"In the Heights" is a celebration of the stories and music of generations of Latinos in the Washington Heights enclave of New York — it's a story the musical's author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, 30, knows well.
“In the Heights” salsa-danced and hip-hopped onto Broadway in 2008. A vivacious homage to the north Manhattan enclave of Washington Heights, it is the first musical smash to fuse rap and salsa music with a story focused on Latino characters.
And it’s been a great introduction to Lin-Manuel Miranda, 30, the exuberant, multigifted composer, lyricist and original star of “In the Heights” — who never dreamed his sophomore college project would someday cop several Tony Awards.
With the show still on Broadway and the national tour coming to 5th Avenue Theatre, Miranda took a break from work on a new musical (based on the teen flick “Bring it On”) to reflect on “In the Heights.”
“It was literally my first attempt to do something like this,” said the animated, articulate Miranda, by phone from New York. “I threw in the kitchen sink — everything I loved and wanted to see.”
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Getting it into final shape was a five-year haul, because “it was the hardest type of musical to write. There was no template for it.”
Miranda clearly had the right stuff to see it through. Of Puerto Rican heritage, he was a gifted Hunter College High School student and theater major at Wesleyan University — and an expert freestyle rapper and ardent hip-hop fan.
Miranda meshed his varied interests and talents (“a bizarre skill set”) in his campus version of “Heights.” “It was so different then, but always had these characters, who had a lot more to say.”
What do the show’s affable Dominican-American narrator, bodega owner Usnavi (first enacted by Miranda) and his young-adult peers have to say (and sing) about? They yearn to finish college, prosper in business, find love. And they worry how gentrification will impact their tight community.
Miranda knows Washington Heights well. “I grew up in Inwood, very nearby, my parents are still there,” he said. “Most places in the show don’t exist anymore. The bodegas [corner stores] I grew up with are gone.
“If you’d told me when I was a kid there’d be a Starbucks on 181st Street, I’d have been amazed. But gentrification is complex, and the show doesn’t portray developers as moustache-twirling villains.”
After college, Miranda formed a theater troupe and taught for a year at his old high school. He also dusted off “In the Heights,” reworking it with director Thomas Kail, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and other ambitious young cohorts.
As the story was fleshed out, Miranda found “sneaky ways” to make his score accessible to all — including theater fans who don’t know Jay-Z from Beyoncé.
“The fun is bringing people along for the ride without any of the cultural baggage that may go along with hip-hop music. One trick in the rap numbers was to shout out to great 20th-century songwriters like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington.”
Another gambit: “I’ll listen to a hip-hop album I love 50 times to catch all the words. But in theater, you have to find ways to make your storytelling crystal-clear in one hearing. I gotta tell you, it’s a challenge!”
Though critics were less enthused about the melodramatic plot, most hailed the show’s snappy, witty score, infectious vitality and exciting dance numbers, first in an Off Broadway run, then on Broadway.
“In the Heights” won Tonys for best new musical, choreographer, orchestrations, and original score. But as precious to Miranda was the reaction of ethnically diverse audiences.
“Oh my God,” he recalls, “The thrill of acting in it, getting a visceral response from young people. And … I spoke at my old high school’s graduation for the kids I taught a few years before. That was a full-circle moment!”
Miranda has since translated Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish for a bilingual revival of “West Side Story.” A film of “In the Heights” is in the works. And he’s scoring “Bring it On” with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for a 2011 debut in Atlanta. That show is about cheerleaders — a topic new to a guy “who went to a nerd high school with no football team.”
Culture clash? Nope. “What’s funny about musical theater is that it’s such a mutt of an art form,” he said. “It appeals to many kinds of people, encompasses all cultures and arts disciplines.”
An example: The heartwarming video clip from Miranda’s Sept. 5 nuptials to Vanessa Nadal, of the groom and his Latino father-in-law performing the Jewish song “L’Chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof” to the surprised bride. It’s gone viral.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org