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About Latinos, by Latinos

The Broadway musical 'In the Heights' is a love letter from Lin-Manuel Miranda to his old Washington Heights stamping ground.

March 09, 2008|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — 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.

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