MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, my thoughts on coming home. But first, we cross the Brooklyn Bridge and we're back in Manhattan to visit with Broadway's newest star, Lin Manuel Miranda. His play, "In the Heights," about the life, loves and struggles of the immigrant community of Washington Heights just won four trophies at the Tony Awards, including the prize for Best Musical of the Year, and Miranda even stole that show with his acceptance speech.
Mr. LIN MANUEL MIRANDA (Actor, Composer and Playwright, "In the Heights"): (Singing) I used to dream about this moment. Now I'm in it. Tell the conductor to hold the baton a minute. Thank the cast and crew for having each others' backs. Son, I don't know about God, but I believe in Chris Jackson. What was that? I want to thank all my Latino people. This is for our Bueno (unintelligble) and Puerto Rico. Thank you.
MARTIN: Miranda not only composed the music and lyrics for "In the Heights," he stars in the play. He just finished a performance when we caught up with him in his New York apartment. Lin Manuel, thank you so much for inviting us.
Mr. MIRANDA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Congratulations on the Tony Award.
Mr. MIRANDA: Thank you. Thanks for playing that clip. That was a pretty intense moment of my life.
MARTIN: I bet. You didn't grow up in Washington Heights, as I understand it, which is the setting of the musical. You were actually raised in Inwood, which is a neighborhood a few blocks north of there, right?
Mr. MIRANDA: Yep. I missed the cutoff by about ten blocks. I grew up just off of Dykman(ph) Street. The second-to-last stop on the A train when you're headed up and...
MARTIN: Grand Avenue on the A train, hello?
Mr. MIRANDA: Yes. That's...
Mr. MIRANDA: That's the other end. That's right. And you know, my father was very involved in community politics and he was on the school board of District Six and I remember every year going to see white Santa over at Bloomingdales and Dominican Santa on 176th Street. And I took piano lessons on 181st and Caprini(ph) and so you know, the whole northern Manhattan was sort of my stomping grounds.
MARTIN: You're claiming the Heights...
Mr. MIRANDA: Yes.
MARTIN: Even though you weren't...
Mr. MIRANDA: Even though I missed the cutoff.
MARTIN: Missed the cutoff. You started writing "In the Heights" when you were in college. How has it evolved?
Mr. MIRANDA: We've been working on it since I graduated, really, in 2002. There are five notes at the original college production, which I wrote sophomore year, and this production has "In Washington Heights" - that's literally the only thing that's translated over.
But the original draft was really more of a love story set in Washington Heights, and the version I created with Quiara and Tommy Kail, director, is really much more a story about the neighborhood and this neighborhood on the brink of transition.
MARTIN: If you're a certain background, there are aspects of this play that feel like private conversations that you have among friends. The story of Nina Rosario. She left the neighborhood in triumph to study at Stanford but it did not go well.
Mr. MIRANDA: Right.
MARTIN: She is back at home. And now she doesn't really feel comfortable in either place, which she talks about and grieves. And I'm just going to play a short clip.
(Soundbite of play "In the Heights")
Ms. MANDY GONZALEZ: (As Nina Rosario) (Singing) They say you are going places, so how can I say that while I was away, I had so much to hide. Hey guys, it's me. The biggest disappointment you know. The kid couldn't hack it. She's back and she's walking real slow. Welcome home.
MARTIN: I'm dying to know how that came to you because these are the kinds of conversations that I think that a lot of us have if you come from a certain place. But that is not the kind of conversation that often makes it out of the circle because you don't necessary want to admit it, or the dialogue is either about the girl who never got the chance to go or like the girl who becomes JLO.
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah. It's interesting. That song is one of the - I would say of the 60 songs I've cut, at least 20 have been in that slot, and finding the right moment for Nina to express when she comes back home - it was very difficult because you're right, it is a very internal moment, you know. I screwed up and how do I tell my parents this? And I think a lot of us have had that experience. I know I certainly have.
I went to Wesleyan and that's a really good school and I remember, you know, that feeling when you, you know, are failing out or things are not going well and everyone is looking at you with pride and you've got all this other stuff going on. In a lot of ways it was one of the hardest songs to write because it is - it's very personal.
MARTIN: I don't know if you feel this but I get the sense that there's a lot of pressure on young artists, particularly of color, to keep it real, whatever that means. To reflect whatever some people think is an authentic spirit. One of the criticisms of "In the Heights" was that a lot of the grittier aspects of the neighborhood doesn't come into play. There's no violence. There's no drugs, that kind of thing. How do you respond to that?
