Remembering When the Lights First Went Up on Lin-Manuel Miranda

3 Jun

It was March of 2008. Barack Obama had not yet been elected President. No Country for Old Men had just won Best Picture at the Oscars. Among the most popular songs were “Low” by Flo Rida and T-Pain, “Love in This Club” by Usher, and “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. And around the country, many Americans were unable to identify the Founding Father whose name and face were on the $10 bills they used every day.

That month, after a successful and Drama Desk Award–winning run Off-Broadway, a new show moved uptown to the Great White Way, carrying with it the hopes of producers and investors that it would bring new, younger, and more diverse audiences to Broadway and fill the void left when Rent closed later that year. As successful as this production was, though, no one could have predicted that over the course of the next decade, its creator and star would break boundaries and revolutionize Broadway.

That show, of course, was In the Heights, and its creator and star was a young up-and-comer named Lin-Manuel Miranda — who, as if you need to be reminded, would go on to write the pop-culture phenomenon known as Hamilton.

In March 2008, Miranda was just 28 years old and still largely unknown. He’d traveled the world and performed as part of Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop improv group he co-founded, but Miranda surely wasn’t a household name yet. Nor was he the social media influencer he is today — though, at the time, he did have an amusing YouTube channel where he shared home-video clips of his younger self lip-syncing to songs like “King of Wishful Thinking” and freestyle-rapping about the heat with his friends.

Meanwhile, I was senior managing editor of Continental Airlines’ inflight magazine, responsible for, among other things, managing the entertainment coverage for the magazine’s monthly issues.

Continental was the official airline of Live Broadway and the League of American Theatres and Producers, so each May, in time for the Tony Awards, we’d feature the star of a show that was an odds-on favorite for nominations. In years past, I’d interviewed Idina Menzel (Wicked), Sutton Foster (Little Women), LaChanze (The Color Purple), and Laura Bell Bundy (Legally Blonde). We’d also profiled Marissa Jaret Winokur (Hairspray), though someone else wrote about her.

That year, the buzzy show was In the Heights, and I was able to score an interview with Miranda shortly before opening night (it was pretty easy to do back then).

I still remember dialing his number the first time and having the call go right to voice mail. Miranda’s outgoing message offered a quick taste of his sense of humor: “Hello, you’ve reached [with an accent] Lin-Manuel Miranda — or in English, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Leave a message at the beep.” Pretty funny.

Anyway … with the movie adaptation of In the Heights hitting theaters and HBO Max on June 11, I thought it would be fun to look back on that interview 13 years later, and share a few relevant quotes. (Yes, I still have my notes.)

Lights up

Miranda, a lifelong self-described theater nerd, who grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, just north of 200th Street, began writing In the Heights when he was 19 years old, a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and feeling homesick. “I tried to write the kind of show I had always wanted to see and wanted to be in,” he told me. “I knew I wanted a life in musical theater, but I also knew that I couldn’t play Paul from A Chorus Line or Bernardo from West Side Story all my life. So, I started writing this show with contemporary music that sounded like my neighborhood.”

The show that made it to Broadway in 2008 was very different from its initial incarnation. While it was still a love letter to the neighborhood — though “not as in sepia-toned nostalgia,” as Miranda was quick to clarify — a new reality was setting in that inspired some fundamental changes. Collaborators including director Thomas Kail, music director Alex Lacamoire, and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, helped the show gain a universality that would appeal to broader audiences. (Additional changes have been made for the film, which was directed by Jon M. Chu.)

“I came back to live in Inwood after I graduated from college. Even in those four years, it was a different place in terms of how expensive it’s getting, how the landscape is changing,” Miranda explained. “The story of Washington Heights is the story that’s happening all over New York, and certainly in areas of Brooklyn that are in the news all the time, and all over the nation. You have these classic immigrant neighborhoods — and Washington Heights has been an immigrant neighborhood throughout its existence, whether it was Irish immigrants or Greek immigrants or Jewish immigrants — and the people who made it what it is are suddenly not able to afford to live there anymore.”

