How Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, Written in College, Returned to His Alma Mater

News   How Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights, Written in College, Returned to His Alma Mater
 
Lin-Manuel Miranda penned the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University, where it returns Nov. 12 — as a fully staged faculty production and part of the college's curriculum.

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It's already been a busy and fulfilling November for Lin-Manuel Miranda. On Nov. 10 the Tony Award winner, songwriter, singer and actor added an additional title to his résumé: father. He and his wife Vanessa Nadal welcomed their first son, Sebastian Miranda.

His other child, the award-winning musical In the Heights — which was "born" in 1999 during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University — celebrates a milestone Nov. 12, when it opens at Wesleyan in a production presented by the theatre department and directed by a friend and mentor, associate professor of theatre Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento.

"It was such a crazy, full-circle feeling," Miranda told Playbill.com. "First of all, you have to know that I met Cláudia my senior year at Wesleyan, when she was coming in as a professor as I was going out as a student. Her first year at Wesleyan was my last year; we became friends then. She didn't advise on my senior project, but she was around. We worked together on a couple of shows, and I really like her. She's an avant-garde theatre director. She directed Brecht! So it's very funny to imagine her directing a musical — like a musical musical! … I was just really tickled — the fact that this show would be a faculty production."

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Click here to view the virtual Playbillder for In the Heights.

Nascimento was more than ready for Wesleyan to welcome back In the Heights. "Heights demanded a lot of interest from musical theatre students," she explained. "The first person who I contacted was Lin."

She wanted to discuss the musical's challenges with the creative force behind it. Since Wesleyan doesn't offer a musical theatre major (only a major in theatre) and doesn't lend itself to putting on full-scale musicals — such as programs like College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon and Boston Conservatory — she would have to spread her reach across campus to assemble the perfect cast. This, Miranda said, was reminiscent of when he put up Heights in the '90s.

"There are kids who had never done theatre at Wesleyan who are participating for the first time because it's In the Heights," said Miranda, "and that was true of my version, too, because I needed to scrape together enough Latinos to [cast it], and I went everywhere. One of the reasons my production of Heights was successful — and completely different from the version of Heights that later reached Broadway, that Quiara [Alegría Hudes] and I rewrote pretty much from scratch — is the diversity of student body, so that's really exciting."

The cast in rehearsal
The cast in rehearsal

Diversity is the driving force behind Wesleyan's "revival" of In the Heights, director Nascimento explained. When she wrote Miranda, she asked for his blessing to cast a wide range of students.

"I said, 'This cannot be a musical cast only with Latino students. We need to cast the musical in a manner that is representative of the diversity that we have on campus,' and he was, from day one, very excited, very supportive," said Nascimento. "The only thing he asked me was to keep the respect for Spanish language, which I think is more than fair. The cast is very diverse as well because that's the makeup of the student body at the university, and it has been a particularly touching experience for me to witness the kind of exchange of experiences— it's not just ethnically diverse, but they have very different backgrounds of family histories…

"Some of them are international students, and since In the Heights is a musical about community, that value or that theme has been transferred to the rehearsal process, and so the Spanish-speaking students coach the non Spanish-speaking students on how to speak the language. They exchange ideas about the accent when they speak English. Some students are from Washington Heights — they bring that kind of information — so it's been generally a very, very positive experience."

The experience has also been rewarding and educational for the students at Wesleyan. They received advice from Miranda during their first week of rehearsals and have access to the show's Pulitzer Prize-winning book writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes, who is a distinguished professor in playwriting in the university's theatre department.

"In the Heights is a very Wesleyan musical in this sense," Nascimento said. "Everybody already knew all the songs and all the text before the first rehearsal. I was amazed. Way before I announced that I'd be doing it, they'd already been longtime fans… I would say that the majority of the cast does not consist of theatre majors. They came to audition because it was Lin's musical, and there is clearly a sense of pride. It's almost a relationship as if they connect with him as if he were the older brother." Miranda ensured that he got to see the students before Heights went up at Wesleyan because he knew he'd be busy with fatherhood and a new musical this month. His Hamilton goes into rehearsals at the end of November; it's scheduled to bow at Off-Broadway's Public Theater in January 2015.

"It's also nice to think that he graduated in 2002 — we're now in 2014 — [and] that In the Heights, at least for Wesleyan students, is not a phase. It has really remained in the collective memory. It's something that is very alive for the students. They were clearly in awe to meet him," added Nascimento. "But, also, the pedagogical experience is enriched by the content of the musical, which then spears other kinds of relationships and connections that hopefully will go beyond the campus and that these students will bring into their communities and their understanding and ability to converse with different people."

She added that "the feeling of belonging to the history of the musical is very strong." As for Miranda, the fact that Heights is playing Wesleyan's 400-seat CFA theatre (the bigger space that the university typically uses for visiting productions, which is about the same size as 37 Arts Theater, where Heights bowed Off-Broadway) is simply "thrilling."

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Performances of In the Heights are offered Nov. 12-15 at 8 PM and Nov. 16 at 2 PM and 8 PM at the CFA Theater.

Just like the Playbills found on and Off-Broadway and in numerous theatres across the country, the Playbillder contains billing features identical to those used by award-winning theatre professionals for decades. Click here to view the Playbillder for In the Heights.

Visit Playbillder.com to explore more exciting productions across the U.S. and to build one of your own.

To learn more about arts programs at colleges and universities across the country, including Wesleyan University, visit PlaybillEDU.com.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

The company
The company Photo by John Groo
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