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In animated film 'Vivo,' Lin-Manuel Miranda draws on Cuban music's inspiration

“Music and love are the exact same thing," says Miranda of the characters, who include the voices of Gloria Estefan and Buena Vista Social Club bandleader Juan de Marcos.
Gabi and Vivo.Sony Pictures Animation / Netflix

Lin-Manuel Miranda may be best known for his hit musicals "Hamilton" and “In The Heights," but he says his latest film, “Vivo,” is his kids’ “favorite thing I’ve ever worked on.”

“I am so glad that your kids now will all get to hear the thing that has been playing on a loop in my house for years,” Miranda said Saturday at a special screening of the film in New York City.

“Vivo,” Sony Pictures Animation’s first animated musical, which premieres Friday on Netflix, takes audiences on an adventure from the streets of Havana to the swampy Everglades in Florida to the busy city of Miami as a musically gifted kinkajou named Vivo embarks on a heartfelt journey alongside unlikely friends following an unexpected tragedy.

The story had been a passion project of Miranda’s since 2009, when he started writing songs for the movie back when it was being developed at DreamWorks. The project was shelved and revisited by Sony Pictures Animation in 2015 after Miranda’s second hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”

Miranda, who wrote eight original songs for the movie, is the voice of Vivo; he was also an executive producer. He brought along his usual creative partners — Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the “In The Heights” musical, as well as the screenplay for the movie adaptation, and Alex Lacamoire, who worked with Miranda in “Hamilton.”

Alegría Hudes said during Saturday’s screening that when she got her hands on the script’s original draft, she quickly realized that “the beating heart of the movie” was Vivo’s relationship with his beloved owner, Andrés, who is voiced by the legendary Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos, best known for his work with the Buena Vista Social Club.

Viewers see Andrés and Vivo’s tight-knit friendship during the movie’s opening number, “One of a Kind,” as the duo spend their days playing music to lively crowds at Havana’s Plaza Vieja. The opening number’s scenes were directly inspired by the creative team’s visit to Havana, as well as by exhaustive photographic and archival material, according to Netflix.

However, Alegría Hudes felt the need to bring “a whole different energy” that would contrast Vivo’s relationship with his elder owner and bring a youthful spirit to the film. So based on her experiences with her younger sister, Alegría Hudes created a character named Gabi who would “just break the world open, like a piñata.”

Gabi, Becky, Sarah and Eva in “Vivo.”Sony Pictures Animation / Netflix

Gabi, who is played by the Dominican American rising star Ynairaly Simo, offers to help Vivo following unforeseen events that motivate them to go to Miami and deliver a secret love song to Andrés’s long-lost love, Marta Sandoval, a famous singer who is voiced by the Latin music icon Gloria Estefan.

In a news release, Estefan said the love song, titled “Inside Your Heart (Para Marta),” was the main reason she decided to join the project.

“This very song that Marta would be singing ... I just fell in love with it,” Estefan said. “Marta reminds me of Celia Cruz, who was one of my favorite people in the world, and I love that Vivo honors Cuban music in this way.”

Simo’s larger-than-life personality comes across as she brings the wonderfully eccentric tween girl Gabi to life. That becomes quite evident in the exuberant and catchy number “My Own Drum,” featuring Missy Elliott. The kids bop undoubtedly draws inspiration from beatboxing, viral social media videos, K-pop music, Katy Perry’s over-the-top live performances and Elliott’s rapping style.

While the character stands out for her oddball and optimistic personality, Gabi’s brash confidence conceals her desire to fit in and develop true friendships.

Miranda said the character’s infectious joy “hides a lot of resilience.”

“I think that’s kind of the key to Gabi,” he said. “That every setback is, like, she rolls with it and she keeps on moving. I cannot tell you how fun it was writing ‘My Own Drum.’”

For Lacamoire, who grew up in Miami with his Cuban parents, working on the musical number “Mambo Cabana” felt personal to him as well as to his family. The sequence centers on Andrés’ dream of traveling to Miami to reconnect with Marta during her retirement concert.

“This is a very happy, joyous song, but when my mom heard the chorus and saw the movie taking place in Cuba, she started weeping for the joy of just feeling that kind of representation,” Lacamoire said after Saturday’s screening. “I just love being able to dig into this part of my roots, my family, my ancestry.”

For Miranda, “Vivo” is about how “music and love are the exact same thing” for the characters. “It’s that timelessness of love, the timelessness of music and the unlikely friendships.”

The film also touches on themes of loss at a time when “we’ve all been touched by grief in some way or another” during the coronavirus pandemic, Miranda said. Talking about how to move on and remember those whom we have lost with love “I think couldn’t be more timely.”

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