In essence, he continued, the show became less about characters who happened to live in Washington Heights and more about “trying to capture a snapshot of this Latino community before it changes.”

In the Heights is centered around Usnavi (the role originated by Miranda on Broadway, and played by Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos in the film), a bodega owner who dreams of one day selling the store and moving back to the Dominican Republic. Another character is a young woman who drops out of Stanford because she felt like she didn’t fit in there. Usnavi’s love interest is an aspiring fashion designer who can’t wait to get out of the Barrio and find an apartment downtown. And of course, there’s also the matter of a $96,000 lottery ticket. The show and movie’s score is a mix of salsa, hip-hop, rap, and merengue that helps to illustrate and illuminate the hopes and dreams of a community on the brink of change.

“We see three generations, and they’re all sort of struggling with this issue of home and how we define that — whether it’s where we live, or the larger family of our community,” Miranda said. “That’s a central question that I certainly struggled with as a first-generation Nuyorican. My parents were both born in Puerto Rico, and while I was born and raised here, I was sent there every summer and didn’t fit in. I was a white kid if I went to Puerto Rico, and was sent to Hunter [College High School] on the Upper East Side as a kid, and I was certainly a Latino kid there. And so, I think there’s a lot of hyphenate first-generation immigrants who are struggling with where their place is. This story deals with that at a lot of different levels.”

“You really get to control your destiny”

In the Heights wasn’t the first show Miranda wrote. At Hunter High School, there were one-acts, and before that, in eighth grade, there was a musical adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen. He wrote a song based on each of the book’s chapters, sang them into a tape recorder, and then had his classmates lip-sync to his voice. The show so impressed his teacher, Dr. Rembert Herbert, that he encouraged Miranda to write for the student-run theater group at Hunter.

“He said, ‘You’re a writer.’ And he was the first person who ever really told me that,” Miranda recalled. “I was the guy doodling at the back of his class, with a B– average, who didn’t do anything. I was humming to myself. I didn’t know what I was doing with writing, I just thought I was bored. And then [Dr. Herbert] set me straight. So, I really have him to thank.”

Miranda and I also spoke about the differences between being a writer and a performer, and which one he liked doing more. “The lazy part of me really misses being able to just be a writer, to sit at my desk and eat M&M’s and make up songs as I get ready for this eight-show-a-week grind. But the part of me that memorized all the dance moves from the ‘Thriller’ video and did the Janet Jackson ‘If’ dance for my last year of high school is a total ham. So, it’s basically like I built this really cool car and now I get to drive it,” he said. “The thing about being a writer, though, is that you really get to control your destiny. Much more so than if you’re a gun for hire. So, I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to create this opportunity for myself.”

As the interview began to wind down, I asked Miranda to look into the future and tell me what’s next for him. In hindsight, it was a pretty stupid question, given that the show hadn’t even opened yet. “I have no sense of anything beyond today,” he laughed. “After In the Heights opens and I know what its fate is, I’ll be doing the show and then I’ll have my days free to write again. So, I’m as curious as you are to see what unfolds.”

And what if he were to win a Tony award? “If I start thinking about that, I’m doomed. I’m trying to keep my eyes on the 10 feet in front of me. That’s another dream for another day. I’m taking it one dream at a time here.”

What unfolded was critical acclaim (The New York Times called Miranda “a singular new sensation” and a “brightly glowing star” in its rave review) followed by 13 Tony nominations for the show, of which it won four — including Best Score and Best Musical. And then, later that year, long after his The Chosen musical debuted in his eighth-grade classroom, Miranda found the inspiration for his next musical adaptation in a book by Ron Chernow called Alexander Hamilton.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In the Heights debuts in movie theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.

4 Responses to “Remembering When the Lights First Went Up on Lin-Manuel Miranda”

  1. Joy Varley June 3, 2021 at 9:07 am #

    Very cool post! Thanks for sharing!

    >

  2. Eric Naggar June 3, 2021 at 10:19 am #

    Wow, that’s amazing. Thanks for sharing.

    • Martin Lieberman June 3, 2021 at 10:20 am #

      Thank YOU for reading and commenting! Glad you enjoyed it.

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