Entertainment

Lin-Manuel Miranda stays in a groove with Disney’s ‘Encanto’


‘If you do it right, your song is going to be up there with Circle of Life … that’s scary,’ multihyphenate Broadway icon says

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You would think that nothing would be more intimidating than workshopping a hip-hop musical about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton in front of a sitting American president.

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But writing the songs for a Disney musical is right up there in terms of pressure Lin-Manuel Miranda faced when he performed a song from his eventual Broadway sensation Hamilton in front of the Obamas in 2009.

“It’s intimidating to write for Disney. There’s no way around it,” Miranda, 41, offers in a Zoom call. “You know your work is going to go on a playlist with some of the greatest movie music of all time.”

After collaborating with the studio on tunes for 2016’s smash hit Moana , the three-time Tony winner got in on the ground floor for Encanto , writing and producing eight original songs for the 60th animated film in the storied company’s history.

Out Wednesday, the musical helmed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard ( Zootopia ) centres on Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), an ordinary young girl whose family leads a magical existence in the mountains of Columbia.

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“Anyone who has family can relate to it,” Miranda says. “There’s always the tension between how we see ourselves versus how our family sees us.”

It’s really always about trusting your gut. The world is not always going to agree with your gut, but what’s keeping you up at night is going to resonate with someone out there.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on the creation of his Broadway smash Hamilton

Miranda, who also recently stepped behind the camera for a biopic on Rent creator Jonathan Larson, has won multiple Emmys, Grammys and a Pulitzer prize. His first Broadway smash In the Heights hit theatres in June, while his musical sensation Hamilton is touring to sold-out houses (it returns to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in 2023). His busy year also included writing songs for Netflix’s Vivo . But the prolific stretch of work didn’t ease the worry when it came time to put pen to paper for Disney in the hopes of crafting timeless toe-tappers.

“You just can’t write a good song; you have to write a song that soars,” he says, grinning. “No one teaches you how to make something soar, you just have to find a way to do it.”

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But the day of the rapturous first screening of Encanto in Los Angeles, Miranda said the challenge was exactly what he needed.

You’ve worked with Disney before on Moana and Mary Poppins Returns. How was the experience this time with Encanto different?

“I had an amazing time working on Moana , but they were several years in development when they hired me. It was my first time working for Disney as a composer, and it was a dream come true and it went well. It didn’t go Frozen , supernova well, but it went well enough that I said, ‘Can I be there from the beginning?’ So it was really exciting to work with Jared and Byron and (co-writer) Charise (Castro Smith). A lot of what happens when you are developing a story — in an animated movie or live-action — is you get focused on the main character and their journey and other characters fall away as you winnow down the journey. We kind of made this challenge to ourselves where we asked: how many characters of this intergenerational family can we hang on to and bring to the screen?

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What’s the most important aspect of creating a great Disney song?

“If you do it right, your song is going to be up there with Circle of Life and Into the Unknown and Remember Me and When You Wish Upon a Star — that’s scary. So you have to clear that out of your head and just focus on your story and the journey your characters are going through.”

A scene from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto.
A scene from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto. Photo by Disney

Which of the songs posed the greatest challenge?

“The song I wrote the most drafts for was Mirabel’s Waiting On a Miracle . That is the song that launches her into her journey in the movie. How Far I’ll Go was the toughest one for Moana , too. I just think there’s something really intimidating to me about those Disney “I Want” songs. I think of Hunchback’s Out There , I think of I Just Can’t Wait to Be King and it makes me procrastinate a lot. Those are the scariest.”

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Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) in a scene from Encanto.
Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) in a scene from Encanto. Photo by Disney

What’s the biggest driver in your creative life?

“Honestly, I think I learned pretty early that you can’t control the success or failure of a thing. Once you’re done, it’s the world’s and they get to do whatever they want, and it’s their right to do whatever they want. All I can control is, who I’m in the room with and how much can I learn. That’s really my guiding principle for picking projects.”

Andrew Garfield, director Lin-Manuel Miranda and director of photography Alice Brooks on location in NYC on March 3, 2020 for Netflix’s Tick, Tick… Boom!
Andrew Garfield, director Lin-Manuel Miranda and director of photography Alice Brooks on location in NYC on March 3, 2020 for Netflix’s Tick, Tick… Boom! Photo by Macall Polay /NETFLIX

What moves you most when you are writing something?

“There’s always a moment when you’re really cooking with gas where you stop deciding what the characters should say and the characters start to become so real that you’re taking dictation from them … There’s always a magic moment like that over the course of any creation.”

Hamilton was a massive success all over the world. How did that change what you wanted to say with your art?

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“The lesson I try to take away from it is: take more vacations. The best idea I ever had happened to me when I was on my first vacation from In the Heights in Mexico with my wife on a hammock. So taking breaks and doing normal life stuff is when the good ideas come in. You need time to make room for those moments.

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton.
Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in the musical Hamilton. Photo by Disney+

“Along with that, if something feels right to you, it’s going to feel right to someone else. I cannot imagine how many friends were worried about me when I gave them the pitch: I’m working on this hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers. That is not a good elevator pitch. But I knew that there was something inherently musical about the trajectory of Hamilton’s life, and I’m glad I stuck with that because it did resonate with other folks in a way beyond anything I could have imagined.

“So it’s really always about trusting your gut. The world is not always going to agree with your gut, but what’s keeping you up at night is going to resonate with someone out there.”

What five albums are you bringing to a desert island?

“Can I bring my own mixtapes? Right now I have Freestyle Love Supreme , which is a show I’m involved with that’s playing on Broadway and my job as producer is I make the pre-show playlists. So I’m taking five playlists of my own, hoping for good wi-fi on the island you mentioned.”

Encanto is in theatres this Wednesday

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