From the start, Lin-Manuel Miranda envisioned his animated pet project, “Vivo” (from Sony Animation, now streaming on Netflix), as a love letter to the musical heritage of Cuba. In fact, he told director Kirk DeMicco (“The Croods”) when they started in 2016 that “Vivo” was a kindred spirit to “In the Heights.”
That’s why Miranda recruited “In the Heights” writer Quiara Alegría Hudes and composer Alex Lacamoire to join him on “Vivo.” But whereas “In the Heights” dealt with the nostalgic longing to return to the old country of Puerto Rico, “Vivo” was about journeying to Miami to spread the musical love and joy of Cuba on a very personal mission.
In addition to conceiving the idea for “Vivo” and writing eight original songs, Miranda (who also wrote the songs for Disney’s upcoming animated musical, “Encanto”) voices the titular character: a singer-musician kinkajou (a rainforest “honey bear”), who plays music in a lively Havana square with his owner and duet partner Andrés (Juan de Marcos of the Buena Vista Social Club). That is, until tragedy strikes, and Vivo travels to Miami to deliver Andrés’ secret ballad to the love of his life, retiring superstar, Marta (Gloria Estefan). Along the way, Vivo recruits energetic tween Gabi (newcomer Ynairaly Simo) to join him.
For DeMicco, “Vivo” marked his first animated musical and there was no hesitation in collaborating with Miranda. “I was so lucky on this one because working with Lin is such a special situation,” he said. “He not only knows the musical side but he knows animation, he knows cartoons. He was also the lead actor. And it was his story that he built years ago [the initial deal at DreamWorks fell apart in 2015]. And getting to work with Quiara and Alex was wonderful on the musical side, and animation crew at Sony [Pictures Imageworks] was very open to pushing boundaries [which they were doing concurrently with ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ and ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’].”
After soaking up the sights and sounds of Havana and consulting with a group of cultural experts, DeMicco and company needed to find the right voice of Havana. They lucked out with de Marcos, a Cuban bandleader and musician, who grew up in Havana and provided the right authenticity to Andrés.
“I wanted as many musicians as we could find, and de Marcos never acted before, but he had a spirit to him and he was excited about the story. He said, ‘I was Vivo — I tool the old men to America.’ And Ynairaly provided authenticity to Gabi. She had never acted professionally before, but she had so much energy and she could carry the music,” DeMicco said.
As a musical, it was important to evoke a theatricality that fit the story. They opened with the exuberant duet, “One of a Kind,” which introduces Andrés and Vivo through the joyful spirit of Havana and their love for one another. What they had in mind was the opening of “An American in Paris,” acted out by Gene Kelly in the lyrical way he woke up every morning.
“Lin very much wanted to open on a song,” DeMicco continued. “He took it upon himself to take a lot of prologue material and blend it into the storytelling with this song. He always envisioned it as two musical partners that worked together all their life, doing it 20 times a day. And so that was driven by their synchronicity, the parts that anticipate each other’s movements and phrases.”
DeMicco initially conceived of a different animation style for every song, but that proved too complicated and expensive. So they settled on a colorful 2D look derived from Cuban-inspired mid-century travel posters for the song “Mambo Cabana,” in which Andrés sings to Vivo about Marta in Miami, and a 3D/2D social media vibe for Gabi’s liberating anthem, “My Own Drum.” Both songs terrify Vivo by isolating him. “I think what happened was it was cool to stretch and to dream and then figure out the ones that felt most organic.”
But the most unanticipated song was “Keep the Beat,” in which Vivo and Gabi bond together while rafting through the treacherous Everglades. “That was a scene that Lin loved, we recorded it many times, and it was locked,” DeMicco said. “But looking at it architecturally from a musical standpoint, Lin said we could use a song in the middle of that second act. But he was a little reticent at first to touch that scene because it worked so well. But that’s when we needed for Vivo to hear his voice, to really understand where he was emotionally, and to bring those two together. He managed to take the best parts of the scene and make it funnier now because it was built around so much great emotion.”
Ultimately, though, what sets “Vivo” apart from other animated musicals was the fact that it’s really about grief. Vivo has lost his best friend yet tries to honor Andrés’ last wish by delivering his song, “Inside Your Heart,” to Marta in Miami.
“It’s a movie about the stages of grief, which was Lin’s idea,” added DeMicco. “So this wasn’t a hero’s journey, and there were certain things that we would be looking at musically. The hardest thing to carry was the idea that this mission for Vivo was a noble gesture, it’s a gift of love he’s giving to this man.”