Musicals, whether onstage or onscreen, take time — lots of time — to develop. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, the story of 2022’s Encanto really began six years ago, on opening weekend for a different Disney animated musical, Moana. Miranda was a late addition to that film’s three-person musical team, and he had seen “how seriously and faithfully [Disney] took the responsibility of representing a culture we don’t see onscreen a lot” — in Moana’s case, that of the Polynesian islands — and “making sure that part of the world would be proud,” he recalls. So he told Tom MacDougall, then executive vp of music for Disney Animation and Pixar, “Listen, I know you guys have some Latin-themed things up your sleeve. If there’s going to be a Disney Latina princess, I’ve been training all my life!”
That opening weekend, MacDougall cryptically told Miranda: “You’ll be there from the beginning on the next one.” And with Encanto, he kept his word. “We don’t just go celebrity to celebrity for people to write these shows,” says MacDougall, now president of Walt Disney Music. “But there was a project being talked about that was going to happen in Latin America, and I said, ‘Hey, Lin wants to do this, we love him — what would a full Lin show look like start to finish?”
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The answer: a historic hit. Miranda’s eight songs for the Encanto soundtrack all charted on the Billboard Hot 100, leading him to spend 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 Songwriters chart and to ultimately be named Billboard’s top Hot 100 songwriter of 2022. Much of that was thanks to the unlikely and explosive leader of the pack: the intricate, multicharacter showstopper “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 and, according to Billboard’s GOAT methodology, is now the biggest Disney song of all time.
Of course, don’t tell that to the “Surface Pressure” hive, whose passion for strongwoman Luisa’s reggaetón-inflected solo pushed it to a No. 8 peak, or to the teary masses who sent the poetic “Dos Oruguitas” (sung entirely in Spanish by Sebastián Yatra) to No. 2 and No. 36 peaks, respectively, on Hot Latin Songs and the Hot 100. “It’s pretty unorthodox in terms of a musical,” MacDougall says of Encanto. “That ‘Bruno’ would become one of the most popular songs of all time, that all the songs would be in the top 100 — we would have never expected it.”
But if that sounds like the foundation for a new blueprint for Disney blockbusters, think again. Miranda, 42, insists there’s no formula for Encanto-level success, paraphrasing the late Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim: “Surprise is the thing you’re chasing. If you can bottle surprise, you can have a career in this business.”
You were in the throes of writing Encanto’s music in spring 2020. What was it like essentially putting this soundtrack together in lockdown?
In retrospect, I do think some of the lockdown seeps into the songwriting. There’s a reason “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which were written in April and May of 2020, respectively, resonate in a different way. At the core of “Surface Pressure” is this question of, how do I keep my family safe — and who am I if I can’t? I think that’s a variation of what every parent felt then. And then “Bruno” — I was locked up with my in-laws. There is a subtext there of, “What are we allowed to talk about in front of your mother?” (Laughs.) My brother-in-law was living with us at the time — he works in real estate, and we barely saw him, he’d just work in his corner, he’d join us for dinner, he’d go back to his corner. When I showed him the rough storyboard and the song started, he was like, “Is this about me? Am I the uncle in the walls?” (Laughs.)
The level of input from the larger creative team is pretty high in the world of animation. How did that typically play out?
Our call was every Friday night at 9 p.m. my time, which meant I could tuck in my kids and then wake myself back up and do the call. I felt comfortable bringing in half songs — like, “Here’s the first two verses of ‘Bruno.’ Is this a good direction? Should I keep going?” I don’t think there’s one song in this where I was like, “This is it, it’s done.”
Well, other members of the creative team do talk about “Bruno” as if you started playing it for them fully formed. What’s your side of that story?
I knew the vibe for it very quickly. This was a song that was my pitch: Can we please do a family gossip number? I knew it was just going to be like (Miranda plays the piano bassline.), which felt very Afro-Latino, rhythmic, spooky. The challenge was to get something simple yet [distinctive] enough that you could put a lot of different stories on top of it. It was really one long night of writing it.
You have a longtime friendship with Bobby Lopez [who, with wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, wrote the music for Frozen, Frozen II and Coco]. Does someone like him provide a kind of creative support system when you’re working on a project like Encanto?
You learn quickly that there’s very few people you can talk to about this kind of gig. My friendship with Bobby goes beyond songwriting — we went to school together, he’s been a mentor to me my whole career. There was a moment when I was struggling with something in Mirabel’s song “Waiting on a Miracle,” and it was this really specific shop talk of like, “I think this is the right song for the right moment but it’s not doing this thing you’re so good at that I want it to do — it’s not lifting off at the end in the way I want it to.” So I sent it to Bobby and Kristen and they were like, “Give us a couple hours,” and they got on a Zoom with me and were like, “Go up a whole step not a half step, have her sing this note.” It was a very music theory mathematical thing and it made all the difference in the world. That’s the kind of thing you can only ask someone who’s been in this space before you and knows the lay of the land.
