Lin-Manuel Miranda’s complex quest for simplicity with ‘Dos Oruguitas’ from ‘Encanto’

A portrait of Lin-Manuel Miranda
“Abuela and Mirabel are looking back several decades at this profound pain and going, ‘There are miracles on the other side of this, but I know it’s impossible to see that right now,’” Lin-Manuel Miranda says of his song “Dos Oruguitos” and the characters from “Encanto.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When describing the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “simple” doesn’t rush to mind. In his songs for “Encanto,” for instance, his familiar verbal gymnastics grace “Surface Pressure” and layers of character and disparate Latin-influenced musical styles inform the breakout hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” (All eight songs he wrote for the film recently charted — simultaneously).

But this year, he received his second Oscar nomination for perhaps the simplest song in the collection: “Dos Oruguitas,” his attempt at a “Colombian folk song that feels like it’s always existed,” as he previously told The Times. “It has to pass the test that one person who knows three chords can play the song.”

With its story of two caterpillars in love and facing winds of change, the song almost passes that test. Maybe if he’d written it on guitar ...

“Yes, it would definitely be in a different key if I’d written it on guitar,” he says, laughing, as he picks through the bones of the song on a piano over a Zoom call. “Very simply, it’s a descending bass line with a surprising lift in the middle. That’s the whole thing.


“It’s a C chord. In piano, that’s the simplest. Sometimes if my kids want to play piano with me, I say, ‘Only play white notes’ and I just go” — he plays a bit of the instantly recognizable bass part of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Heart and Soul” — “and if I’m in C, they can do anything on the white keys” — he randomly hits white keys with his right hand — “and it’ll sound good.”

He confesses, though, it’s not quite so simple for say, average Guitar Guy at the campfire, who’ll have to use a capo, play a descending bass line and know more than three chords. In other words, Mr. Guitar Guy looking to impress gals with a “simple” ballad will find that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a liar!

One of “Encanto’s” key scenes reveals the backstory of Abuela, the stern matriarch of the magical family at the heart of the story. We see the terrible trauma that made her grip her family perhaps too tightly. Against those images, Miranda’s simple melody plays like a memory of what Abuela’s people lost.

He turns back to the piano, searching: “Sorry, I’m trying to find another song with that descending … [sings] ‘É o pau, é a pedra, é o fim do caminho’ — Yeah, ‘Águas de março’ has that same simple kind of bass progression under it,” he says, calling to mind Brazilian songwriter Antônio Carlos Jobim’s 1972 hit.

“And then the bridge is just as simple,” he says, playing and singing through to an F minor, “‘Ay mariposas, no se aguanten más / Hay que crecer a parte y volver / Hacia adelante seguirás…’ There aren’t any new chords in there; it’s just in a different order, so you feel at home inside it. We’re not going to a weird new key.”

The croony high note in the bridge — “No se aguan-ten mas” — sails above what he calls the “conversational” feeling until then.

“Well, it’s pretty beautiful to be able to go up there, right? It’s all in here,” his fingers poke at the keys without his hand moving, “I mean, four notes. It’s so easy to sing … until that point. It’s all inside one hand. Then because it’s so contained, it explodes on the bridge.”


Adding to the complexity of Miranda’s “simple” task was writing it in Spanish, a first for him.

“I sent it to my dad as the grammar police,” he says. “It’s these sentence fragments, right? ‘Dos oruguitas / Para el viento.’ I think my original word was ‘Contra el viento,’ which in English I have as ‘Against the weather.’ He was like, ‘“Contra el viento” is like you’re fighting the wind. That’s not what this is. It’s happening to them.’ He gave me that note and I swapped it out for ‘para el viento,’ which is ‘They’re in the way of the wind.’ ”

It’s also a song that foreshadows central messages of the film, with its metaphor addressing both Abuela’s need to allow those she loves to grow and change, and the hopeful, external view that beyond that pain, there is beautiful life.

“First and foremost, it’s a love song,” says Miranda of the folk tune Abuela and her husband would have known. But ... “I love that there’s an omniscient narrator in it. The narrator isn’t one of the caterpillars. It’s not, ‘I’m holding on to you so tight, but something is changing’; it’s this wiser narrator who’s looking at these poor caterpillars: ‘Guys, it’s going to be OK. Something better is on the other side of this thing that hurts.’

“I think of my first serious relationship. I was with my high school sweetheart for 4 ½ years. We were both nice people, so we probably stayed in that relationship a couple years longer than we should have, even though the world was pulling us apart. We went to different schools. We were starting to lead different lives. In a lot of ways, I am the narrator,” he says, laughing at himself, “looking at myself at age 19 like, ‘Buddy, it’s OK. There’s good stuff on the other side of the painful part.’”

He says one barometer of the song’s effectiveness is if it doesn’t fail to move his wife (“who’s not an easy cry,” he says, spilling that when he showed her “It’s a Wonderful Life,” her cool assessment was, “It was good. It was sad,” to which he responded, “You’re a robot!”).

“I think that’s a part of what’s bled into the recipe and made people feel things. And that’s also where Abuela is. Abuela and Mirabel are looking back several decades at this profound pain and going, ‘There are miracles on the other side of this, but I know it’s impossible to see that right now.’”


So it’s a love song and thematically on target, but the comforting folk ballad also works as an “It Gets Better” anthem; even a suicide prevention song.

“It is hard to tell someone in the grip of grief that there is a clear sky on the other side of it, as anyone who’s been in it knows,” he says. The song, he says, “has a weird God’s eye view of it so you can feel the pain of it and also the promise of it.”