About Latinos, by Latinos

Special to The Times

In 1998, high school senior Lin-Manuel Miranda saw “The Capeman” three times during previews, just before the highly anticipated Paul Simon musical crashed and burned on Broadway. Starring Ruben Blades and Marc Anthony, the show, in Miranda’s opinion, was as exhilarating as it was frustrating. All that extraordinary Latino talent! But in the service of what? A musical based on a real-life gang slaying by a Puerto Rican-born petty criminal?

“I was deeply conflicted,” the 28-year-old actor-composer recalls a decade later. “You know that story about Stephen Sondheim, when he was a young intern on the musical ‘Allegro’? It was one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rare flops, and Sondheim’s often said that when he started writing musicals, he was always trying to fix ‘Allegro.’ Well, when I started writing ‘In the Heights,’ the impulse was to try to fix ‘Capeman.’ ”

Miranda has succeeded at that and much more, at least given the critical reception for “Heights” when it bowed last year off-Broadway. Whereas “Capeman” was unfocused, dark and brooding, Miranda’s musical is a bright and hip valentine to Washington Heights, the vibrant and bustling Latino community on the north end of Manhattan.


“A singing mural of Latin American life that often has the inspiriting flavor of a morning pick-me-up,” wrote Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, going on to praise “the infectious bouncy Latin-pop score” by Miranda and his performance as Usnavi, the charismatic bodega owner who acts as the rapping tour guide of the ‘hood.

Now that “In the Heights” has transferred to Broadway, opening tonight at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, the stakes for the $10-million musical have been substantially raised, not the least of which is the fate of the first major musical about Latinos created by and featuring Latino talent. Miranda, who composed the songs, is joined by Quiara Alegria Hudes, a Latina playwright who has fashioned the musical’s book. Among the cast are Priscilla Lopez (the original Morales in “A Chorus Line”) and Mandy Gonzalez (“Brooklyn”).

Through an array of musical styles, including bachata, merengue, salsa, hip-hop and Broadway, “In the Heights” offers up characters dealing with a series of melodramatic crises over a Fourth of July weekend: Nina, who has dropped out of Stanford; her disappointed parents, Kevin and Camila, who run a car service; Benny, their ambitious dispatcher; Abuela Claudia, Usnavi’s lottery-playing “grandmother”; his cutup cousin Sonny; and Usnavi’s romantic crush, Vanessa, whose downtown cool is gently mocked by the girls of the local beauty parlor. At the center are the perennial assimilationist pleas: “How do I reconcile my dreams with my parents’ ambitions for me?”

“Those were the questions I was always asking myself, so writing the show has been navigating and working that all out,” says Miranda, a first-generation Puerto Rican.

With his soulful basset-hound eyes and brimming energy, he is an amiable mix of confidence and “pinch-myself” disbelief at his sudden emergence as the theater’s newest boy wonder. But carrying the weight of the first Latino musical is not something he really thinks about. “At this point, I’m more worried about nailing a couple of riffs in the second act,” he says.

‘Unique musical vocabulary’

Kevin McCollum, the producer of “Rent” and “Avenue Q” with producing partner Jeffrey Seller, says he recognized “a fresh contemporary voice” when he attended a reading of “Heights” five years ago. “Lin-Manuel reminded me a lot of Jonathan, his ability to take all these genres and forge them into a unique musical vocabulary,” he says of “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. “It’s a contemporary musical about an Hispanic community, but it’s really about us, about America. . . . It’s just that nobody has done that recently with all the myriad cultural influences that have affected Lin.”


Those influences have been remarkably eclectic. Miranda grew up in Inwood, a community just north of Washington Heights, the son of Luis and Luz Miranda, who were community activists. In fact, Lin-Manuel was named for a socialist utopian Puerto Rican poet. Latino music filled the house, but so did pop, rock and show tunes. Miranda says his father, in his youth, was the charter -- and perhaps only -- member of the Debbie Reynolds Fan Club and romanced his mother to songs like the “Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha.” To this day, songs like “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables” can reduce his parents to tears. “I saw the emotional power of theater up close,” he says.

