What do 8-year-olds and Nancy Pelosi have in common? Their favorite pop star is Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Los Angeles, CA - November 12: Director Lin-Manuel Miranda is photographed in promotion of his new film, Netflix's, "tick, tick…BOOM!," at Four Seasons hotel, in Los Angeles, CA, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The film follows composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, who was known for his exploration of social issues, mostly notably with his Pulitzer Prize-wining, "Rent." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Precisely one year after “Drivers License” propelled Olivia Rodrigo to instant superstardom, another denizen of Disney’s creative-industrial complex is taking over pop music.

But this time it’s not a young woman with a yearning voice and a princess-ish look — it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 42-year-old musical-theater composer whose songs for the movie “Encanto” have become 2022’s first widespread cultural phenomenon.

Miranda is familiar to many, of course, from “Hamilton,” his hip-hop-inspired Broadway smash about the Founding Fathers, and from his earlier musical “In the Heights,” which received a splashy big-screen adaptation last year.

“Encanto,” though, is taking Miranda to places few show-tune types reach these days: This month the film’s soundtrack bumped Adele’s blockbuster “30” from atop the Billboard 200 chart, while the album’s breakout single, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” sung by cast members including Carolina Gaitán, Stephanie Beatriz and the reggaeton artist Adassa, sits this week at No. 4 on the Hot 100 — the highest any song from a Disney musical has gone since “Colors of the Wind” from 1995’s “Pocahontas.” (The once-inescapable “Let It Go,” from 2013’s “Frozen,” peaked at No. 5.)

Fueled just as “Drivers License” was by its use in countless TikTok videos, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is at No. 1 on Spotify’s closely watched U.S. Top 50 tally, where the song is trailed by five additional cuts from “Encanto,” a magical-realist tale of a family in rural Colombia with special powers. And on YouTube, the streaming platform of choice for the elementary-school set, “Bruno” just racked up its 100 millionth play in a matter of weeks.

Pair “Encanto’s” runaway success with Miranda’s acclaimed directing job on Netflix’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” (about the late “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson) — then contrast those wins against Stephen Sondheim’s death and the box-office failure of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” — and it seems clear that Miranda has been anointed the spiritual leader of American musical theater, not only in terms of new work but in how the legacy of the classics is curated.

Yet his gains actually go beyond that: After years when Broadway relied on existing pop and rock tunes for jukebox musicals such as “Mamma Mia!,” “Jersey Boys” and “American Idiot,” you can almost think of Miranda as helping to reverse the flow of material — as reestablishing the musical as a source of real-deal pop hits, as it was way back in the form’s so-called golden age.

What makes his achievement all the more impressive is that, as recently as six months ago, Miranda appeared to be facing a backlash, mocked (by teens on TikTok, no less) for his lip-chewing earnestness and condemned for the colorism at play in the casting of “In the Heights.” Not long before that, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Hamilton” creator even came in for a bit of reconsideration by young folks who pointed out that the show could’ve thought harder about the founders’ enslavement of Black people.

Miranda, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, didn’t duck the criticism. In response to the charge that he’d sidelined dark-skinned Latinos in “In the Heights,” for instance, he said in a statement that he fell short in “trying to paint a mosaic” of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where the musical takes place, and promised to do better “to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”

Still, given the bruising controversies, it’s not hard to see that focusing on animated movie musicals — in addition to “Encanto,” Miranda also wrote songs for and starred in 2021's "Vivo," about a quirky girl and her drumming kinkajou — has offered him a way of leapfrogging judgmental Gen Z-ers to connect with tomorrow’s paying streaming subscribers. Whatever his motivation, the conversation about him has shifted significantly since last summer.

So why is Miranda’s music resonating so broadly? He’s undoubtedly the highest-profile member of a generation of composers (along with "Spring Awakening's" Duncan Sheik and Dave Malloy of "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812") bringing in sounds and textures from well outside Broadway’s core: the dense wordplay and chunky beats of ’90s hip-hop in “Hamilton,” whose original cast recording is in its 329th week on the Billboard 200; salsa’s rippling piano lines in “In the Heights”; a variety of traditional Colombian folk styles, along with old-school-Shakira rock en español, in “Encanto.”

