Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical mind behind “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” and “Encanto,” has unexpectedly found himself as one of the most successful songwriters in recent Broadway history — and even more surprisingly, one with hit singles. With one “Encanto” song — the ubiquitous “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” — at No. 4 on Variety’s 2022 Hitmakers year-end list and another (“Surface Pressure”) just outside the top 25, the Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer winner talked about how the songs came together and their unlikely chart success. Head here for more from this interview.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is one of the biggest singles of the year. How did the song come together?
The challenge of the piece was always — and remains — that there are so many characters. How do we give them all complexity and real estate? So I pitched a gossip number as, “We can learn a little bit about everyone by what they choose to whisper about,” you know? I think that’s a very universal thing, of what you can talk about in front of this family member versus that family member. Plus, it was amplified by the fact that I was in lockdown with my in-laws at the time I was writing it. So my brother-in-law was like “Is this song about me?,” because he was living with us. (laughter)
So the gossip number was the pitch, and then the other idea became that they’ll all tell a kind of ghost story about him — but when you actually meet Bruno, you’ll realize there’s actually nothing scary about him. So he predicts rain on her wedding day — well, she’s the most stressed-out person in the world, of course it’s gonna rain on her wedding day! — and other incredibly predictable predictions, right? “I’m gonna lose my hair!” “My goldfish is gonna die!” Goldfish don’t live that long! But everyone telling these stories with this air of promise, so when it’s looked at in a refracted light, it would be different. And the [song’s] name got me halfway there, and then I actually pulled an all-nighter, figuring it all out. Figuring out the math of it was really a lot of fun.
Did you know when you were writing it where it would be in the musical? Like, I need this kind of song and it’s got to have this kind of tempo?
Yes, I knew it was sort of the end of Act One, and I knew that it was going to be coming after… actually, I don’t know if I’d written “Surface Pressure” yet. But I knew it was a great chance to check in with the cast members who don’t get their own song: Dolores, Camilo, Pepa and Felix, and just a chance to get to know them. And what was fun was that I wrote it early enough in the process that my songwriting informed how [screenwriters] Jared Bush and Charise [Castro Smith] kind of ran with the characters — like, I wrote this very quiet rap for Dolores because she has super hearing, so she’s not going to be screaming into the mic, and then they ran with that. That’s a really fun thing about the whole process: When you’re there early enough, your songs can really be a part of a give-and-take.
When did it become clear that “Bruno” had potential as a hit single — who was the first person to flag it?
Honestly, before it ever left my house, it was my father-in-law, Frank. He was like, “Lin, I know I’m not supposed to listen when you’re writing. But I’ve been singing ‘We don’t talk about Bruno’ in my head for three fucking days!” And that was before I think I even sent it to [the film’s] creative [team] — he just heard me caterwauling in my office. Then my wife and I went on vacation for two weeks and I started getting messages: First from friends, “My kids can’t stop singing it!,” because it really exploded when it hit Disney+. Then I got a Twitter DM from [actor-filmmaker] Taika Waititi, who I’m friendly with but I don’t know that well, who was like, “I’m gonna kill you — it’s great, but my kids won’t stop singing it!” And then when we got back it was like it had taken over the world.
So there wasn’t really a promotional push behind the song?
No, and you have to give a lot of credit to TikTok and social media. Again, never intended this way, but because it’s got just so many little different solo sections, kids owned that part. The song is really a collection of a lot of different moments — it’s not beginning-middle-end — which is why I never dreamed it would be a hit.
The melody is the same in every verse, but everybody’s delivering it differently, and then they all combine at the end — was it difficult to make it all fit together?
I was thinking of it as an end-of-act-one song, and we have a great tradition in musical theater — like “One Day More” [from “Les Miserables”] is a beautiful example: [He sings several individual verses from the song], and then at the end, you smash them all together and they sing them all at once. It’s actually a pretty simple formula. “Non-Stop” in “Hamilton” is another example of that, where you get all these little solos and glimpses of people and then they overlap.
The trick is to make each section different enough that they’re not stepping on each other’s toes: So Dolores is staccato 16th notes, Camilo is “Da-na-na.” They’re never, like, hitting each other — they’re criss-crossing.
“Surface Pressure” seems an even less likely hit single than “Bruno.” First of all, as an oldest child, I appreciate it, so thank you.
Yes, I was thinking about my older sister when I wrote it.
Did you ever dream that song would get the kind of airplay attention that it has, because it’s even less radio-friendly.
No! It’s wild. I was writing a little love letter to my sister. In my head, it was like, “I know you had it harder than me.” In our house, growing up, “Give it to your sister” was very common: “Dad, I can’t —” “Give it to your sister! She’ll fix it.” Right? I didn’t account for how many older siblings would feel seen by the song. And then I think the other thing at the root of it is the context in which it was written. So like I told you with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” I was living in a more crowded house than usual — we have a place Upstate, and [during lockdown] we had a lot of people in our family come live with us.
And with “Surface Pressure,” I think the song inside the song is what I was feeling when I wrote it in April 2020: “How am I going to keep my family safe, and who am I if I can’t keep my family safe?” I think we were all going through a version of that. “Who am I if I cannot be this role that everyone sees me as?” That’s not what the song is about about, but that’s in it, because it was kind of my way into it.