For Lin-Manuel Miranda and In the Heights, home is where the heart is. "A lot of the show comes out of the theme of home, and what we define as home," Miranda says. "It's especially a struggle for those of us who were born here and have parents who speak nostalgically of where they came from. What do we take with us? What traditions do we pass on to our kids?"
Last year, Miranda soared to the heights of Off-Broadway with the hit musical he conceived, composed and stars in, about three days in the life of a pulsating block in Washington Heights, a largely Latino community in northern Manhattan. His effervescent fusion of hip-hop and Latin music, with a libretto by Quiara Alegría Hudes — a Pulitzer Prize finalist last year for her play Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue — was named best musical of 2007 by New York Magazine, and Miranda won the Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award from ASCAP. Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler received Joseph A. Callaway Awards from the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; Blankenbuehler took home Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle prizes for choreography; and the cast sang and danced away with the Drama Desk's prize for outstanding ensemble.
Now, in the musical's revised incarnation with three new songs and a cast of 27 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Miranda is aiming to climb the pinnacle of Broadway.
Miranda, 28, actually grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, just north of Washington Heights — "I missed the Heights by a few blocks," he jokes. His parents were born in Puerto Rico and met in graduate school at NYU. His father founded a Spanish–English weekly, Manhattan Times, and his mother is a child psychologist. "I was a theatre nerd in high school — I directed West Side Story in my senior year. I wanted a theatre career, but knew I couldn't dance well enough to be Paul in A Chorus Line, so I wrote a show I wanted to be in. I grew up with hip-hop, and I wanted it to sound like my neighborhood." (In In the Heights, Miranda portrays a Dominican bodega owner, Usnavi — and you are guaranteed to enjoy the moment you find out the name's origin.)
He says he first became aware of "how special my neighborhood was when I went to school elsewhere — Hunter College Elementary and High School on the Upper East Side. I realized my neighborhood was like a little Latin American country on the top of Manhattan. I could go with my grandmother, who spoke no English, to any store. She has never had to learn English."
Miranda began to create the show while at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "I began doodling the words In the Heights in my astronomy notebook. I wrote songs, and my friends encouraged me to keep writing." It was when he began working with Hudes, in 2004 — "at that point I had a really good college show" — that they found the theme of home, and its definition. "In Washington Heights," he says, "everyone is from somewhere else — what do you bring from your homeland, and what remains? Every character struggles with home." At the same time, the neighborhood is changing. "I moved back, and I saw a pilates center on 181st Street. Many Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods are on the brink of transition, and the people who make the neighborhood are finding themselves unable to afford to live there anymore."
Hudes, 30, says she was chosen for the libretto because she grew up in a neighborhood in west Philadelphia similar to Washington Heights and had been writing about it. Miranda, she says, "had conceived the world of the show, so even though I started from scratch, it was a very advanced sort of scratch. I reconcieved the story. Lin had gotten to a certain point, and it had been about a love triangle. I decided to go in a different direction, to change the emphasis." The goal, Hudes says, "was to bring to light a neighborhood and a way of life that is rich and exciting and that we love, but also to show how they change — to ask the question, 'What do we do as these places we love are changing? How can we be true to them?'"
Speaking of changes, several have been made in the transition to Broadway. "The musical Off-Broadway had a story line about a family and a daughter, Nina and her parents," she says, "and we've tried to make that truer and more honest, to make it pay off more. We're focusing on that family, which a generation ago had no one who graduated from college, and now the girl is going to be the first in her family to graduate. We're telling that story in a more gratifying, in-depth, detailed way. What we don't want is to change the spirit of the musical. It has always had this amazing spirit."
Miranda agrees. "I think people who saw the show Off-Broadway and were moved will recognize the show they know and love. But I think and hope that what we've done is make the show even better."
This article was first published in 2008.