the toughest song i wrote

Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Hardest Song He Wrote for Encanto

Photo: Disney

Arriving onscreen in the third act of Disney’s Encanto, the acoustic guitar ballad “Dos Oruguitas” (performed by Colombian singer-songwriter Sebastián Yatra) plays over a tragic flashback. Alma Madrigal, a.k.a. Abuela — the stern matriarch of a magical family, each member of which has been mysteriously drained of their superhuman powers — relives the romance and sacrifice tied to the Madrigal clan’s foundational myth, helping explain the action up until that point in the film. In the sequence, set in a time long before, marauding soldiers are shown ambushing and murdering her husband, Pedro. But not before Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero) comes into possession of an enchanted candle that repels the intruders while also setting up her and her infant children (and their children and cousins) for an uninterrupted period of peace and prosperity. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote and composed Encanto’s eight original songs and is most singularly responsible for its soundtrack’s juggernaut run to the top of the Billboard album chart over the last few weeks. Here, the Pulitzer-winning composer and filmmaker shares with Vulture the creative process behind “Dos Oruguitas” — which is not the film’s biggest hit, but stands as Encanto’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Original Song this year. 

“Dos Oruguitas” is the first song I wrote from beginning to end in Spanish.

I’m someone who’s pretty bilingual, but English is dominant. I can carry on a conversation with anyone in Spanish. But if I have to write it down, I’m going to mess up the accents, and I might mess up the conjugation. In the Heights is very firmly in Spanglish. There’s a lot of Spanish in it, but there are no songs that are beginning to end in Spanish. Stephen Sondheim says it best: Content dictates form. And this was a moment in Encanto where we’re getting Abuela’s tragic, foundational backstory. It felt appropriate that it would be in Spanish. A lot of songwriting is the process of elimination of what shouldn’t be.

I was inspired by some of the visuals coming out of the animation department. The way they had depicted the miracle that begins the movie’s whole journey: this candle flame that turns into a butterfly. I was spitballing with Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith, the co-directors and writers on the film, and said, “Well, butterflies are just kind of nature’s original miracle in a way, right? These caterpillars start building this thing with no understanding of why they’re doing it, and they’re going to completely destroy themselves and become a new thing.” I thought, What if the folk song has these two caterpillars who are in love? Who have to separate and they don’t know why and they don’t want to. But they have to. Because that’s how they become the next version of themselves. It felt like a really beautiful nature metaphor for what the family was going through en masse. And also the painful separation that we’re seeing in front of us onscreen.

That leads you to Spanish as well because oruguita is an infinitely more beautiful word than caterpillar. If I wrote it in English, you would feel like it was a sequel to Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is a book I’ve read to my kids a million times.

Then the goal becomes, How do you write a song that feels like it’s always existed? One, create a strong nature metaphor because those survive any kind of current cultural references. And two, I really just had my Spanish-language thesaurus next to me. A lot of what limits me is just vocabulary — the right word for the right moment. I just chipped away at it bit by bit. An interesting side effect was I started dreaming in Spanish again; I had not dreamed in Spanish since I was a kid staying with my grandparents in Puerto Rico. But my brain was like, “All right, whatever it takes to get this thing out, to carve it out, we’ll do.” I wrote the first verse and chorus, brought it to the rest of the creative team, and they were like, “It’s good. You should keep going.”

Once I hit on the metaphor, the rest happened very quickly because the metaphor works on multiple levels. The characters are all holding on too tight: that’s the story of what’s happening with the family. This is not a family that’s falling apart because they are mad at each other or hate each other. They love each other. But Abuela’s holding on too tight to how she wants to see things rather than what’s actually in front of her. And every character is doing a version of that, putting some pressure on themselves or trying to stay fixed when they’re changing.

What’s wonderful about working with Disney is the visuals are so incredible, I felt confident the visuals would get us across the divide. The song doesn’t have to do all the work in a very real sense. So you don’t need a literal translation of what’s happening to understand the story. I think of that opening sequence in Pixar’s Up. You see an entire marriage and life in about nine minutes. There are no lyrics underlining that. So I felt like with “Dos Oruguitas,” the lyrical content is resonant with what’s going on, but it isn’t underlining what’s going on; it would just create another layer. The song feels like a lullaby. It starts like a lullaby but gets progressively more traumatic.

Before the song existed, they had temped in some folkloric guitar music. My pitch was, This shouldn’t be Abuela singing the story. This is the folk song that accompanies what we’re seeing.

There are so many gorgeous ballads that come out of Colombia. So I was definitely inspired by that — that this song could have come from the mountains of Barichara and spread through the country. The idea was to make a song that sounded like it had been around for 100 years, being sung on street corners. I think it’s the best test of a song, the street-corner test, if a musician who just knows four chords can play the tune. Musically, “Dos Oruguitas” is very simple. It’s this descending bass line. There’s a little movement at the end of the phrase. I was listening to songs by Joan Manuel Serrat, Jobim. I was listening to songs like “Cielito Lindo” or “Guantanamera.” You feel like no one wrote those. That they just always existed inside of us.

Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Hardest Song He Wrote for Encanto