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A Tony winner at the age of 28 for his musical In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in northern Manhattan just across Dyckman Street from Washington Heights, the neighborhood celebrated in the show. Miranda still lives in Inwood where he called us from a sidewalk café a few hours after the 2013 Tony nominations were announced. Our conversation was punctuated with background street noises and the occasional interruption for a congratulatory call for his most recent Tony nod for Bring it On: The Musical.
So how did a kid growing up in Inwood in the 1980s and ’90s get interested in musical theatre?
Parents who loved musical theatre. As a kid I saw the ’80s trilogy of Cats, Phantom and Les Miz that everyone else saw on their birthday. But my parents were avid collectors of cast albums so I was raised on a steady diet of Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha and Camelot. Those were the big ones in our home.
When you started going to shows on your own, what did you see?
Maybe it’s an accident of timing, but I saw Rent for my 17th birthday and that was enormous. I’d always felt that musicals were remote period pieces—at least the ones I knew and loved—and here’s this musical about being an artist and how hard that is and how hard it is to hold onto a dream. It articulated every fear I had about doing this for a living in a really beautiful and compassionate and compelling way. So that was the show that gave me permission to think, “You can write a musical.”
Is that the career you had in mind when you went off to college?
I went to Wesleyan thinking I was going to do theatre and film, but I ended up dropping film because I realized the immediacy of theatre. I could write something in the fall and put it up in the spring. There’s sort of a direct, very honest transaction when you write for the theatre. You make it and put it up in front of a crowd and the gratification is instantaneous. I was very empowered by the theatre setup both at my high school and in college because they really encouraged DIY productions. If you had a project and could get a kid to be your lighting guy and a kid to be your sound guy, they’d give you a space and a couple of hundred bucks.
What got you started writing In the Heights?
A combination of things. The first draft of Heights began my sophomore year and was my first attempt at writing a full-length musical. My high school girlfriend, who I was still dating, was studying abroad so I suddenly had all this time on my hands and emotional energy that I wasn’t spending anywhere else. I just threw everything I had at it. I also was living in a house with other Latino kids and making friends my age that were Latino which was—it sounds crazy now—very rare for me. I went to a magnet school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan commuting from my Latino neighborhood to a very rich white neighborhood all through my childhood. And so something about living in that house also empowered me to try writing Latin music which I’d grown up with. I realized, “Oh, the stuff I’m listening to at home is fair game for telling stories in musical theatre. And no one else is doing that.”
What kept you going on the project after you graduated in 2002?
That’s simple: [director] Tommy Kail. I immediately clicked with him the first time we met after my graduation. He’d been to Wesleyan a little earlier than me so we never met while we were in college together. He’s really great at keeping his eye on the prize. And he’s also really great with writers in terms of setting goals every week. I experienced writing In the Heights as a series of meetings on Tuesday and Friday of every week. Even when we didn’t have money for a production or we didn’t have producers and we didn’t know what we were doing, we were working on the show, for its own sake, every week for six years.
At what point in the process did you also take on the job of playing the part of Usnavi?
I always tell people I sort of fell in the snowball as it rolled down the hill. It started as a convenience because it’s very hard to find an experienced actor who can learn to rap well in a 29-hour rehearsal process for an Equity reading. So Tommy said, “Why don’t you play Usnavi for now and we’ll find another actor later?” When we met [producer] Kevin McCollum for the first time, he was like, “I don’t quite know what the story is that you’re trying to tell, but I really like the music and I really like you as that guy.” And so I just kept playing him. We knew even then we were shaping Usnavi into the narrator which turned out to be, honestly, a handy sales tool at readings because anytime there was sort of a hole in the plot, I could have Usnavi tap dance around it and say, “And now there will be a great song here.” The role continued to solidify to the point where, by the time we were ready for a production, it was really written for me.
Last December you did a concert reunion of the show in Washington Heights. How did it feel to revisit the show in that setting?
It was so much fun. It really was. With the exception of Priscilla Lopez, who was doing a play on the West Coast, we got everyone back. It was enormously fun because this cast had been through stuff together. Chris Jackson had being playing Bennie since 2003. Ensemble member, Doreen Montalvo, was the first woman we cast to play the now nonexistent part of Bennie’s mom in 2002. To have this huge homecoming for the first time in the neighborhood that it’s about, was really nothing but joy from beginning to end, a crazy reunion that culminated in the concert. If we’d just had the three days of rehearsal singing through the show again and gone home, I would have been perfectly happy. But then we got this Rocky Horror-like reception with a sold out crowd. It was so much fun.
And you performed the show in Puerto Rico—where you parents were originally from. What was that like?
We brought the First National Tour to Puerto Rico. A lot of credit has to go to our producers. That’s not a typical tour stop. I think we were the first Equity show to go there. My father has contacts in Puerto Rico which helped make it work. It’s very tricky to sell tickets there. Whatever the economy is going through here, triple that and you have the economic troubles in Puerto Rico. But that being said, Heights was so overwhelming received. It was just an insane, insane reception. More than I could have ever dreamed. It was really worth it. I think it was one of the most successful stops on our tour. It was an incredible ancestral homecoming for the show.