It’s hard not to picture Lin Manuel-Miranda as one of Disney’s muses. The award-winning singer and songwriter has contributed his talents to some of Disney’s latest films like “Moana,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and now the Colombian-inspired animated musical “Encanto.”
“Encanto” follows Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz), who faces the frustration of being the only child in the family not blessed with any magical gifts. But when she discovers that the magic that defines her family is in danger of disappearing, she sets off on a quest to save it while also uncovering her family’s secrets.
ThatsItLA was invited to join their fellow journalists to participate in the “Encanto” virtual press conference. During that time, Manuel-Miranda revealed his creative process for writing songs, one of which is sung entirely in Spanish. Though the talented songwriter has many accolades, he still runs into some challenges of writing original pieces.
“That blank page doesn’t get any less blank, my friend. But what makes it fun and what makes every experience different is the folks you’re in the room with collaborating with,” he said. “Every single face in this Brady Bunch zoom we have here met every Friday night at nine o’clock my time, six o’clock their time. It became a place to bring in new music, it became a place to experiment and play and tell our own stories and make mistakes, and that’s always what allows you to make something bigger than you could ever make alone.”
He added that being there since the very beginning, not like “Moana,” was more beneficial to his creative process as it helped him craft the opening song that would track all of the members of the large Madrigal family. “There were songs where I put points on the board and was like, ‘Alright, here’s our opening number. Here’s how everyone’s related and what they can do. So I wrote that opening number before we had a second act or the third act to our film because we needed it for ourselves to keep track of everybody,” he said. “And these names may change, and the powers may change. So we know the audience is going to need a guide. And Mirabel is going to be our guide. So let’s write that song early.”
It’s one thing to write a song in English. But Manuel-Miranda admits it looks some time to figure out the rhymes and lyrics for “Dos Oruguitas.” Luckily, he found inspiration in the film’s butterfly imagery. “Dos Oruguitas was really inspired by some of the visuals coming out of the incredible animation department, and I loved the way they embodied the miracle by having this flame from a candle turn into a butterfly turned into a cascade of butterflies,” he said.
“I wrote this song about two caterpillars who are in love and are scared of letting each other go but of course have to let each other go to become their next selves,” Manuel-Miranda added. “It was a nature metaphor that was already baked into the visuals of the film. But it speaks so specifically to what this family is going through in terms of trying to see each other more fully and in terms of you have to change to get to the next level, and you have to allow yourselves to change, and you know.”
Manuel-Miranda does admit to having a limited vocab in Spanish, which made rhyming in it a bit more challenging. “I had to really reach for my thesaurus and outside my comfort zone to really try to write a song that feels like it’s always existed,” he said. “That was the goal, and I hope we’ve achieved it.”
But even Manuel-Miranda, a talented songwriter with many accolades, admits that the songwriting process doesn’t get any easier. Although, it does help to have a collaborative team that is open to suggestions and welcomes mistakes to help create something much bigger than themselves. “I think that’s the fun of working on this project was this is a team of all-stars you see here what they pulled out of me and what we pulled out of each other,” he said. “We could not have made in any other configuration, and that’s always what makes every page new and what makes you attack the blank page with renewed fervor.
While Manuel-Miranda himself is a fan of all things Disney and is well-versed in its history of animated musicals, he put off one kind of song: the “I Want Song.” “I can give you all the examples because Disney has almost cornered the market in this particular type of song. And it’s, it’s an intimidating fact, you know, there’s ‘Part of Your World,’ there’s ‘Into the Unknown.’ There’s ‘Reflection’ from ‘Mulan,’ there’s ‘Out There’ from ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ there’s ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King.’ I could go on and on,” he said. “Which is probably why the ‘I want’ song is always what takes me the longest. I’m just trying to push all those other songs out of my head. Because you know that if you do it, right, you’re going on that playlist. And I think something that all of those songs I just listed share is that they soar in this really specific way. And they’re so specific that as a kid, you go, ‘I get it. And I understand, and I’m with you on this journey.'”
Though Manuel-Miranda may have figured out the “I Want” song for “Encanto,” there was another challenge that he had to overcome. Time. Because Stephanie Beatriz, who voices Mirabel, the film’s lead, was eight months pregnant during the film’s production. “Right by the time I wrote, ‘Waiting on a Miracle,’ time was of the essence not only with the production of the movie but with Stephanie Beatriz because she was eight and a half months pregnant,” he said. “And it was like we really got to finish this song. We are on a real ticking clock, and the joy of Steph’s vocals on that tune with her child sitting on her lungs while she has to hit these notes. And the fact that she is singing, waiting on a miracle while she is literally waiting on a miracle. I will never forget that like those two experiences of seeing her singing, in this moment in her life. They’re inextricably bound up together for me. And I’ll always cherish that.”
Encanto opens in theaters on November 24, 2021.