Monday, October 17, 2011

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: A MAN CLEARLY HEADING FOR THE HEIGHTS




As a young thirty-something, Lin-Manuel Miranda has a lot of accomplishments and job entries that add up to an impressive resume.  You could say his standing is “in the heights.”

As a Puerto Rican- American composer, rapper, lyricist and actor, Miranda wrote and starred in “In the Heights,” a joyous musical celebrating life in the Washington Heights section of New York City that embraces community and diversity.  It has been accurately described as “Our Town” with a heaping side order of spicy salsa.  He wants audiences to “walk away dancing…after being transported into a state of mind.  The work is a welcome to the neighborhood, with a feeling like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘West Side Story.’ Here you spend three days with these people getting to know them.”

Miranda wrote the earliest draft of the musical in 1999 while a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown.  He had already co-founded a hip-hop comedy troupe on campus, Freestyle Love Supreme.  His eighty- minute show was accepted at the student theater company, the Second Stage, “when I only had a working title and two songs written.”  Suddenly he had to produce a finished piece.  Being advised to write about what he knew, he fashioned a piece about growing up Latino, where he spoke English in school and Spanish at home, where he spent summers at a slushy machine helping his aunt, where there were bodegas on every corner.

At Wesleyan, even though there was only one Spanish-American grocery story in the neighborhood, he felt he had permission to write about his culture.  Finding a Latino cast was difficult to organize on campus so he cast a “wide net” and the happy effect was that “everyone had a friend in the show.”  Not only was it a huge success, two seniors Thomas Kail and John Buffalo Mailer, son of author Norman Mailer, approached him about expanding the play for Broadway and were instrumental in making it happen.

By 2002, Miranda had written five drafts while working as an English teacher.  The show went first to off-Broadway and by 2005 to Broadway.  With “serendipity, hard work and luck,” Miranda’s goal was to make the “best show possible.”  Usnavi, who was originally a funny side character, became the narrator and when they had trouble casting him, a Latino who could do rap and learn lots of text, Miranda, who was an actor, took the part.  He performed it for years, as if it were “a snowball falling down the hill.”  Reprising the role as Usnavi again from Christmas 2010 to January 9, 2011 when the play closed, he called it a “great perfect memory” and he has no plans of doing it again…unless there is a movie version.

“In the Heights” was the first Equity tour to ever go to Puerto Rico where it received a “tremendous response.” When Lin-Manuel Miranda was on stage accepting one of several Tonys for his musical he waved a Puerto-Rican flag.

Now the national tour is on its way to Waterbury, to the Palace Theater, 100 East Main Street, for three performances the weekend of November 4 and 5.  For tickets ($48-68), call the Palace at 203-346-2000 or go online at www.palacetheaterct.org.  Performances are Friday, November 4 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, November 5 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Miranda has dabbled in many other pots, like appearing on “The Sopranos,” helping on “The Electric Company” and “Sesame Street,” producing a hip-hop show on Alexander Hamilton, working on “High School Musical 2,” writing a column and being a restaurant reviewer for the Manhattan Times, composing music for commercials, being invited by Stephen Schwartz to write two songs for the musical “Working” and by Stephen Sondheim to write the new Spanish language dialogue for the revival of “West Side Story.”

In between he also found the time to produce the film “Clayton’s Friends,” to perform at the White House for an Evening of Poetry, Music and Spoken Word, to be the guest of honor this past weekend at Harlem’s Morris-Jamal Mansion, receive an honorary degree from Yeshiva University that resides in Washington Heights and be one of three finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

At the moment, he is flying to Los Angeles to continue working on a new musical “Bring It On” that will open in November.  With a cast that is young and amazing, that he “is in awe of,” it’s a story of a girl who is captain of a cheerleading squad and is redistricted to another school.  The plot is slightly different from the movie but features “extraordinary dancing.”

If you haven’t realized it by now, Miranda doesn’t do anything half way.  When he married Vanessa Nadal, he presented her with a musical version of the song “To Life, L’Chaim” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” a version he had worked on with his father-in-law and the whole wedding party for a month in secret.  Google “To Life Vanessa’s Wedding Surprise” to see this “awesome” video that earned him “major husband points” and overwhelmed his new bride.

Miranda’s philosophy is “follow your gut and you’ll be okay.  Keep moving.”  As for “In the Heights,” it’s been an “incredible journey to which I owe Wesleyan a debt of gratitude. The school said yes and encouraged my ambitions and made them possible.”  Miranda is looking forward to his tenth year reunion coming soon.  Hopefully the serendipity, hard work and luck will continue with lots of spicy salsa for decades in the future.

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