[Originally published in DTM Magazine Issue #51; September 2008].
It continues to be a good year for Latinos in the arts. While, yes, Latinos have won awards in music and movies in the past, it hasn’t always been the case in other areas like literature or theater but his year we saw a change. Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize and now there is a Tony winner as well: Lin-Manuel Miranda. When asked if he’s gotten used to hearing “Tony Award winner” every time his name is mentioned, he jokes, “I try to say it as often as possible to everyone I know and they’re getting pretty sick of it.”
Lin-Manuel created In The Heights, a musical revolving around a Fourth of July weekend in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, while he was a student at Wesleyan University. “I wrote the first draft over my winter break in sort of a frenzied three weeks.”
Lin-Manuel grew up in Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods himself so the characters from In The Heights and their stories are similar to people you’d find on any block in the neighborhood. There’s Usnavi (played by Lin-Manuel), a bodeguero who dreams of returning to life in the Dominican Republic. He’s seriously feeling Vanessa, who wants to trade-in the Heights for the West Village. Next to Usnavi’s bodega, is the taxi base where owners Kevin and Camila may have to sell the company so their daughter Nina can continue studying at Stanford. Nina comes home after an unsteady freshman year, feeling she doesn’t belong at college and finds some comfort in the arms of Benny, an employee at the base – much to her parents chagrin. The beauty salon owner on the block, Daniela, faces a rising rent and decides to move to the Bronx. Amidst all this, Usnavi’s Abuela Claudia achieves the dream of many an immigrant New Yorker – hitting the lotto.
Lin-Manuel not only drew from the neighborhood he grew up around but also from his family. The Abuela Claudia character is based on Lin-Manuel’s real-life Abuela Mundi, who while not biologically his grandmother, certainly filled that role in his life by helping his parents raise him. “It was a very personal show…The characters of Kevin, Camila and Daniela are named after my first-cousins in Puerto Rico.”
He credits his parents for his interest in musical theater. “I remember they took me to Les Miserables when I was in second grade…They brought the cast album home and my mom would cry every time that dude sang ‘Bring Him Home.’ It affected them on an emotional level so we always had cast albums around at home and then I started doing theater in elementary school…I was a theater geek in high school. That was my creative outlet.” With music influenced by everything from merengue and salsa to Hip-Hop and bolero, it’s not your usual Broadway fare but that’s exactly where In The Heights ended up after a highly successful off-Broadway run. “It’s exciting to see people who say, I didn’t think I was gonna like this but I loved it.” In fact, Lin-Manuel discovered that it was those distinctive parts of In The Heights, like Usnavi’s Hip-Hop delivery, that excited audiences in those early performances the most. “There are so few precedents for we tried to do that we really got to write the rules in terms of what we were doing and how we were using hip-hop to tell a story.”
Not only did the show continue to thrive on Broadway, it was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards and walked away with four awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score. “It’s pretty amazing company,” Lin-Manuel says. “Our company manager read me the list of the other people who had [won] the Best Score Tony and that was a crazy list. Sondheim and all these legends…Anytime you’re sitting next to your girlfriend and your parents and Liza Minelli is two rows ahead of you, it’s a surreal time.” In a nod to the musical uniqueness of his show, Lin-Manuel rapped his acceptance speech at the Tonys.
While reviews for In The Heights have been positive from its inception, the only criticism that pops up occasionally is that it evades the harsher realities of life in Washington Heights – namely crime, drugs and violence. “My answer to that is that I don’t believe a positive portrayal and an accurate portrayal are mutually exclusive. An artist’s job is to point the lens wherever he wants…You almost never see Washington Heights portrayed in a positive light in the mainstream media…It’s funny, I live fifteen blocks from the theater in midtown and I don’t breathe here like I breathe uptown. I breathe easy and I don’t look over my shoulder when I’m in Washington Heights or Inwood. Those are the streets I know and I feel safe there. I’ve never felt that way in midtown…People have never seen Washington Heights without coke being processed in a back room somewhere so I’m happy to offer In The Heights as a corrective to that perception.”
Despite the high expectations his Broadway triumph might have created for any of his future projects, Lin-Manuel doesn’t feel any added pressure. In fact, just the opposite. “It’s never going to be as good as this. I’ve checked so many things off my dream list that it’s sort of silly. I wrote this show, I get to star in this show and the show is not only the result of eight years of really hard work and collaboration, it’s also sort of validated me in this Latino community that I never felt totally a part of.”
In an interview with Complex, Lin-Manuel had said he experienced the cultural displacement common to his generation as a result of going to high school outside of his neighborhood (he attended Hunter College High School on the upper east side) and being a first-generation New Yorker (his parents were born in Puerto Rico). “It satisfies me on both a professional and personal level so it’s never going to be this good again. I understand that. So, you know, now I get to sort of write whatever the hell I want.” While the Tony Award has been fulfilling to Lin-Manuel, he’s also appreciative of the response and support from the residents of his old neighborhood. “Well now every time that I go to the Caridad on 173st Street, I get free breakfast,” he jokes. “Which is really nice. I get free mangu and queso frito along with my little coffee cup full of avena. That is probably one of my favorite perks.”