How Lin-Manuel Miranda Became a Must-See Songwriter for Disney

The filmmakers say that Disney must have signed a dozen main characters in the new animated film “Encanto”, which centers on the Madrigal family. (Disney)

Lin-Manuel Miranda, wearing his heart on the sleeve of his fall sweater, pauses to admit musical fear. He had written seven songs for his last film, Disney’s “Encanto,” but still needed to create that staple of so many musicals: the main character introducing a driving desire through the melody.

“The song I’ll always write last is our hero’s song ‘I Want’, just because it’s intimidating writing this for Disney,” Miranda said on a recent Zoom call, beaming at a blue screen. “You know it’s on a playlist with ‘Out There’ from ‘Hunchback (of Notre Dame)’ and ‘Reflection’ from ‘Mulan. It’s just a scary place.

Yet “Encanto” director Jared Bush knows that if there was an “I Want” song about Miranda himself, the lyrics would reveal a central truth: “He wants to be challenged.”

How Miranda unlocked this lyrical puzzle for Mirabel, the main teenager in Colombian ensemble “Encanto” (now in theaters), involves a cross-cultural perception and a shared sense of invention – qualities that have made Miranda a talent must-have for Disney.

“He’s hyper-collaborative – that’s one of his greatest skills,” says Bush, a veteran of Disney hits such as “Zootopia”. “For someone as accomplished and acclaimed as Lin-Manuel, he’s a sponge for new ideas.”

These skills allow Miranda to adopt Disney Animation characters and songs like, well, a Donald Duck in the water. “Writing for animated films is like writing for the theater on steroids,” he says. “Your employees have hundreds of animators. This compromise between my music and their visuals is really fascinating. “

Miranda’s creativity also feeds on having multiple projects at once, including her new Netflix directorial debut, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” But he has been particularly present on the titles of the Disney banner in recent years, including playing in “Mary Poppins Returns” and contributing to the music of the Star Wars universe. Disney has produced the 2020 film adaptation of its Broadway smash “Hamilton” and Miranda is teaming up with Disney legend Alan Menken for the music for the live-action “The Little Mermaid” which will be released in 2023.

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But it was while working together on Disney’s 2016 animated hit “Moana” – which gave Oscar-nominated Miranda “How Far I’ll Go” – that the songwriter expressed a “I want” wish to screenwriter Bush. , who recalls: “He told me, he wanted to write the definitive Disney musical in Latin America.

Soon the two chatted with Bush’s “Zootopia” collaborator and fellow brass musician Byron Howard, who would also become writer-director on “Encanto” (as did Charise Castro Smith). They shared the experience of being from large and extended families. From there was born an “Encanto” story that highlights a dozen main characters – “unheard of in Disney animation,” says Bush.

Miranda knew the deal with Disney: presenting such a sprawling familia put some of the characters in narrative jeopardy. “The storytelling process is not good for families,” Miranda laughs. Exhibit A: The title heroine in “Moana” originally had eight brothers – but because her narrative needed some rationalization, “those brothers are gone.”

At the start of “Encanto”, the filmmakers internally screened some footage before it had any music. The studio returns have arrived: it could be difficult to achieve. Were the filmmakers sure they didn’t want to reduce the narrative to, say, five main characters? Instead, “Lin said,” I think it’s 12, and here’s the opening song to prove how it’s possible, “” Bush recalls.

Miranda notes that he wrote this opener, “The Family Madrigal,” before “Encanto” even had a second or third act. At the center of this song is Mirabel, a girl in search of a goal in a house full of magical realism. Miranda, deeply rooted in the Disney songbook, turned to a musical from her youth: “I was really inspired by Belle from” Beauty and the Beast, “with this opening number that didn’t just exposes the city. “

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The upbeat issue features each member of the Madrigals largely through Mirabel’s eyes, highlighting how family dynamics play out. “In a lot of ways, that’s really the point of the movie: to be able to see your family more fully and to allow your family to grow and change – not to freeze it in the roles that you think it should play. “

The composer also drew on the “Encanto” team’s research trip to Colombia several years earlier – a first step Bush describes as “rare” for a Disney songwriter.

One day, Miranda, her father and her fellow filmmakers gathered in the Andes and reveled in the rhythms of a mini-concert. Colombian artists sang regional songs to them. The enchantment of the visitors – their sense of “encanto” – was total.

About two years later, Miranda was trying to write this crucial song for Mirabel, which is voiced by Stéphanie Beatriz. His “want” is to have power like everyone else in his gifted family. But how to underline this message with the melody? The filmmakers reflected on how these musicians from the small mountain town of Barichara strum the region’s guitars and 12-string tiple in a waltz time signature. What if Miranda had written Mirabel’s big number, “Waiting on a Miracle”, at the same time – unlike her other seven songs “Encanto”?

“She’s in a different rhythmic universe from the rest of her family, and it really came from the Colombian music we heard,” says Miranda. “It got me into a 3/4 space, and then I wrote it down really quickly – so honestly, the specificity of the search is what takes it to the next level.”

Other songs “Encanto” highlight the brothers and sisters of Mirabel: “What Else Can I Do? Tells the story of Sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) and her power with flowering flora; “Surface Pressure” shows how for Sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) possessing immense strength can be a burden.

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Miranda can’t help but imbue such numbers with personal connections. For the first, his wife reminded him that he had an expert resident in his life: a former neighbor specializing in Latin American botany. For the latter, he recognizes a brother who is 6 years older: “She takes a lot more responsibilities than me – I was very aware that I was the little brother who got away with everything – so ‘Surface Pressure truely is a love letter to my sister.

Miranda also took the motif of butterflies and the transformation from the film to create the folkloric “Dos Oruguitas” (sung by Sebastián Yatra) – the first track he ever wrote from start to finish in Spanish. “The goal was: to write a song that feels like it’s always been there,” says Miranda, noting, “It’s my wife’s favorite song I’ve ever written. “

Miranda says he reveled in his deep dive into Colombian music, which “for someone with roots in Puerto Rico and Mexico,” he says, “is like going to his cousin’s house. “.

Bush understands why Disney continues to involve Miranda in its projects. “He writes songs that you just want to keep listening to,” the director explains, adding, “He can create an earworm that kind of isn’t boring.” And the more you listen to the lyrics, the more you appreciate their layered meanings.

How better to describe Miranda then? Bush considers him: “It’s a unicorn.

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