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Lin-Manuel Miranda, playwright (In the Heights)
Photograph: Corey HayesLin-Manuel Miranda, playwright (In the Heights)

Such great Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda leaps genres in a single bound.

Written by
Kris Vire

Lin-Manuel Miranda was a sophomore at Wesleyan University when he began writing In the Heights, the hip-hop-flavored musical about the denizens of his home turf, Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. At 28, after countless workshops, readings and a successful Off Broadway run, he found himself starring as shopkeeper Usnavi on Broadway and taking home the 2008 Tonys for Best Score and Musical. Miranda called us from Puerto Rico to talk about the touring production of Heights (which hits Chicago this week), working with Stephen Sondheim and performing for the President.

On being a superstar in Puerto Rico…
Puerto Rico is sort of this Bizarro World where Pepsi is bigger than Coke, Burger King is bigger than McDonald’s, and I am strangely Usher-level famous. My father’s hometown dedicated the annual patron saint festival to me. So I was there yesterday at a five-hour concert in my honor, and now I’m filming this special where I take a camera crew on tour of where I spent my summers here [as a kid]. It’s incredibly surreal.

On being recognized in New York…
I’m famous for exactly one city block in New York—just 46th Street where the show plays and there happens to be a billboard. I still take the train downtown, and the train—that’s our main audience, that A train. Every once in a while someone will come up and show me their iPod and they’ll be listening to the cast album. I really like when that happens.

On the show’s NYC specificity…
There’s one joke that gets crickets [on tour], about the missing 1/9 train. The 9 shut down a few years ago. I would make a point to laugh really loud during rehearsal because I knew it was the last time they were ever going to get a laugh on it. The show is really about tradition, and not in the Fiddler sense. When we’re “from everywhere,” as Washington Heights has historically been, whether it’s a Dominican neighborhood now or an Irish neighborhood in the ’50s, what do we pass on from those other countries to our kids? I think people can relate to that wherever they are in this country. 

On being pigeonholed as a hip-hop composer…
As long as they’re calling me a composer, I can’t ever really complain. All I can do is continue to write what interests me. I’m not trying to write In the Heights 2: The Legend of Abuela’s Gold or anything.

On translating Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish for the Broadway revival of West Side Story
I went in thinking everyone’s seen West Side Story. But we forget that it’s 52 years old and there’s a whole generation that hasn’t seen it. I approached the translation thinking, This is like opera; people will get it even if they don’t “get it.” But the producers found that people were like, “What’s going on in ‘A Boy Like That’?”

On rapping about Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton at the White House in May…
I had never performed that song in public. I read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography when I was on a vacation and fell in love with it. So I was working on this Aaron Burr song about Hamilton in my head for about eight months. Then the White House called and asked, “Do you have any songs about America?”

On expanding Hamilton into an album…
When you write hip-hop for the stage, you have to make sure it’s clear enough that the audience gets what’s going on the first time. Jay-Z and Eminem and Lil Wayne have no such responsibility, because you listen to the album over and over again until you get the lyrics. So I want to write it as an album, the way Jesus Christ Superstar was a concept album before it was staged. This is me getting my Andrew Lloyd Webber on.

In the Heights plays the Cadillac Palace through January 3. See Touring shows. 

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