Mr. MIRANDA: I think people are unaccustomed to seeing this neighborhood portrayed with love. I mean, when Woody Allen writes about the Upper East Side, I don't see the drug dealers on the corner, although I went to high school on the Upper East Side. I saw loads of drug dealers on the corner of 94th and 95th street, but that's not the reality he chooses to reflect. And so it's - I'm not surprised that critics think two days can't go by in the neighborhood without some sort of violent crime happening, but the only think I can say is that I don't believe that being accurate and being positive are mutually exclusive.
MARTIN: One of the things that I think the piece does is it pays homage to people who work really hard.
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah. And I think that's the overwhelming majority of Washington Heights' residents. We have over 3,000 small businesses in Washington Heights and Inwood. It's more than any other part of Manhattan, and that's what's threatened by Manhattan becoming more expensive. Those little neighborhoods, those corners of New York City where you can really still get your start, they're disappearing from New York City as it gets more and more expensive, and so, you know, we didn't want to put a judgment on that. It's simply a reality, and we wanted to capture this neighborhood before it's gone.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. As part of our special week of broadcasts live from New York I'm speaking with Lin Manuel Miranda about his Tony Award-winning play, "In the Heights."
Homesickness is also a theme in the play. The character you play, Usnavi, he owns a bodega, and what I love is the duality of these characters. I mean, he loves the fact and he's proud of the fact that, you know, his parents worked hard and saved to start this business, but he still dreams of the Dominican Republic and he talks about that in the song, "Hundreds of Stories," and I'm going to play a short clip of that.
(Soundbite of song "Hundreds of Stories")
Mr. MIRANDA: (As Usnavi) (Singing) I know just where to go. Visit a little beach named Rya Rinkom(ph) with no road. You need a rowboat, a motorbike to reach this beach. It's just a stone throw from home, my folks' home before I was born, before they passed on and left me on my own in New York at the grocery store. They would talk about home. I listened closely for the way they whispered to each other about the warmer winter weather...
MARTIN: You yourself grew up here in New York, as we've said, but you spent a lot of summers with family in Puerto Rico.
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah.
MARTIN: Right, as I understand it - do you have ever have that feeling, or did you ever have that feeling of being here, being there, kind of being torn, even though, of course, Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, but did you ever feel that duality?
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah. Absolutely. I think - and one of the things that I realized when I started writing the show my sophomore year was that I wasn't alone in that feeling. You know, I grew up in this overwhelmingly Latino neighborhood but I went to a pretty fancy school on the Upper East Side since I was five years old. So I was the Latino kid at school, I was the kid who went to a fancy school in my neighborhood, and then every summer I'd get sent off to Puerto Rico where I was the kid with the bad American accent who spoke Spanish like a gringo, and so I didn't fit in anywhere. And yet I fit in in all these places and really, writing the show was a lot about reconciling that.
And I would say that Usnavi and I, I think, are similar in that I think there's a whole generation of us whose parents grew up somewhere else and we idealize that. We idealize those places because we've never been there and we don't know where our responsibility lies and so how do, you know, how do I pass that - what do we pass onto our kids and how do we define home if we're from all over?
MARTIN: But it's also true that your characters - there's a nostalgia about what was left but there's also an appreciation for what is here.
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah.
MARTIN: And I'm wondering about that, if you feel any sensitivity around that given that there's so much in the news, so much conversation about immigration, are people assimilating, are they grateful?
Mr. MIRANDA: Right. I'm very happy that this show came out in a year where immigration is used as many possible times in the same sentence as terrorism by politicians to score cheap points on whatever side. And you know, I think the show is a nice reminder that, you know, we are the latest chapter in this thing called the American Dream and we're trying to get our foot in the door.
MARTIN: You know, there's another chapter in that American story which you don't ignore, which is the African-American story.
Mr. MIRANDA: Yes.
MARTIN: The storyline in the play. Very often in our literature, our culture presents race as a binary thing, a black-white or brown and white, and it ignores the black-brown dynamic. You got this character, Benny, who is an African-American who is in love with the daughter of his boss, who is Latino who runs the (inaudible). I just can't help myself. Let's play a short clip of his performance, "Benny's Dispatch."