Miranda can do the stirring, wide-open melodies typically associated with musical theater, as in “How Far I’ll Go,” his Oscar-nominated power ballad from Disney’s 2016 “Moana.” But his best work — take “Hamilton’s” “Helpless,” a sparkling pop-soul number with echoes of En Vogue’s close harmonies — slyly reshape what we think of as a show tune, which has attracted listeners with no particular investment in Broadway.

Indeed, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” isn’t a big ballad like “Colors of the Wind” or “The Lion King’s” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” or “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin,” which is the only song from a Disney musical to top the Hot 100 or to win a Grammy for song of the year. (Speaking of awards, Disney submitted “Encanto’s” very pretty “Dos Oruguitas” for Oscars consideration, which is why that song appears instead of “Bruno” on the film academy’s shortlist for the original song category; if Miranda were to score a nod and go on to win at March’s ceremony, he’d become the 17th person to attain EGOT status.)

In the era when Top 40 radio largely controlled pop’s hit-making process, a flowery ballad was more or less the only type of song with any chance of crossing over from a musical. But streaming and social media have opened other paths for a tune like “Bruno,” with its talky vocals and low-slung groove; its peculiarity is an asset on TikTok, where songs are prized for their memeability.

And yet “Bruno” also slaps, as they say — it's got swagger, attitude, oomph. In a break from Broadway tradition, Miranda produces his soundtracks and cast albums more like pop records than like documents of a live performance. And he does it with help from working pop practitioners including Questlove of the Roots, who was involved in “Hamilton,” and Mike Elizondo, who helmed “Encanto” after years of collaborating with Dr. Dre, Maroon 5, Fiona Apple and other stars. As with any musical, the songs are geared to showcase the storytelling in the lyrics. But ear candy abounds, not least the throbbing reggaeton beat in “Encanto’s” “Surface Pressure,” which sits behind “Bruno” at No. 14 on the Hot 100.

Another way to understand Miranda’s pop currency — which dwarfs that of even his most esteemed predecessors, such as Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber — is that he’s a performer too, with a readily identifiable persona for fans to latch onto. That you can practically hear his singing voice in “Encanto,” in which he doesn’t actually appear as a cast member, demonstrates how distinctive the vocal patterns he creates have become.

"Grew to live in fear of Bruno stuttering or stumbling," Adassa sings in "Encanto's" big hit, which describes a family outcast with dark visions, "I can always hear him sort of muttering and mumbling." The lyrics tumble forward, crisp yet somehow swinging.

Nobody would call Miranda himself a great rapper, at least by today’s standards; that storytelling imperative can make him sound hopelessly old-fashioned compared to a verbal innovator like Drake or Playboi Carti. And as a singer he’s fine — certainly more flexible than Burt Bacharach, to name another composer-turned-frontman, though he’s clearly less gifted than his castmates in any given scenario. But Miranda gets over on chutzpah whether he’s playing Alexander Hamilton or the title tropical mammal of “Vivo.” Onstage or onscreen, he holds your attention.

And what does he want to do with it? Miranda believes in unity and compassion and the long arc of justice; he’s pointing his listeners toward a moral optimism that presents with appropriate simplicity to 8-year-olds — "It's a dream when we work as a team," somebody sings near the end of "Encanto" — while offering a sense of squishy post-Trump reassurance to their Gen X and millennial parents. This month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Miranda, a longtime Democratic poster child, to mark the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol with a wistful rendition of "Hamilton's" "Dear Theodosia"; the show of pampered celebrity activism was swiftly pilloried online.

As an increasingly powerful showbiz figure, Miranda has made more meaningful strides in expanding cultural representation. One of the many social media trends surrounding “Encanto” has people posting videos of their children recognizing themselves for perhaps the first time in the movie’s characters — heartwarming even as you can imagine the Disney employee tasked with archiving the tweets for some future marketing endeavor.

You wonder, though, what Miranda might do if cut loose from the regimented structure (and the institutional weight) of a movie or musical — if he were writing not for characters but for himself in the way we think of the Weeknd or Lady Gaga or Frank Ocean doing so. Or Olivia Rodrigo, who started out composing songs in the guise of a student on “High School Musical” before turning to the more complicated details of her real life.

Pop in the 2020s is defined to some extent by ambivalence, whereas Miranda’s music enshrines a faith in happy endings. Maybe pop stardom will introduce some doubt.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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