By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK (AP) — A month after “Encanto” debuted in theaters, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the movie’s Colombia-inflected songs, took a long vacation. By the time he returned, something almost as extraordinary as the enchanted home of the movie had transpired.
“Encanto” became the first movie soundtrack since 2019 to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts earlier this month. The film’s most popular song, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” became the highest-charting song from a Disney animated film in more than 26 years, ranking higher than even “Let It Go.”
The music of “Encanto” was suddenly everywhere. Everyone was talking about Bruno.
“By the time I got back, ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ had kind of taken over the world along with the rest of the ‘Encanto’ soundtrack,’” Miranda says, laughing. “It helps you have the perspective of: The opening weekend is not the life of the movie. It’s just the very roughest draft. Two months out, people are talking about Bruno, and his whole family.”
It’s not unusual for songs by Miranda, the composer of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” to capture the zeitgeist. But what the soundtrack to “Encanto” is doing, long after it arrived in theaters on Nov. 24, is almost unheard of — particularly during a pandemic that has muted the ability of movies to make a lasting impression. “Encanto,” a warm celebration of family centered on the Madrigals, a Colombian clan with magical powers, has been the most successful animated film at the box office during the pandemic, with $223 million in ticket sales worldwide. But the soundtrack explosion — prompted by its Christmas debut on Disney+ — has propelled a rare kind of pop-culture sensation.
“Encanto” didn’t displace just anybody from the top spot. It overtook Adele. Six songs from the film have charted on the Billboard 100, including “Surface Pressure,” “The Family Madrigal,” “What Else Can I Do?” “Waiting on a Miracle” and “Dos Oruguitas.” All also rank among the most streamed songs on Spotify. There, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” has been streamed more than 100 million times. On YouTube, you can not talk about Bruno in Hungarian and Bahasa Malaysia.
Miranda took in the phenomenon of the “Encanto” soundtrack for the first time in an interview, speaking by phone on his way to a night of theater. (“Very on brand for me,” he said from the back of a car.) He’s mostly been experiencing “Encanto” mania through a text thread with directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush, co-director Charise Castro Smith and Tom MacDougall, head of music at Disney. They share things like clips of choreography or TikTok videos of people singing along. (The #Encanto hashtag has been viewed more than 11.5 billion times on TikTok.)
“I just got a text 10 minutes ago of someone tweeting ‘If you don’t speak Spanish and you put on the closed captioning for ‘Dos Oruguitas,’ you’re really going to cry,” says Miranda, chuckling.
To Miranda, what’s most rewarding is how people are connecting to the songs and its characters as expressions of their own family roles and dynamics. For example: “Surface Pressure,” sung by Jessica Darrow, taps into the weight of responsibility felt by an older sibling. Miranda wrote it with his older sister, Luz Miranda-Crespo, in mind. In one of the most popular “Encanto” TikToks, a young woman named Maribel Martinez says she not only looks like the muscular sister Luisa, but that “Surface Pressure” “tells my story.”
“The thing we were chasing was: Can we get the complexity of family, a multi-generational Latin family, into a Disney film?” says Miranda. “That’s what people seem to be responding to: ‘I’m bopping my head to this but it’s kind of deep and there’s layers to it.’”
But Miranda never saw the massive popularity of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” coming. The song now ranks historically with anthems like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from “The Lion King” and “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin.” But “Bruno” is a song you can dance to. It’s a quirkier tune lifted by its infectious groove and a medley of voices that splinter and meld in a gossipy song about family secrets.
“I was saying to a friend: I think this is my ‘Send in the Clowns,’” says Miranda. ”‘Send in the Clowns’ was Stephen Sondheim’s only chart-topper. Who would have guessed out of the millions of songs he wrote that it would be ‘Send in the Clowns’? It feels random in one sense.
“But on the other hand, we’ve all been locked up for two years,” he continued. “The notion of a bunch of voices happening within one home feels very resonant, with hindsight. There’s kind of a part for everyone to play in singing along with the song. If you’re not bopping to this melody, another melody is coming along in two seconds because almost every character gets a little feature in it.”
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” came to Miranda quickly. In an early demo track, Miranda sang all 10 parts in a feat of choral schizophrenia. He hasn’t released the demo, but that hasn’t stopped one impersonator from trying out his best imitation.
“That’s always the process with me. There’s lots of terrible demos. Often those are sung at 3 or 4 a.m., so they don’t sound great,” says Miranda, laughing. “I think TikTok has had a field day with the demos I’ve released because I’m warbling and my voice is cracking.”
“Movies take a long time,” he adds. “There was a lot of just singing these songs around your house for years, and trying to make them better and better.”
As much as “Bruno” has broken out, it won’t be competing at the Oscars. (“No, no, no,” as the song goes.) The Oscar-submission from “Encanto” is the moving, allegorical ballad “Dos Oruguitas” (which translates as “Two Caterpillars”), sung by Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastián Yatra. Miranda composed it striving for the simplicity and metaphor of an old folk song. “Dos Oruguitas” has already been shortlisted for the Academy Awards; if it were to be nominated and ultimately win, it would give Miranda his first Oscar — and since he’s already won Tonys, Grammys and Emmys — EGOT status.
“It’s not a thing you consciously chase,” he says. “I’m thrilled to be even within spitting distance of it.”
The phenomenon of “Encanto” has capped a whirlwind two years for Miranda that has included documentaries tracing his origins, the release of a filmed “Hamilton,” the long-awaited and much-debated big-screen spectacular “In the Heights” and his feature filmmaking debut in the Jonathan Larson musical “Tick, Tick … BOOM.”
“I have a weirdly empty desk for the first time in maybe 13 years,” Miranda says. “I was working on everything, and it all came out last year.”