Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about creating music and magic for ‘Encanto’
It’s a fortuitous case of art imitating life. A scene in the Act One finale of “Hamilton” shows rival Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) watching in amazement while Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) gets sent to the Constitutional Convention at age 30 and then writes much of the Federalist Papers. Burr asks Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”
Why, indeed? We asked Lin-Manuel the same question when we spoke to him recently about Disney’s Oscar-bound new animated feature film “Encanto: A Magical World,” which has generated a 92-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie opens in Philippine theaters on Wednesday.
In a pandemic-stricken year when a big chunk of Earth’s 7.75 billion population remains stuck at home and is rendered unproductive, Lin has managed to release four films, each of them as acclaimed and well-loved as the next.
There’s “In the Heights” (94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), “Vivo” (86 percent) and “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (88 percent), the latter now generating an Oscar buzz for seamlessly fusing its theatrical and cinematic elements. That’s a formidable batting average of 90 percent! But doesn’t Lin ever get tired?
“Well, I have coffee and tea here, so I have five hours’ worth of energy, just in case,” he told Inquirer Entertainment, laughing. “But as they say, when you make plans, God laughs. Honestly, this was not the timeline intended for these films.
“‘In the Heights’ was ready to go for summer of 2020. ‘Vivo’ was on track to be released in the autumn. And we were hoping for ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’ to launch in the spring of this year. But ‘Encanto’ was always [scheduled] on this date. And then, God said, ‘Haha. Let’s put all of them in 2021!’
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by what you’ve signed up for and what you have to do to get across the finish line. But one of the mental tricks I found myself playing was if I think of it as school. If I’m just back at university, and these are not treated as ‘projects’ … just classes I’m taking—like a songwriting musical-film intensive on ‘Encanto’ while I’m attending Directing 101 on ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’ and also finishing my thesis while working with [director] John M. Chu on ‘In The Heights.’
“What that mental trick allows me to do is step back from it and see how these projects feed on each other. What I can learn from working on ‘Little Mermaid’ with Alan Menken and bring to my experience as a songwriter on ‘Encanto’ the gratitude I feel when I go to the piano after I’ve spent all day editing a movie about a young songwriter named Jonathan Larson we never got to see and how his songs would change the world?
“At the center of it all was that project (‘Tick, Tick…Boom!’). Because, way before I ever wrote a note for ‘Hamilton,’ I had Jonathan in my head writing like he was running out of time—and I was working on telling his story and honoring it.
“So, it was that fuel. It takes you out of the mindset of ‘I have to do this, too’ and instead makes you go, ‘Oh, I also get to do this!’”
While “Encanto: A Magical World” is set in Colombia, it’s easy to imagine its dramatic convolutions playing out in many extended Filipino families, where each member is wrestling for his or her place in the sun.
Helmed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard, with eight songs written by Lin-Manuel, the movie spins an enchanting yarn about the Madrigals, a family living in a magical house in a vibrant town called Encanto, concealed from the rest of the world by the mystical Colombian mountains of South America.
Every member of the Madrigal household, headed by the quirky Agustin (Wilmer Valderrama) and the nurturing Julieta (Angie Cepeda), has a special power—including two of the couple’s three daughters: the perpetually poised and graceful Isabela (Dianne Guerrero), who can make plants grow and flowers bloom, and the hardworking Luisa (Jessica Darrow), who has super strength.
The family matriarch is Abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero), who had managed to keep her triplets, Pepa (Carolina Gaitán), Bruno (John Leguizamo) and Julieta, grounded even after they developed their magic upon reaching their fifth birthday.
Only the headstrong but unsure Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) has no special ability in a clan of gifted beings—and everybody wonders why. But Mirabel is soon thrust into a do-or-die undertaking when all the members of her family begin to lose their powers!
In Lin-Manuel’s case, did he ever feel that he didn’t belong at some point in his life? While Lin may seem like an overachiever, he told us that, despite the film’s colorful cast of characters, it was really Mirabel’s issues that resonated with him the most.
“Overachieving? Hell, yeah (laughs),” he quipped. “It was more like trying to achieve and coming up short—that’s probably more accurate. But yes, you put your finger on to something there. The character who I think is most like me is Mirabel—who inexplicably has no magic powers.
“I’m the baby of the family. I have a sister, who’s 6 years older. I also have a very large collection of cousins and aunties and uncles. And when you’re the youngest, you’re kind of always tripping through invisible wires that were put up before you came along.
“You go, ‘Wait, why aren’t we allowed to talk about this or that in front of Abuela?’ Or ‘Wait, why is this tio not talking to this other tio?’—which was a thing that happened two Christmases ago, and I’m sure you don’t want to know anything about (laughs).
“But you know, there’s always a journey of discovery, because there was so much life before you which, in a lot of ways, mirrors Mirabel’s story. It’s that journey that we grew up on to understand what our parents and grandparents went through before we even existed, as well as the sacrifices they made on our behalf.
“Then, we start seeing everyone in our family more fully, which ultimately allows them to also see each other clearly.
“And I related to that enormously. Because that’s how I got to be a storyteller. At the end of the day, I think the best family movies give us new vocabulary to talk about things in our own family.
“I remember showing my kids ‘Inside Out’ and, suddenly, we could talk about emotions in a very tangible way! Like, ‘Oh, is Joy taking the wheel? Or is it Disgust or Anger right now, because I really need you to eat these carrots’ (laughs)!
“I saw ‘Encanto’ with my sister for the first time last night, because she had not seen it. She brought her boys—my nephews—and I later turned to her and said, ‘The Luisa songs are for you because you’re my older sister. You had responsibilities and burdens I never had.’ And she was very moved by that. Then, her kids looked at her and said, ‘No way! She’s way too strict!’
“My point is, ‘Encanto’ gave us this ‘vocabulary’ to talk about our own family because of our shared journey. So, I can’t think of a better legacy for a family film than that!”
We told Lin that Vanessa Hudgens, whom we recently interviewed, lovingly calls him “the Jonathan Larson of this generation.” But given how visible he’s been this year, we asked him what he thought sets “Encanto” apart from his three other high-profile projects this year. We then ribbed Lin if he forgot that we were still in a pandemic.
“(Laughs) Yes, I know,” he said. “As for the challenges we encountered, almost the entire production of ‘Encanto’ happened during lockdown. Making an animated Disney film from home presented unique challenges—left, right and center.
“But, for me, the storytelling challenges were actually the ones I was most excited about. You have 12 major characters, and I get to explore ways in which every one of them gets to be as fully dimensional as possible, and finding the places where music could help with that.
“There’s a song in the middle of this movie called ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno,’ which is different from any song you’ve ever seen in a Disney film. It’s meant to be the group gossip number, and it allowed me to find the musical voices of characters that wouldn’t necessarily get their own song in another Disney movie. I felt like I was writing the end of Act One of a musical, but obviously, there’s no Act One and Act Two in an animated musical—that was thrilling for me!
“I was pulling from the traditions of the storytelling I have learned and was inspired by … like Sondheim’s ‘A Weekend in the Country’ from ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘It’s Beginning to Snow’ from ‘Rent.’
“Those great moments where everyone’s on his way to somewhere, and then we smash all the themes together! That was really exciting because of the challenge we set for ourselves—which was, ‘Can we deliver a fully dimensional, intergenerational family to the screen?’”
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