'Encanto' songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda on making magical music for Disney

The family-friendly film will be released in the UAE on November 25

Since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton first took the world by storm with its original off-Broadway premiere in January 2015, the multitalented playwright, director, actor, rapper, songwriter and singer has swiftly established himself as the toast of Broadway and Hollywood.

The original stage musical gathered a record 16 Tony Award nominations, picking up 11 wins, while the film version became the surprise streaming hit of 2020’s global lockdowns – it was Disney+’s most-watched straight-to-streaming release of the year, with subscriptions to the service increasing by 72 per cent during the weekend of its release. Among US audiences, only Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max clocked up more watches on any streaming platform, and this despite Hamilton essentially being simply a filmed version of the existing stage show.

Miranda and Disney were not exactly strangers by this point – the versatile artist had written songs for 2016’s Moana, including the Oscar-nominated How Far I’ll Go, and picked up a Best Actor nomination at the Golden Globes for his role as Jack in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns. It’s no surprise, then, that for their latest collaboration, Disney put Miranda front and centre. Encanto, a Colombia-set family animation that will be released in cinemas on November 25, features eight original songs all from Miranda’s pen, as well as a writing credit for the star.

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We were blown away by what we were learning about Colombia from people who are of Colombian heritage … a crossroads of culture, of dance, of food, of tradition
Byron Howard, co-director, 'Encanto'

Unlike with Moana, where he was invited to write tunes for the film when production was well under way, Miranda has been involved with Encanto from the earliest days. This was an experience the film’s co-director Byron Howard says was as valuable as it was unusual. “Lin has been with us on this journey from the very beginning, which is so rare, to have your songwriter with you for this experience,” he tells The National. “We went to Colombia [in 2018] to research with Lin and his dad, Luis, and it was amazing. We were blown away by what we were learning about Colombia from people who are of Colombian heritage … the diversity of families and music … and this crossroads of culture, of dance, of food, of tradition. It was an incredible moment.”

For Miranda, himself of Latin-American heritage thanks to his mixed Puerto Rican and Mexican family, the trip was equally useful, although he admits he doesn’t know to this day how his father, a consultant for the US Democratic Party, came to be tagging along. “I don't know if my dad was invited by Disney or just sort of showed up on the trip – it remains a mystery,” he tells The National. “But his experience ended up being invaluable.

“I remember him telling us a story about his grandmother. She had a lot of children and when they married, they all stayed under the same roof. And she ruled them with such certainty that people would bring their pay cheques to her and she would reallocate the wealth among the children and the married couples, and that ended up forming Abuela Alma, the film’s matriarch, who loves her family dearly and holds it super-tight. That's where our story begins.”

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I don't think there is a person who can go to this movie and not identify with the character ... I can't wait for families to see themselves reflected up on that screen
Lin-Manuel Miranda, songwriter

That story is one of a close-knit family who live in the Colombian mountains, and each member has the gift of an extraordinary superpower – all except young Mirabel. As the film progresses, however, Mirabel learns that magic itself is under threat and only she can save the day. The concept of the close nature of Latino families is crucial to the film’s story and evidently to how Miranda approached writing it. Coincidentally, it has also become central to the release itself, coming as the festive season approaches at a time when families are finally able to return to cinemas together after the restrictions imposed owing to the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, for Miranda, it all comes back to family. “I think this family film is the most family film that ever familied. It really is,” he says, with a laugh. “We took family as our thesis in the movie, but it's not about something that happens to this family. It is about the relationships between these family members themselves. And that’s complicated.

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[Disney] songs soar in such a specific way that as a kid you go: ‘I get it. I understand, and I'm with you on this journey'
Lin-Manuel Miranda

“Everyone understands the tension of how you see yourself versus how your family sees you, and that's meaty stuff to write about. Honestly, I don't think there is a person who can go to this movie and not identify with the character. It was a joy to write, and I can't wait for families to see themselves reflected up on that screen.”

If anyone has mastered the art of the family film over the years, it is Disney, and in doing so it has also mastered the art of the soundtrack to the family film. From When You Wish Upon a Star to Remember Me, Disney tracks have scooped a multitude of Oscars for best original song. Many of our internal jukeboxes are probably littered with them, too.

When asked if there are any examples of specific songs that Miranda took as inspiration for his task with this latest movie, he admits: “I can give you all the examples because Disney has almost cornered the market in this particular type of song, and that’s intimidating. 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. Those songs soar in such a specific way that as a kid you go: ‘I get it. I understand, and I'm with you on this journey.’”

Still, Miranda can hardly claim to be a newcomer in the soaring soundtrack game. Surely it must get easier as his successes pile up? “That blank page doesn't get any less blank, my friend,” he says. “But what makes it fun and makes every experience different is the folk you're in the room with. I think that's the fun of working on this project. This is a team of all-stars, and what they pulled out of me and what we pulled out of each other, we could not have made in any other configuration. That's always what makes every page new and what makes you attack the blank page with renewed fervour.”

Updated: November 20th 2021, 6:09 AM