Community Organizing

Community Organizing

Diego Klock-Perez and Santina Umbach. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Diego Klock-Perez and Santina Umbach. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Putting together a new musical means handling a lot of moving parts: the story, the script, the music, the lyrics, and the performances are each enough on their own to keep even the hardest-working artists busy full-time. So what happens when you’re in charge of all five simultaneously? This was the question faced by Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2003, as he continued to develop In the Heights. He had originally created the show in 1999, when he was a sophomore in college, and four years later he was still writing the book, music, and lyrics, in addition to performing in workshops as the central role of rapping narrator Usnavi. For Miranda, getting the best show possible (and maintaining some semblance of sanity) would require finding a group of like-minded artists who could fully understand what this completely new, and completely personal, labor of love needed in order to become the hit that he knew it could be.

Fortunately, he had already had success finding collaborators: director Thomas Kail had been working with him on the piece since right after its first production at Wesleyan, and together with producers Jill Furman, Kevin McCollum, and Jeffrey Seller, the two men started seeking out other artists for the project. The tricky part was that whoever came on board had to understand not just musical theatre in general, but also the specific music, cultures, and communities that Miranda was representing with his show (which was a far cry from, say, Oklahoma!). The addition of musical director Alex Lacaimoire was a crucial step: he had just come off of the Broadway run of Wicked, so he knew how big productions operated, but he was also an artist of Cuban descent, originally from Miami, who understood the sounds, rhythms, and spirit that needed to suffuse the whole show.

The biggest leap forward, however, came in 2004, with the hiring of playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes to take over book-writing duties. The entire artistic team agreed that the music and theatricality of the show were electric, but that it was lacking a true narrative spine. Bringing Hudes on board took the duty of finding that structure off Miranda’s hands, allowing him to focus on all the other balls in the air. Hudes and Miranda clicked immediately, and they began paring down excess stories and dead-end moments. Immediately, In the Heights began to take a much clearer and cleaner shape.

With a full team assembled, the last step was to create the best show imaginable; and to do so, the producers arranged to workshop In the Heights at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2005 National Musical Theater Conference. One of the oldest and most esteemed new-work development conferences in America, the O’Neill allowed the artistic team to really dig into the show and put it through its paces. Another actor, Javier Muñoz, was even brought in to play Usnavi during the workshop, so that Miranda could watch from the audience and keep his “writer” hat on full-time. (Muñoz would stay with the show throughout the rest of the process, as an ensemble member and Miranda’s understudy. He would also continue to step in during rehearsals, if Miranda needed to view a section from the outside.)

Coming off the O’Neill process, the artists and producers all felt that the show was close, but still not Broadway-ready. A prominent character, Benny’s brother, was cut, and some of his dilemmas and dramatic beats were folded into Nina’s story. Workshops continued through 2006 in advance of a 2007 opening Off-Broadway. The show was an immediate smash, and by 2008, was on Broadway, garnering acclaim and awards, with the vast majority of the original creative team still involved. After so many years of hard work, a show that had begun as one artist’s big idea had grown into a close-knit family of its own, reflecting all of the communal ideals that had inspired Miranda in the first place.

—Walt McGough