(Soundbite of song "Benny's Dispatch")
Mr. CHRISTOPHER JACKSON: (As Benny) (Singing) This is Benny on the dispatch, yo. Attention yo, attention, it's Benny and I'd like to mention I'm on the microphone this morning, honk your horn if you want it. OK, we got traffic on the West Side, get off at 79th and take the left side of Riverside Drive into my slide. West End's your best friend if you catch the lights and don't take...
MARTIN: First of all, I wanted to ask where that storyline came from because it's got both - it's got the love and it's got some resentment.
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, a huge amount of credit actually goes to Chris Jackson, who has been playing the role of Benny since we started doing readings of the show. Originally, he was playing Latino, Benny was a Latino character, and I don't know exactly when we sort of said it, but I think it was Jeffery Seller, one of our producers, who said, you know, we've got Chris putting on this sort of Latino Lothario thing, when the real Chris is so much more interesting and articulate and charming and beautiful in spirit than the Benny we're writing.
When he said that, you know, we sort of realized, well, it would be very interesting, actually, to have sort of this outsider within a group of outsiders, and we thought, well, that would be an additional stumbling block. Not only...
MARTIN: Is that something that's been part of your life, though? The black-brown, where do we fit in this, you know, looking for space in the cities?
Mr. MIRANDA: Yeah. I think that - and again, I think in this election year you see politicians wanting to use that divide as a divide between black and brown, and will Latinos vote for Obama and all of that, but what we try to stress at the end of the day is that we're much more similar than we are different, particularly in our struggles.
And I also think what's interesting is not only does Kevin not approve of Benny because he's African-American, that's certainly a component of it, but also because Benny's just like him. He is striving and he's young and he's hungry and he wants to move up in the business and he doesn't think his daughter should date anyone like him so it's - race is a component of it, but there's also a larger familial component, as well.
MARTIN: When you were writing "In the Heights," did you have a sense of who you thought would come or who you wanted to come?
Mr. MIRANDA: No. I just wanted to write the kind of show I'd always wanted to see. The most important thing to me was that it sound like this neighborhood and so I wanted it to sound like the hip-hop music going past while they got blasting Meringue music and really all of those things mixed up together.
MARTIN: But you don't live there anymore.
Mr. MIRANDA: I don't live there anymore. I'm dying to...
MARTIN: I'm not going to peep your card, I'm not going to tell everybody where you live, but you live in a lovely, airy place with a beautiful view, which is exactly what I would hope for a successful, young playwright.
Mr. MIRANDA: I live on the junction of the Upper West Side and Hell's Kitchen. I live in Upper West Hell, and I miss having a neighborhood. This building is great, my apartment is great, but I don't have, you know, you don't have the ATM that distributes tens. You don't have the, you know, you don't have the drycleaner down the street. I miss all those little things, and my goal is to buy a place back there.
MARTIN: What's next? Any ideas?
Mr. MIRANDA: Oh gosh, I guess disappointment and backlash, it's only downhill from here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
You know, I think I want to keep writing shows. It took me eight years to write this one, so I'm going to really take my time before I pick the next project. I'm talking to DreamWorks Animation about writing music for some of their animated films, so, you know, lots of exciting little things.
MARTIN: And I know you just finished a performance and you're still clearly on a high, but I cannot resist asking if you would take us out on just a little bit of the finale. Can I talk you into that?
Mr. MIRANDA: The finale, sure.
MARTIN: OK. Lin Manuel Miranda is the creator, the writer of the music and the lyrics, and stars in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "In the Heights." He let us stop into his fabulous...
Mr. MIRANDA: Fancy Upper West Hell apartment.
MARTIN: Fancy shmancy apartment in New York. Thank you so much for having us.
Mr. MIRANDA: Thank you for coming over.
MARTIN: Can you take us out a little bit of finale?
Mr. MIRANDA: (Singing) There's a breeze off the Hudson and just when you think you're sick of living here the memory floods in the morning light off the fire escapes the nights in Bennett Park blasting beats on tape, I'm going to miss this place to tell you the truth, Kevin, dispensing wisdom from his dispatch booth in a dorm, Vanessa at the salon, we got to move on, and who's going to notice we're gone when our jobs done as the evening winds down to a cross and can I ease my mind when we're all done when we've resigned in the long run. What do we leave behind?
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.