New York Critics Hail 'Heights' Composer Dominican/Cuban composer Lin-Manuel Miranda is drawing critical praise for mixing salsa, meringue, hip-hop and other Latin styles with traditional Broadway fare. In the Heights is set in Washington Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood in northern Manhattan.
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New York Critics Hail 'Heights' Composer

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New York Critics Hail 'Heights' Composer

New York Critics Hail 'Heights' Composer

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It's being called the next "Westside Story," and a Latino "Rent". The new off-Broadway musical "In The Heights" takes place over two hot summer days in Washington Heights, the northern Manhattan neighborhood that's seen waves of immigrants over the years. The show's music captures some of those changes. It ranges from meringue, to hip-hop, to Broadway.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Washington Heights has been home to Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, followed by Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote music and lyrics for "In The Heights", grew up in neighboring Inwood. Now the neighborhood, he says…

Mr. LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA (Writer, "In The Heights"; Actor, Singer): It's a largely Dominican community, but it's a stew up there. And so what we really tried to do is reflect that sort of stew on the stage generationally, and in all the different styles of music as well.

(Soundbite of musical, "In The Heights")

(Soundbite of music)

ADLER: Lin-Manuel Miranda also plays the main character, Usnavi, who owns a corner bodega. Miranda says he was attracted to Broadway music when he studied theater in college. At home, his musical influences were a mix of La Lupe, Celia Cruz, Tito Puenti and Juan Louis Guerra. But he also grew up with rap. He says he got lessons as a kid from his school bus driver, and the rhymes in the musical are extremely accessible.

(Soundbite of musical, "In The Heights")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) Neither my cousin is willing just enough of (unintelligible) mommy, pop, stop and shop. And oh my God, it's gotten too darn hot like my man Cole Porter said. People come through for review cold water's and a lottery tickets is just part of the routine. Everybody's got a job. Everybody's got a dream. They got (unintelligible) that my coffee is (unintelligible). The first stop, there's people hot to work.

ADLER: Miranda says people are only now starting to use hip-hop in musical theater.

Mr. MIRANDA: We're starting to write the rules on how we can use it as a tool in storytelling. And we start off nice and slow, and then we kind of get more complicated as we go. And by the end, we've got the audience's ear pretty well trained.

ADLER: Miranda wrote the first version of "In The Heights" when he was a sophomore at Weslyan College. It was mainly a love story with the backdrop of the Heights, but returning to New York after graduation, he changed the focus in many of the characters. He also collaborated with Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book.

Mr. MIRANDA: I wanted to make it much more about the community. And Quiara and I worked very hard to make it really, a neighborhood story.

ADLER: And so did you wonder around the Heights a lot while you were thinking about it?

Mr. MIRANDA: Oh, yeah. Anytime I was stuck for an idea, I would take a walk around the block, and, you know, I would see something, and I'd run back home.

ADLER: For the role of a mother whose husband runs a car service and his daughter has just decided to leave a fancy college, Miranda landed Priscilla Lopez. She is best known as the award-winning star of the original "Chorus Line". And she also won a Tony for her portrayal of Harpo Marx in "A Day in Hollywood." Lopez liked the play when she read it, but what really drew her was the music, which she says is very different and speaks to three different worlds.

Ms. PRISCILLA LOPEZ (Actress): It's combining the new sound of rap. It's combining the sound of the Latino community, and it's got Broadway. So I thought this is across the board going to hit a lot of people. And I said I - it would be nice to be in a hit. It sounds like a hit to me.

ADLER: And Lopez says you can take the family. It's quote, "PG - with a punch."

(Soundbite of musical, "In The Heights")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I know it's true. Who's been there with you, Julio

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) (unintelligible). She's in bed with Jose from the liquor store.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Spanish)

ADLER: While all the reviews have loved the music, there's been some criticism that - to use the phrase in the musical - the whole production is coffee-light and sweet. It's Washington Heights without drug dealers or domestic violence. Miranda says, wait a minute. Drug dealing and domestic violence are everywhere.

Mr. MIRANDA: Every time I see Washington Heights in a movie, it's always a place where the drug deal is. I want to show a different side of this. I wanted to show that the overwhelming majority of people who live in northern Manhattan are just like you. And they're struggling to pay their rent, and they're struggling to sort of keep things going.

Ms. LOPEZ: But, you know, the thing that I find amazing is that this play takes place in what? 36 hours? That the media can't accept that in 36 hours, maybe, you know, we don't have to deal with all that? You know, that we can get into the hearts and minds of people?

ADLER: Priscilla Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda says stereotypes about this community are so abundant, that he wanted to show he could be in where he wouldn't have to wield a knife.

(Soundbite of musical, "In The Heights")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) The world spins around while I'm frozen in my seat. The people that I know will keep on rolling down the street. But every day is different so I'm switching up the beat. Because my parents came with nothing, and they got a little more ashore. We're poor, but yo. At least we got the store. And it's all about the legacy they left with me is destiny. One day I'll be on a beach with (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: In the Heights.

ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of musical, "In The Heights")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) We change the world and tell you, we got a lot in common.

Unidentified Group: In the Heights (unintelligible) all the way.

Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) We are, we are, we are not stopping.

Unidentified Group: In the Heights.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Singing) Every day you just pray.

Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) (unintelligible) we go from comedy to stock options.

Unidentified Group: In the Heights, not just today.

Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) I (unintelligible) you got to keep watching (unintelligible) the late nights (unintelligible)…

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