Lin-Manuel Miranda on bringing ‘In the Heights’ to life by ‘bringing all of myself to the table’

There’s no place like home. But what is home? Is it a real place or something more ethereal? That was the first question posed during a recent spirited Live Talks Los Angeles Zoom conversation between Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegria Hudes and Jeremy McCarter, authors of the new book “In the Heights: Finding Home.”

“Start with a small little topic,” mused Hudes, who wrote the book for Miranda’s 2008 Broadway musical that is set over three days in Dominican-dominated neighborhood in Washington Heights borough of New York City. She also wrote the screenplay of the film, which opened in theaters and streamed on HBO Max on June 11 of this year. “If I could sum up what is home in one sentence, I don’t think we would have a two-and-a-half-hour musical on our hands,’ added Miranda. “I think it’s the most loaded word in the English language.

Miranda was just 27 when he won the Tony for his score for “In the Heights”, which also claimed the top prize, Best Musical. He was also nominated for his star turn as Usnavi who owns a small bodega and dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic.  In the film version, Miranda plays the Piragua Guy, the owner of a small piragua stand who is always battling with Mr. Softee for clients while Anthony Ramos is the leading man.

Miranda admitted that he was homesick when he started writing “In the Heights.” He was raised in Inwood which is just north of Washington Heights. “I was a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut,” he noted. “I was, for the first time, living in a Latino Program house with other kids my age. We all had to write an essay to get into the house of how we were going to be Latino leaders on campus.”’ The house, he said, was “really nice” and worth writing an essay to get in to. “I found a group of students and friends who had the same cultural bilingualism. Not to say they could speak English and Spanish but could spell fluent Latin pop culture and American pop culture.”

That’s when Miranda discovered he was only tapping half of that “for my creative work in life. I had written two short musicals in high school” but they hadn’t touched on his Latin side. “I loved Jonathan Larson, so they sounded like Jonathan Larson knockoffs.”  “In the Heights’ was his first attempt to do several things: “Write a full-length musical, full-stop. Bring more of myself into my work by setting it in Northern Manhattan where I grew up and reaching for music, I listened at home but didn’t always bring into my work — salsa, merengue and hip-hop — and just bringing all of myself to the table.”

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Which also brought him back to the first question of the interview: What is home? “I think that there are two kinds of home,” he reflected. “There’s the kind of home you were born in and there’s the kind you create for yourself. I think ‘In the Heights, once we settled on a theme, Quiara, really coalesced on both those types of home. What do you think?”

“I think that resonates for me when you say it’s the house it’s where we come from and it’s also the home that we build,” said Hudes, who won a Pulitzer in 2012 for her play “Water by the Spoonful.” West Philly, she noted, is home. “But I haven’t lived there since 2000. Even going to the ocean, which I was not raised by, is like home. My heart is like a primordial home, my heart beats differently. I’m home when I’m at the ocean. But I think that ying-yang sense of ‘It’s where you come from, but it’s also what you make it.”’ She was grappling with the concept of home when she and Miranda began writing “In the Heights.”

“The first draft of yours that I read gave me an idea to make this a piece about home and a piece about community,” said Hudes. “Home is a place where your community and your individualism are not at odds. It’s that moment when they co-exist together. If it’s too much, like you’re just in community, you lose yourself, right?  But if you can find a way to balance all the weird things and the incongruous things that live in your heart that makes you an individual that makes you want to leave and come back-that perfect balance is home.’

And that is what you see, Hudes notes, in “In the Heights,’ especially in the character of Nina, the only member of her family to go to college and is admired by the neighborhood for getting out. But when she returns home for summer vacation, she informs her family that it was too much for her at Stanford and sh has dropped out. “She was kind of doing this group thing a little bit too much as a young person,” said Hudes.” She wanted to be her community’s hopes and dreams and then she realized she had not paid enough attention to what’s her own individual path. Now she had to grapple with those two things; how do you find and balance those? “

McCarter, who also wrote the best-seller, “Hamilton: The Revolution” with Miranda, brought up the fact that it took Miranda and Hudes years to get Nina right. “How many songs did we write for Nina until we landed on ‘Breathe’?” Miranda asked Hudes. “We were balancing things.  First of all, Nina had a brother [Lincoln] that was sort of gumming up the works the first couple of years. Then something interesting happened, which had been constantly balancing Nina and Lincoln’s storylines and once Lincoln went away, Nina was able to absorb all of Lincoln’s complexity. Lincoln had all sorts of issues with his father wanting to be his own man and wanting to have this artistic career, but his family wanted him to go into the family business. Once you took that all away and gave it to Nina, gave it to her in the form of expectations that her parents ha place on her, suddenly Nina become a lot more complex.”

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