You know Lin-Manuel Miranda from ‘Hamilton.’ Before that, there was ‘In the Heights’
How ‘In the Heights’ rose from a college project to a Broadway hit to a summer blockbuster
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love of musicals started early.
Growing up in New York City, he landed roles in several school productions — including portraying Bernardo from “West Side Story” when he was in the sixth grade (he ended up directing “West Side Story” by his senior year of high school).
But what he calls his real “moment of action” happened when he turned 17.
Miranda went to see the musical “Rent,” which was then in its first year on Broadway. Used to period pieces and productions set in decades past, Miranda couldn’t believe what he saw. “Rent” was so relatable — and contemporary.
“The notion that a musical could take place today was groundbreaking to me,” Miranda said at The Broadway League’s 2015 spring conference.
At 19 — two years after seeing “Rent” — Miranda began writing what would eventually become his first Broadway musical. He was a sophomore at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, but this project wasn’t for credit.
It was for him, born out of his desire to see something he knew — his own Latino heritage.
“I was very conscious of the way Latinos have been portrayed before on stage,” Miranda said during a 2014 appearance at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. “I saw Paul Simon’s ‘The Capeman’ my senior year in high school ... and that show just about broke my heart. Not so much for the show, but the fact that it was 40 years after ‘West Side Story’ and we still had knives in our hands and we were still gang members.
“There were things I very consciously did not want to represent, that I feel like Latinos and crime are very overrepresented in the media,” he continued. “I didn’t feel the need to represent that at all — that wasn’t the story I was interested in telling.”
Instead, in 1999, Miranda created his earliest version of “In the Heights” — a vibrant story that follows the hopes and dreams of Hispanic American residents in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
Now, 22 years later, “In the Heights” makes its debut in theaters and on HBO Max on June 10. Here’s a look at how it rose from a college project to a Broadway hit to a summer blockbuster.
A college debut
A decade before Miranda would start working on the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton,” he was a college student, residing in his campus’ Latino house program.
It was there, surrounded by Latino students who were also adjusting to living in Connecticut, that “In the Heights” began to take shape, the Seattle Times reported.
“The beginning of me bringing all of myself to my work, the Latin music I loved and the hip-hop music I loved, and not just trying to make it sound like a quote-unquote ‘musical,’ but like what I thought a musical could be,” Miranda told the Seattle Times.
In its earliest version, “In the Heights” was an 80-minute, one-act production, according to Entertainment Tonight. After a big campus debut of the musical in 2000, that draft of a script sat in a drawer for two years. People who Miranda was loosely acquainted with said they’d reach out when they started their own production company.
“Who on Earth makes good on a promise like that?” Miranda told Entertainment Tonight.
But not long after graduating in 2002, Miranda met Thomas Kail, a Wesleyan graduate who would end up directing the Broadway productions of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.”
“The fact that we clicked so immediately was the greatest luck of my life,” Miranda told Entertainment Tonight.
With Kail in his corner, Miranda began to set his sights on Broadway.
After some initial revisions, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes joined the creative team. Following an off-Broadway run in 2007, a new version of “In the Heights” — starring Miranda in the lead role — made its Broadway debut in 2008.
The reviews were largely positive, with high praise for Miranda’s score. Most criticisms emerged over the storyline — “What it lacks in story and believability it makes up for in a vibrant rap- and salsa-flavored score, spirited dances and great-looking design,” a critic for New York Daily News wrote.
Although “Hamilton” catapulted Miranda to stardom, “In the Heights” became a hit in its own right: It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four of those awards — including for best musical and best original score. It was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
“The miracle was actually getting our show — first-time writers, first-time director, no stars, an all-Latino cast — to Broadway in the first place, and then the improbable success of that,” Miranda told the Seattle Times.
“I very naively assumed that, oh, then we’ll get to make the movie in Hollywood, and I’ll play the part and we’ll keep it going,” he added.
But, of course, it would be a long time before “In the Heights” gained that kind of momentum.
Soaring to the big screen
“In the Heights” actually did score a movie deal during its Broadway run in 2008, according to the Seattle Times. But studios were reportedly skeptical about filming a movie that featured a Hispanic American cast of unrecognizable names.
And then “Hamilton” came along in 2015 and propelled Miranda to the center of American pop culture. After that breakthrough, Jon Chu — who directed the groundbreaking “Crazy Rich Asians” — came on board to direct the film adaptation.
At 41, Miranda is no longer taking on the lead role of Usnavi in “In the Heights.” Instead, that has fallen to Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in the Broadway production of “Hamilton.”
Ramos actually has a history with “In the Heights,” as he played Usnavi’s young cousin, Sonny, in a 2012 production at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company, the New York Times reported. Miranda — who now has a small role as a shaved-ice vendor in the movie — said the lead role works more for Ramos than it ever did for him.
“It was sort of like watching your kid try on your childhood clothes, and it fits him better,” Miranda told the San Fransisco Chronicle. “He comes by it so naturally.”
In revisiting “In the Heights” after so many years, Miranda also decided to make some updates and revisions. For instance, he cut out a dated reference to President Donald Trump:
I’ll be a businessman, richer than Nina’s daddy
Donald Trump and I on the links, and he’s my caddy
“When I wrote that lyric in 2005, he was a reality TV host, not a politician,” Miranda told CBS News. “He was just sort of like the human version of the Monopoly man when I was growing up.
“When his name came to be associated with some of the most divisive, hateful rhetoric at Latino people that I think we’ve had from an administration, you know, obviously, the connotation just changes,” he added. “It just had no business being in that song.”
The line has since been reworked to reference Tiger Woods, according to CBS News.
After getting filmed in 2019, “In the Heights” again faced setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, after myriad production delays, the movie — which currently holds a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes — is making its theatrical debut.
And in many ways, Miranda believes the timing couldn’t be better. Pointing to the musical’s references to immigration and discrimination, Miranda said “In the Heights” may hit harder now than it did when he first sought to turn it into a movie over a decade ago.
What about immigration?
Politicians be hatin’
Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant.
“How much more true is that, sadly, in 2021 than it was in 2008?” he told CBS News. “Obviously the immigration debate has been with us for decades, but I do believe it’s coarsened and the discourse around it has gotten so toxic.
“I’m just very proud that this is a musical about Latino immigrants that is written by Latinos with joy and love,” he added. “We are the next chapter of the American dream.”