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Miranda Writes

Date: Dec 18, 2008


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TDF´s SEEN isn´t just a theatre magazine for New York area teens—it´s a publication (both in print and online form) that´s written almost entirely by high schoolers, who unleash their boundless enthusiasm for theatregoing on its actual and virtual pages.

That up-to-the-minute excitement is channeled into encounters not only with theatrical work but with the makers of theatre. Hans Nielsen, one of SEEN's new "Ploggers"—a new term coined exclusively for SEEN bloggers—recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the groundbreaking Broadway phenom In the Heights. Though telling excerpts of Nielsen´s interview with Miranda were printed in the newest edition of SEEN, there's more to the interview, reprinted below at greater length. We all know by now that the multitalented Miranda has a bright future in the theatre, but based on the fascinating answers he gets from the voluble writer/actor about the show's inspiration, its modest origins and its ongoing significance, Nielsen may have a similarly bright future in theatre journalism.

Hans Nielsen: Do you play yourself in In the Heights?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: No. I play a guy named Usnavi; he owns the corner bodega. The fun of writing a show is when you´re writing, you get to play every character. So I am Abuela, I am Nina, I am Vanessa, I am Usnavi, I get to be Benny. These are all people who are way smarter and wittier than me on my best day. The only thing that I really have in common with Usnavi is that he gets really tongue-tied around girls, and so do I. That is definitely very autobiographical.

Hans: Why did you write In the Heights?

Lin-Manuel: That´s the question that I ask myself every night! I wrote the first draft of it when I was 19 years old. They say to write what you know. I grew up north of Washington Heights, in Inwood. I wanted to write a full-length musical that used Latin music and hip-hop music. Because I always loved musicals, ever since I was a little kid. I didn´t see a lot of musicals but my parents used to play them in the car.

It´s going on 9 years with this show, because I´ll be 29 in January. It´s quite a long time I´ve been with it. I just wanted to write the kind of show I´d want to be in. That´s the short answer.

Hans: Why is In the Heights important?

Lin-Manuel: I don´t know, maybe it´s not! (Laughing.) It was important to me and my book writer Quiara [Alegria Hudes,] who wrote all the dialogue and helped structure the story. It was important to us because we feel like Washington Heights and New York are changing all the time. Have you ever seen the movie West Side Story?

Hans: Yeah.

Lin-Manuel: The opening scene, where are the gangs are fighting, is where Lincoln Center is now! That neighborhood doesn´t exist anymore. I grew up in a neighborhood [like that], and now we´ve got a Starbucks on 181st Street. We wanted to capture this neighborhood for what it was. It´s always been an immigrant neighborhood. Right now it's really a Dominican neighborhood, but there are still pockets of Jewish immigrants, Russian immigrants and Irish immigrants. We wanted to capture that feeling of community before it dissolved. Because in 20 years, when there´s an Abercrombie & Fitch where this bodega is, we´ll be able to point to this show and say this existed here.

Hans: How does the show inspire you?

Lin-Manuel: It inspires me every day! I´m lucky enough to be onstage with I think the best cast on Broadway. They make my job very easy, as an actor; because they´re so good, everything feels bounded in reality. I don´t know if you do theatre...

Hans: Yeah, I´m a part of the MCC Youth Company.

Lin-Manuel: That´s awesome. You know how in high school theatre, you always stand in a circle and hold hands before a performance?

Hans: Yeah.

Lin-Manuel: That´s not a tradition that actually happens very much on Broadway, but we still do it every night before the show when we get our five-minute call. We all get down in a circle and make sure that we´re all on the same page. Some of us may be tired, some of us may be busted or in a bad mood, but we´re all connected, and I think that energy shows onstage and I think that´s one of the things that sets us apart.

It´s inspiring in the way we lift each other up every night. I got really sick two weeks ago. I literally threw up right after one of the big songs ["96 Thousand"] in the show, and I go downstairs, and somebody grabs me some crackers and somebody grabs me some Gatorade and we get through the show.

Hans: What is a community to you?

Lin-Manuel: I think that´s one of the questions that In The Heights explores: What is a community? and, What is home? Growing up, I didn´t feel like I belonged to any community. My parents were born in Puerto Rico, I grew up here. I went to this very fancy school—it was a public school, but you had to take a bunch of tests to get in. It was on the Upper East Side, the richest ZIP code in the country. So I was very much the rich kid in my neighborhood, but I was the one of the only Puerto Ricans at my high school and at my elementary school. And then I would get sent to Puerto Rico every summer where I was the gringo and I spoke Spanish with an accent.

I think if you talk to a lot of writers, they have this feeling of being an outsider observing these worlds. I was straddling these three worlds and trying to figure out who I am in the midst of all of that.

Hans: Sure. I can totally relate, because I write.

Lin-Manuel: Yeah. It´s funny. I get reporters all the time who go, "Why don´t we walk around Washington Heights and we can talk to all of your friends?" I'm like, "Damn, I was the dude in the back with the coffee. I was not the life of the party on the corner at all." Writers are the ones watching.

Hans: Yeah.

Lin-Manuel: I think those experiences really led to the to creation of this show. The irony in that being that someone who never felt like they were completely part of a community has been able to create a community for myself up onstage, I get to be in it every night.

It´s literally a dream I had: I made up a guy named Usnavi, and now there´s a huge bodega set here.

Hans: That´s amazing.

Lin-Manuel: I never forget how crazy that is.