A gifted child, Miranda was bused to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to attend the elite schools attached to Hunter College.

Whereas Washington Heights was a mix of working-class Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Latinos, Miranda’s scholastic world from first grade to senior year was predominantly white, affluent and Jewish. To keep Miranda in touch with his roots, his parents sent him to spend summers with relatives in Puerto Rico. “To my classmates, I was the guy from the barrio; to my neighbors, I was the kid who went to an Upper East Side school; to the kids in Puerto Rico, I was the American kid,” Miranda says. “I was always questioning my authenticity.”

At the same time he was grooving to rap groups like Pharcyde and Black Sheep, his love of musical theater was deepening -- not that he found answers to his identity crisis there. “West Side Story,” a production of which he directed in high school, was the Holy Grail. And “Capeman” was such a high-water mark that Miranda sang “Adios, Hermanos” at his high school graduation -- a quirky choice given that it is a murderer’s farewell as he is shipped off to prison.

Indeed, the Latino presence was so scarce that Miranda glommed on to Morales in “A Chorus Line” and insisted that “Nine” was a Latino musical because Raul Julia, a Puerto Rican actor, created the lead role of Guido. Little wonder that Miranda’s first stabs at writing musicals were “Rent”-like exercises such as “Nightmare in D Major,” about a fetal pig trying to dissect the protagonist.

“Sound portentous enough?” he says, self-mockingly.

It wasn’t until his arrival at Wesleyan University in Connecticut that he felt free to address his own community. There he lived in La Casa, the Latino housing in the stratified social hierarchy, and met other students who were grappling with the same issues. “I thought, maybe I’m not so crazy for feeling that I didn’t fit in,” he recalls, noting that there were also academic and financial pressures, now reflected through Nina’s situation in “Heights.” “We started with nine students and ended up with five by the end of the year,” he says.


“Heights” began to take shape in his sophomore year as a class project. A couple of years later, a recording was given to a young director, Thomas Kail, a Wesleyan alumnus who decided to develop it further with his new Manhattan-based company, Back House.

After a few workshops, the buzz drew the attention of producer Jill Furman, who in turn brought in McCollum and Seller. They recruited a promising young choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler, and persuaded Miranda to take on the role of Usnavi and to accept Hudes as a writing partner who could help with the problematical book.

When the show opened off-Broadway, several critics still took exception to the book, finding it, in the words of Isherwood, “rosy.” Indeed, the residents of Washington Heights might find their neighborhood, which has had its fair share of crime and urban decay, a tad unrecognizable. And some characters have been beautified in the transfer to theatricality. For example, the saintly lottery-playing Abuela Claudia in “Heights” is modeled on Abuela Mundi, the Puerto Rican nanny who has lived with his family for decades. Miranda affectionately says of the real-life Mundi, “She’s the most impatient, irritable and famously short-tempered woman you’ll ever meet in your life, a real curmudgeon. The only similarities are that she plays the numbers every day. And that we love her.”

One wonders if Miranda hasn’t pulled his punches because of the paucity of positive Latino role models. “There is an element of wish fulfillment going on there,” he says. “But idealized is not the same thing as inaccurate. This is not a fantasy. The idea that Washington Heights can’t go for two days without a murder or a crime on the police blotter is itself a stereotype.”

Miranda says he wasn’t too concerned with authenticity -- musically or culturally. “Whatever told the story best won,” he says. “The fact is that Latino New Yorkers have a racial and cultural history that is much more mixed no matter what the flag says. We are a paella.”

Community response to “Heights” has been gratifying. “To hear ‘Thank you for creating this’ is really very personally validating,” he says.


Miranda stops and recounts an episode last spring after “Heights” had bowed to critical acclaim. He recalls attending the New Dramatists’ annual spring gala with Hudes and being acknowledged from the dais as the author of “Heights.” Later, while table-hopping, he was called over by a middle-aged woman. Pumped up to receive a compliment, he was deflated when the woman pointed to her companion and said, “She hasn’t received her entree yet.”

“There’s still a lot of that going on,” he says with a laugh.