A community, in its own words

Miranda, creator of 'In the Heights,' says inspirations included 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Rent'

February 21, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

Lin-Manuel Miranda is prompt, voluble and animated. Over the phone, his words come tumbling out in a great rush, and he takes command of the conversation as easily and dexterously as he assumed command of the Broadway stage.

He conceived of "In the Heights" back in 1999, when he was a sophomore at Wesleyan University. Nine years later, his musical about a close-knit Latino neighborhood in New York made it to Broadway.

Audiences and critics fell for the show, which boasts a propulsive score infused with salsa, merengue and hip-hop, and which won the 2008 Tony Award for best musical. They also were charmed by the gifted young writer, composer and performer (Miranda portrayed the leading man, Usnavi) with the feel-good story.

Though Miranda, 30, isn't performing in the national tour, which makes its area premiere Tuesday at the Hippodrome Theatre, he's happy to talk about his brainchild anytime, anyplace. He seemingly can't help setting out to win over his audience, whether he's performing before thousands or for one person.

After all, this is a guy whose cell phone message ends with "I love you." That's right - long-lost friends, UPS drivers, his fiancee, a nosy reporter whom he's never met - the exuberant Miranda loves us all.

Question: Do you think of yourself more as an actor or a writer?

Answer: As a writer, but I don't think of the two as very different activities. For me, the fun of writing is in creating characters. In my head, I put on my characters' clothes and think about what they'd say and what they'd do until it feels true.

I've also been performing for as long as I can remember. I attended Hunter College High School, and I knew I wasn't the smartest kid there. The only real currency among smart kids is if you can make them laugh, and I found that I could. So for me, writing and acting is a chicken-egg thing.

Q: What's the back story of "Heights"?

A:Wesleyan was the first time I'd ever lived with other Latino kids my age. I didn't really have a lot of Latino friends in high school. I had friends from the neighborhood, but my close friends were my school friends, and none of them were Latino. At Wesleyan, I lived in a Latino house with eight other kids who were as bewildered as I was to find themselves in Middletown, Conn. We were all straddling two cultures: the one we grew up in at home and the one at school.

I knew I wanted a life in musical theater, and I knew I didn't dance well enough to play Bernardo in "West Side Story" or Paul in " A Chorus Line." If you're a Puerto Rican actor, that's about as good as you can get. So I wrote the kind of show I wanted to be in, a show that uses the music to tell stories. In Washington Heights, music is coming out of every orifice: from car stereos, windows, boomboxes, so that seemed like a really good place to set my characters.

Q: You created "In the Heights" but you're credited as a co-writer.

A: Our book writer, Quiara Hudes, came on the project in 2004. She helped us restructure the show and make it about the community, which is really the 13th character. Abuela, who is really the heart of the show, was not in the first draft.

Q: What are your musical inspirations?

A: My biggest influence for "Heights" wasn't "West Side Story," which is what most people think, but "Fiddler On The Roof."

It's another show about a community and hanging on to tradition. But in "Fiddler," the culture has been the same way for hundreds of years. The inverse is true in Washington Heights. Everyone is from everywhere - mostly the Dominican Republic, but also Puerto Rico. Before them, the immigrants were Irish and Jewish. So, the problem is, how do you hang on to your kids?

"Rent" also was formative, I saw it for my 17th birthday. I'd never before seen a musical that takes place today and that felt autobiographical, like the author was writing from his gut. It was really a watershed moment for me, and it gave me permission to write musicals.

Q: What was it like working with Stephen Sondheim on the Spanish lyrics for the bilingual production of "West Side Story" currently on Broadway?

A: It was fantastic. We met at his house, and we discussed what lyrics should go into Spanish and what should stay in English. He had a lot of input into the structure of the lyrics. He said, "I don't speak Spanish, but I'm going to expect it to rhyme here, here and here. Take whatever liberties with the images you have to."

I had a triple goal for the lyrics: to rhyme it where Sondheim wants it to rhyme; to make sure the lyrics seemed as effortless as the originals; and to make them sound authentic, as though 18-year-old Puerto Rican teenagers were saying those things in the late 1950s. I had the perfect ally in my dad, who moved to this country at about that time when he was 18 years old, not speaking a word of English. I'd sit at the table and write something and ask him, and he'd say, "Nah, I'd never use that word."

Q: What's next for you?

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