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Reaching for New Heights: Interview With Lin-Manuel Miranda

Tony-winning composer, lyricist, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda moves on as "In the Heights" moves up to the silver screen.

“When we [Hispanics] paint our own portraits, we often paint them with love,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda, 29, who conceived In the Heights, a musical about his New York neighborhood, while still in college. His audiences, in turn, fell in love with the show, making it an instant hit when it opened off-Broadway in 2007. Critics raved about Miranda’s lyrics and groundbreaking score—with contagious merengue, salsa, and hip-hop beats.

The musical, with script by Quiara Alegría Hudes, opened a year later on Broadway, with Miranda playing Usnavi, a bodega owner who inherits his surrogate grandmother’s lottery winnings. As Usnavi plans a return to the Dominican Republic, he realizes that Washington Heights is now his home. In the Heights won numerous awards, including four 2008 Tony Awards, and the show’s original Broadway cast recording won a Grammy in 2009. And in April, In the Heights was selected as a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in drama. 

Producers recouped their $10 million investment—a rare feat—in just ten months, and the show continues to pack audiences at the Richard Rogers Theatre. Now a national tour is slated for 2010, and a film version is in development. After a year of performances, Miranda left the show in February 2009. AARP Segunda Juventud spoke with Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, about the show’s success, his family ties, other projects, and his return to the old neighborhood.

Q. How was that final bow on Broadway?

A. It was unreal. I came out with a five-minute standing ovation, which was pretty amazing. Having done the show for a year, you learn to do the show so you can do it safely eight shows a week, but [I thought] “I don’t have another one coming, got to leave it all on stage tonight.” It was really a special night.

Q. What did you do on your first week off the show?

A. I took a page out of the play and took my abuelita to Las Vegas for a couple of days, which was fantastic. One of my first memories was going with her to the slot machines in the back of our local bodega. We went to the Bellagio a couple of days, and I wheeled her to every slot machine we could find and had a great time.

Q. You’re back Uptown?

A. I live three blocks from where I was living when I first wrote the show. It’s really quite a lifeline. I look at old black-and-white pictures of my grandfather, who passed away the week after the show opened on Broadway, and it’s like looking at black-and-white pictures of myself. And, frankly, the stories my father and my grandparents told me are the linchpin of In the Heights. You learn so much about yourself by linking ties with the people who share most of your genetic material. They remain an important part of my life.

Q. As a child you wanted to do film. Why did you choose the musical as your art form?

A. There’s music, there’s dance, there’s drama, there’s everything. I fell in love with [musicals] at a very young age. I’m not one of these people who likes every musical; I’m very picky. But when a musical is firing on all cylinders, I don’t think there’s a more moving art form.

Q. Some reviewers criticized the show for seemingly ignoring many of the social ills that affect inner-city neighborhoods like Washington Heights.

A. Here’s where you get the really interesting difference between the Latino media and the mainstream media. The mainstream media said it’s a wonderful show, the dancing is great, the singing is great, but it’s so unrealistic. Latino media said it’s such a great show, the music is great, the singing is great, and—at last—it’s realistic. It really shows the [difference between how] mainstream America sees Latinos versus the way we see ourselves. And when we paint our own portraits, we often paint them with love.

Q. You wrote the Spanish lyrics for the new production of West Side Story now on Broadway.

A. As a Latino actor, I’ve always described [West Side Story] as our greatest blessing and our greatest curse. For one, it’s a masterpiece. When I talked about musicals firing on all cylinders, I don’t think there’s a better synthesis of music, dance, drama, and subject matter. It has been the prevalent image of Latinos on stage for now 52 years. If you go backstage at In the Heights and start clapping the “America” beat, every single person back there can clap it with you, because we’ve all played Bernardo or Consuelo or Anita. That’s been our foot in the door as actors.

When [librettist and director] Arthur Laurents approached me, he had a very audacious idea for this revival. He said, “I want the Sharks to talk to each other in Spanish when they’re with each other, and sing in Spanish when they feel like singing to each other in Spanish.” He said to me, “‘Do you think you can do that?” and I said, “I think I was born to do that.”

Q. Did you work with the show’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim?

A. We met a couple of times. He was very generous about allowing me to find whatever language I needed to express the sentiments of the songs. What he was adamant about was the structure and rhyme. With a lot of the Spanish-language translations, the rhyme is the first thing that is sacrificed so that the lyrics can make sense in Spanish, so I really try to strike a balance between honoring the original lyric structure and continuing to have it make sense and be just as witty and effortless in Spanish as it is in its own amazing English lyrics.

Q. I take it you’re satisfied with the result.

A. Sondheim is satisfied, and my dad, who grew up in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, was satisfied, and that’s all I care about. Those are my two benchmarks.

Q. You also wrote new songs for a revival of Studs Terkel’s Working.

A. [Composer-lyricist and director Stephen Schwartz] asked me to contribute two new songs. I went totally Studs Terkel and interviewed McDonald’s workers.

One of my songs is about doing delivery for a fast-food chain, which was actually my first job as a kid. [And for the] other song, we really wanted to write a new song about what the immigrant working experience is in this country, and a large number of immigrants these days are elderly-care workers and babysitters. I interviewed several of those and wrote a song about how every immigrant group gets their foot in the door by doing the job nobody else wants to do.

Q. And future projects? You’ve hinted at another full-length musical in another 10 years.

A. Ha! Without giving away the idea, it’s a huge book that I want to adapt. It’s a historical biography that I read and was incredibly taken with; I gave myself ten years because I haven’t figured out how to crack it yet. It’s an incredible story. I think if I can figure out how to make it sing, it could be amazing.

Actually, there’s another book that is one of my favorite books since I was 14 years old, that I’m working on acquiring the rights to, that I hope will be my next full-length staged musical. But I’m superstitious of announcing it before it happens.

Q. When does the In the Heights film go into production?

A. That’s the big question. Films have their own development life, which I’m just learning about now. For our part, Quiara is working on the screenplay, so we trade phone calls a couple of times a day to brainstorm, but she’s having a wonderful time sort of creating this third version of this world. It’s fun getting our writers’ caps back on and writing again. She’s working on the screenplay as we speak.

I’m really adamant that we shoot on location in Washington Heights, and I’m really looking forward to filming the story in the community, which has really embraced the show and embraced our portrayal. 

Q. How long do you think In the Heights will remain on Broadway?

A. As long as people keep buying tickets, we’ll be there.

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