“Bruno” is now the biggest Disney song of all time. What are your personal top Disney songs of all time?
No. 1 is “Under the Sea.” I mean, it’s like Sebastian making the case for a way of life and presenting us with a world so much more beautiful than our own! I wanted to go f–king live under the sea! “Out There,” from Hunchback [of Notre Dame] — Stephen Schwartz wrote the lyrics. “Into the Unknown” from Frozen II, that song is outrageous in setup and execution. “When She Loved Me” by Randy Newman — Toy Story 2 is among my favorite movies of all time, full stop. That was really a big inspiration for “Dos Oruguitas.” And I agree with everyone on the internet about the entirety of Tarzan. You know that meme that’s like, “Phil Collins didn’t have to go that hard but he did.” (Miranda starts belting “Strangers Like Me.”) Well, he did, and we’re all the better for it. It should not go that hard! (Laughs.)
You’ve admitted that you didn’t think “Bruno” would become the big Encanto hit. Why do you think it did?
I didn’t think it was going to be a big song because group numbers never are — with the exception of “Summer [Nights]” from Grease. But I also think there’s something to the fact that music has stratified to a big extent, and TikTok is a big part of the reason this song was such a hit. Every verse and chorus of this is like a bite-sized TikTok number. I didn’t have TikTok when I wrote it, but you realize after the fact, “Oh, if Camilo’s your favorite guy, you can listen to that bit,” and each bit became its own kind of hit. It was amazing that sections of “Bruno” were becoming popular.
“Dos Oruguitas” soundtracks Encanto’s tearjerking montage. Was that always the plan?
I mean, that was the hope. Some of it is what it isn’t: It isn’t a moment of Abuela singing to Mirabel, because Abuela singing, “Your grandfather was shot” — that’s a trauma too deep to sing. I looked at the imagery in the film of the butterfly that leads them to the miracle, and I had the idea of these two caterpillars in love and the change that has to happen. You have to undergo metamorphosis and trauma to become who you are, and you have to trust that you’ll still be yourself on the other side of whatever hard things come your way. And once I had that, I wrote it pretty quickly — though the speed of my Spanish is not the speed of my English, so it took longer to find the right words.
Then there’s “Surface Pressure.” Were you aware of all the people rooting for it to surpass “Bruno” on the charts?
I love it. I mean, there’s not a lot of precedent for that tune. In my head I was trying to cross a really tough reggaetón song with like, “[The] Lovecats” by The Cure, the quietest vocals I can imagine on a pop song. I think we had the song before we cast the role, but the drawing of Luisa existed, so I knew she’d have a deeper voice, and I was like, “Please, please, please find me an alto.” And Jess Darrow has such a wonderful and distinctive voice. The character never doesn’t sound like herself, and I love that about it.
To me it’s the most recognizably Lin song in this movie. It just feels like what naturally comes out of you. Was it that organic for you to write?
I don’t know…what I sound like? Ask any composer, they don’t know what their moves are. But I guess that’s what I sound like! I think the internal rhyminess of the verses and choruses, for sure. It was an early one to try to write; I was feeling my way towards it in an organic way. The hardest one is always the “I Want” song. Mirabel’s was originally called “I’m More Than What I’m Not,” and it was very poppy. It was a bop! But it was just not right.
Is there one song that you wish found a wider audience?
I would be insane to complain about any of them. But I’ll tell you, my expectations were upended. My expectation was that “Colombia, Mi Encanto” would be the easiest song to pull out of the story — it’s just a love letter to Colombia, it namechecks towns, it’s Carlos Vives singing it — so I just thought, “Maybe at soccer stadiums they’ll play this!” [It peaked at No. 100 on the Hot 100.] To see the character-iest, most involved-in-the plot songs rise to the top was an amazing and welcome surprise.
Does Encanto’s chart success feel like a unicorn situation? Or can it serve as a model for how Disney thinks about animated musicals in the future?
Well, I think once you think you have a template, you’re dead meat. Look at the two songs that had the most success: what people embraced was what’s new. As long as Disney’s musicals can continue to push on the template of what a Disney musical can be, I think they’ll be a success. It’s when we get hip to it — “Oh, here comes the sidekick song” — that we feel like we’ve seen it before. I think the lesson is to find the musical moments we haven’t seen before, and that’s true of theater as well. I know I’m here because Howard Ashman was here, and he felt like musical theater had a lot to teach animated movies about how music and animation could coexist. Everything I’m doing builds on what he knew and practiced with Alan Menken during that golden era I was lucky enough to be a kid during. And our job is to continue to push that envelope.
There is a rumor that a demo exists of you singing all 10 “Bruno” parts. Will we ever hear it?
Uh, yes, it exists — I mean, there’s me demos of all of them. But I also know why you want it, you jerks! You want to make funny TikToks with my face on them, and I will not give you the satisfaction! So they will stay on my computer, thank you very much. You want to make your funny little memes! (Laughs.) I will not be here for your meme-ery.