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Pop Music

Hometown heart behind the ‘Heights’

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creator of the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.’’ Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creator of the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.’’ (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times/File 2008)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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NEW YORK - Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t have to look far to see the signposts of his youth. The songwriter and actor has spent a majority of his three decades living within a 10 block-radius of the quiet cafe in which he’s ensconced on this winter morning.

The cafe is in Inwood, a tiny, largely Latino enclave at the tip of Manhattan, adjacent to Washington Heights, the setting for Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights.’’ Miranda rocketed to fame as the show’s creator, composer, lyricist, and star, playing Usnavi, a bodega owner in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The musical, which combines the sounds of hip-hop, salsa, and other Latin pop styles, arrives at the Opera House on Tuesday and runs through Jan. 24.

Miranda, dressed in jeans, hooded sweatshirt, and cap, gestures around him: His parents live three blocks in one direction, while he and his fiancee, Vanessa Nadal, a law student, live three blocks in the opposite direction. For years, Miranda shared an apartment up the street with various roommates. And Nadal grew up in the heart of Washington Heights, he says. The view from her apartment window was practically the set from the musical, a streetscape with the George Washington Bridge stretching majestically in the background.

As a teenager, Miranda whiled away hours writing poems and songs at Fort Tryon Park in the Heights, overlooking the bridge and the Hudson River. During college, he did a summer stint covering the neighborhood for the Manhattan Times, where his knowledge of the area and its residents deepened. His father, Luis Miranda, is a longtime community activist and high-powered political consultant.

“I know Washington Heights backwards and forwards. So it felt like a very natural setting for this show,’’ says the soon-to-be 30-year-old, who is charming and talkative in person, with a razor-sharp wit.

While he may have penned a musical love letter to the neighborhood, Miranda wasn’t exactly hanging out at the corner bodega as a kid, or prowling the streets with his buddies from the barrio. Instead, the brainy, largely unsupervised child entertained himself while his parents worked long hours. He made comic flip books, created movies with his camcorder, and took piano lessons. He commuted to the elite Hunter College public high school on the Upper East Side, where he first tried his hand at writing musicals such as “Seven Minutes in Heaven,’’ an ode to the terror and excitement of that first unsupervised junior high school party.

“In the Heights,’’ narrated by the café con leche-selling Usnavi (played by Kyle Beltran on tour), weaves together a vibrant tapestry of lives in the multicultural neighborhood. Camila and Kevin Rosario struggle to make ends meet running a gypsy cab service, while dreaming of bigger things for their daughter Nina, a freshman at Stanford University. Meanwhile Nina and her parents’ African-American employee, Benny, have fallen for each other despite her parents’ protestations, and she’s running out of cash to stay in college. Then there’s Usnavi’s lottery-loving surrogate grandmother, Abuela Claudia; his ambitious but debt-burdened crush, Vanessa; and his cousin, Sonny, a wannabe ladies’ man.

Some critics have taken issue with what they see as the show’s airbrushed view of life in the ’hood, mostly devoid of extreme poverty, drugs, or violence. Miranda dismisses the naysayers.

“People always ask, ‘Why aren’t there more drugs and crime in the show?’ ’’ he says. “That’s because the only time they hear Washington Heights is on the news. But that’s not specific to our neighborhood. And it wasn’t my experience. The only things I know about drug dealing are from rap music. I’d be writing a fiction if I tried to make my show about that.’’

Miranda, who collaborated with book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes on the story, says he tried to offer another perspective. “I wanted to represent a side of life here that’s largely underrepresented. Which is not the dude selling drugs or hanging out on the corner, but the guy who owns the small business on the corner,’’ he says. “The dude on the street corner is still there. But we’re going to tell this other guy’s story.’’

Members of the creative team, led by director Thomas Kail, drew from their diverse backgrounds. “The broad strokes are fictional, but many of the details are semi-autobiographical,’’ says Miranda. “I think a lot of Quiara ended up in Nina and a lot of me ended up in Usnavi. His inability to talk to girls is certainly autobiographical,’’ says Miranda, with a sly smile.

