision in that it really exemplifies the spirit of the film and holds all the characters inside it. I’m really proud of it and whether it wins or it loses, you can’t predict something like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” You just have to pick what you think represents your film well.
Last week Bob Chapek referred to this as the company’s new animated franchise.
Did he really?
If I go to Disneyland, I’m going to get some sweet VIP access.
Have you started working on anything new?
No. I’m literally learning from you that Chapek said that. I talked to him and said, “I know there’s a world in which this casita lives in a theme park and we get to actually walk through it in real life.” And that’s really exciting, but the other byproduct of all these characters is that there’s a lot more folks want us to explore and a lot that’s being explored in fan art all over world. I don’t know what form that takes. I don’t know if that’s an animated series. I don’t know if that’s a second movie. I don’t know if that’s a stage adaptation where we have a little more time to go deep. I think it’s all possible, but we had no conversations about what they actually are.
Are you fully on board the “Encanto” express?
Yeah, well, honestly right now, it consists of the very animated group thread among our creative team, as we all send each other the video of this family lip syncing to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” in the car next to a drawing I saw yesterday of Bruno wearing a hat that says, “Women want me, fish fear me.” And I was like, that’s a thinker because it’s like, oh, because of the fish the next day dead. Got it.
We are just enjoying how much it’s connected right now. There have been really no conversations about what is the next form for the Madrigal family.
But you want a theme park attraction? What about a Colombia pavilion at EPCOT?
Well, I took my kids to Disneyland for the first time pre-pandemic a few years ago. And we sat through The Little Mermaid thing five times in a row. That’s where my brain goes. It’s like, I want to go in and out of this casita and see those characters and see the house respond because that’s something Disney can do that no one else can do.
But yeah, in terms of the world of the characters, it’s really early days on that. I don’t know what that will be.
You brought up “Little Mermaid.” You have worked on “Little Mermaid.”
I have worked on it.
We should break some news here. Are you in it?
I’m not in it.
Not even a cameo?
No. I wish. I was trying to plan a vacation around when they were going to… They were in some really nice islands. I didn’t get to go. It was COVID. No one’s visiting a set. My one chance to visit the set got scuttled, sorry, by COVID. And the only time I was on set was when they were recording some of the vocals. January 2020, I got to hear Awkwafina sing a bit, and I got to hear Daveed sing a bit. And that was really it. And I Skyped in on some of the other vocals, but listen, you don’t need me around to have Halle sing “Part of Your World.” You know she’s going to tear the skin off the ball when she sings it. I’m really excited to see what Rob’s done. The only news I can break is that Alan Menken FaceTimed me excitedly, that he saw a rough cut and he loved it. And now he’s scoring it in addition to the songs. He’s hard at work.
How many new songs are there?
I don’t know. Well, I know how many we wrote. I don’t know if they’ll all make it in, but it’s probably three or four songs. I’m at pains to tell you, replacing none of the songs you love. The songs you love are in the movie because they’re the songs I love. Everything you love in the original is there.
We obviously can’t talk about specifics, but what was your intent? What feeling are you trying to get across with these new songs? And obviously stepping into Howard’s shoes must have been a daunting task.
Oh, so full circle. And again, what’s amazing is you never know how something is going to inform something else. I was one working on those songs with Alan at the same time I was doing prep for “Tick, Tick… Boom” and that’s Jonathan’s generation. Jonathan is a contemporary of Alan and Howard. They were all trying to get their stuff on at the same time. And Alan showed me this short documentary piece someone did about him when he was in the ASCAP songwriting group as a young, to use probably his word, pisher and watched his work get ripped to shit by Lehman Engel in this little doc. But the look of it was exactly what I needed for the songwriting workshop scene in “Tick, Tick… Boom.”
And I was like, “You have no idea the gift you’ve given me,” because I’m seeing Alan and a young Maury Yeston and a young Susan Birkenhead all in this tiny, what looks like a war tribunal, working on musicals. Again, there were so many times when working on this one, I got to hear Alan talk about his process and working with Howard, but also it really informed the work I did as a director on “Tick, Tick” because Alan also just lost so many friends to this virus and that fear and that feeling in the air became a tangible thing we could chase with this other film.
“Encanto” is on Disney+ now, and available to own on Blu-ray, Digital HD, and 4K Blu-ray now.