Words by Jessica Freites
If you’re anything like us, then over the last few years you may have found yourself basking in a concrete-lined Caribbean paradise where bodegas adorned in fresh graffiti and piraguero chants could make any campesino feel like the remnants of el capital lie somewhere along 135th Street. Located in New York’s uptown area, the culturally rich infusion of Dominicano culture that is the Washington Heights section of Manhattan has a slew of worldly stories to tell–all within a 30 block span. As told through the highly personal experiences and worldview of Nuyorican playwright/actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights has illuminated this enclave to audiences across the spectrum, bridging the gap between the Caribbean islands and Manhattan island. Also please note, the on/off Broadway musical was the winner of four Tony Awards and a slew of other accolades. Needless to say, el senor Miranda is a busy man with a busy brain that continues to spray creativity in all directions. With its Broadway run having come to a close earlier this month, LARGE UP caught the creator in a rare moment of downtime and jumped on the opportunity to discuss the far-reaching success of In the Heights with Lin-Manuel…as well as what’s next for the young playwright with a future that’s broader than Broadway.
LU: What type of influence do you think the culture of the Caribbean has had on global pop culture?
LM: think it’s impossible to overstate its musical influence. The Caribbean, from Haiti and DR to Puerto Rico and Cuba and Jamaica, is a rhythmic melting pot, and the quote-unquote “global” rhythms we hear all over the world first met on these islands.
Q: How did you go about delivering the Dominican/Nuyorican cultural niche of Washington Heights in a realistic fashion while still appealing to a mainstream audience?
A: Well, the first thing you don’t worry about is appealing to a mainstream audience. Audiences can smell a fake a mile away. The only thing you can worry about is writing what feels true to you, what feels authentic to your vision of the neighborhood, and hope the audience follows you on that journey. As a child growing up here, I experienced the neighborhood as an endless wall of music, changing from block to block. My next goal was to make sure each character expressed themselves in a style of music consistent with their upbringing and background. Usnavi, my Dominican bodeguero, is a hiphop head, so that’s how he musically enters the world. His “Abuela” is a Cubana who came here in the 40′s, so her music is old-school mambo. Little decisions like that make us feel like this is a real world, with different mingling sensibilities.
Q: What things didn’t you touch upon in In The Heights because you felt a mainstream audience wouldn’t necessarily grasp, if any at all?
A: Well, the toughest thing about finishing In The Heights was the sheer number of stories we wanted to tell. You have 2 hours of an audience’s time, and there’s only so much you can cram in. We’ve cut more than 60 songs in our journey from a Wesleyan University production to Broadway. I think the biggest thing that we weren’t able to get into is that there is a far more diverse population uptown these days, not just Latinos. But I wanted to have a big ol’ Latino cast and write lots of different types of Latin music, so I’ll take the hit for that gladly
Q: Being that Washington Heights is primarily known for its Dominican presence, how did your personal experience as a Puerto Rican in that environment translate in the Heights and in In The Heights?
A: One of the insights I had growing up in a largely Dominican neighborhood was that I had far more in common with the Dominican and Mexican kids my age than any of us had with our counterparts back on the island or our parents. My wife is Dominican, and as a kid she spent summers in DR while I spent summers in PR. We had this dual upbringing of our shared American culture and our parents’ culture, and that shared experience forms a viewpoint of its own. So Quiara and I didn’t try to write “the definitive” Dominican experience, or Latino experience. The show really does reflect a first generation perspective: It’s a generation of us figuring out who we are, an island away from the birthplace of our ancestors. I find that divide more interesting than the PR vs. DR divide, which any number of hack comedians can do 15 minutes on. I’m much more interested in what we have in common.
Q: You’ve been getting massive critical acclaim, doing workshops in various cities, touring the nation, and the show is in its last run on Broadway…at least for now; what’s the next project that you’re working on?
A: As soon as we close Heights, I’m on a plane to Atlanta, where a musical I’ve co-written, entitled Bring It On, opens at the end of the month. I’m doing more gigs with Freestyle Love Supreme, the hip-hop comedy group I’ve been involved with all my life. And I’m writing every day. That’s all we can do.