The most personal brushstroke, however, involves Abuela Claudia, a character based on Miranda’s own beloved surrogate grandmother, who helped raise his father and siblings in Puerto Rico and helped care for Miranda and his sister when they were young.

“She was a compulsive gambler. One of my first memories is playing the illegal slot machines with her in the room behind the bodega on our corner,’’ he says.

Growing up, Miranda notes, he was a different person in high school, where most of his friends were white and Jewish, than he was at home. When he got to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he lived in a Latino student house, and it was the first time “he made really close friends who had the same bifurcated childhood.’’

“I think ‘In the Heights’ was in many ways my first attempt to reconcile those two different sides to my upbringing,’’ he says.

The musical’s genesis dates to Miranda’s sophomore year at Wesleyan, where he focused on theater, songwriting, and acting, writing an early version of “In the Heights’’ that was staged as a student production.

“I put those ‘Glee’ kids to shame,’’ he recalls. “Class was something that I passed in order to continue to try out for shows or attend rehearsals. . . . I wanted to leave with something under my arm, with a finished product, so I wrote a lot while I was in college. That way I’d have something that I could shop around immediately.’’

A CD recording of that student production of “Heights’’ made its way into the hands of Kail, another Wesleyan alum who had graduated a few years ahead of Miranda. Kail loved it.

“It felt like the kind of music that I would listen to on my own and that could sustain itself as you were walking around the street or driving in your car,’’ Kail says. “But it also felt like Lin was very much in touch with a venerable tradition of trying to make popular music and Broadway music interchangeable.’’

After Miranda graduated, he connected with Kail. Over the next six years, the creative team they assembled shepherded the show through various stops and starts, readings and workshops. The show ran off-Broadway for seven months in 2007, eventually landing on Broadway in early 2008.

It went on to win four Tony Awards, including one for best musical, along with raves for its original use of hip-hop and Latin music. With “Spring Awakening’’ and “Passing Strange,’’ “Heights’’ served as a watershed for musicals incorporating contemporary pop-music forms like rock and rap.

“If you walk three blocks down any part of this neighborhood, you will hear that mix of Latin music and hip-hop,’’ says Miranda. “One will be coming from a car stereo and one will be coming from a bodega. So the show felt like a good opportunity to really try to mix the two styles together and play with that.’’

Indeed, Miranda insists that hip-hop has always existed as an element in musical theater; it just wasn’t called hip-hop before.

“Not many people have used it as just another storytelling device in theater, but it can be extremely economical. I mean, [Stephen] Sondheim does it all the time. Like when the witch is explaining how she got the beans [in ‘Into the Woods’], that’s a rap! Sondheim’s told me that he’s been to high school productions where they add a backbeat and do it as a hip-hop thing. Or the song ‘Ya Got Trouble’ from ‘The Music Man,’ that’s a hip-hop number!’’

Miranda leaped from “Heights’’ to a clutch of other projects, including translating some “West Side Story’’ lyrics into Spanish for the current Broadway revival. Now he’s focusing on a musical-theater adaptation of the cheerleading movie “Bring It On’’; a new animated film for DreamWorks; a hip-hop concept album he’s writing about founding father Alexander Hamilton (“He was so gangsta, I can’t even begin to describe it’’); and a big-screen version of “In the Heights,’’ which will be directed by Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical’’) and will feature Miranda reprising the role of Usnavi.

Despite all his success, Miranda says he’s most grateful that the neighborhood itself has taken to “In the Heights’’ so enthusiastically.

“The night of the Tonys, I was in this surreal bubble. I had Liza Minnelli two seats ahead of me and Angela Lansbury to my left. And I was like, Where am I?’’ he recalls. “But I didn’t really lose it until someone told me that they were at a Tony-watching party at Coogan’s on 169th Street and that people were watching it at wine stores on 181st. The fact that the neighborhood has really embraced the show means the world to me.’’

IN THE HEIGHTS At: Boston Opera House, Tuesday through Jan. 24. Tickets: $30-$91. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayacross america.com/boston