When In The Heights premiered on Broadway in 2009, composer, performer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s loving ode to his Latino community in upper Manhattan was a game-changer. Its skillful blend of traditional Broadway themes and joyful, energetic rap, salsa and hip-hop marked the arrival of a new creative force. Here’s a look back at the influences — both cultural and familial — that influenced his breakthrough hit.
His family hails from Puerto Rico
Luis Miranda Jr. was born in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico and moved to New York at the age of 18. Although his English was limited at the time, he became the youngest person ever accepted into New York University’s clinical psychology graduate program. It was there that he met Luz Towns, a fellow student from the program who also hailed from Puerto Rico. Shortly after meeting, Luis and Luz married, and Luis adopted her daughter, Luz. In 1980, their son Lin-Manuel was born, and the following year the family moved to Inwood, a neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan, which had long been the starting point in New York for a series of different immigrant groups.
Luz would later recall that both she and Luis had been politically active since their teens, and Luis later abandoned his psychology studies to begin a long career that would seem him act as an advisor for a number of New York politicians, beginning with mayor Ed Koch. As Koch’s special advisor for Hispanic Affairs, Luis became a well know organizer within the Latino community, and later co-founded Manhattan Times, a bi-lingual newspaper serving the communities of Upper Manhattan.
Miranda was exposed to a wide variety of music and pop culture from an early age
Both of Miranda’s parents were huge fans of all varieties of music, particularly musicals. And while the family was unable to afford regular trips to see Broadway shows, he spent hours listening to his family’s massive record collection. A Disney aficionado from a young age, he would later say in an interview with Good Morning America, that he was inspired to take up songwriting after seeing the calypso number in The Little Mermaid. (Miranda would eventually name his firstborn son, Sebastian, in part after the film’s animated crab.) He also credits Rent, a ’90s rock musical by Jonathan Larson that depicted the lives and loves of a group of young bohemians in New York’s counter-culture East Village, as an inspiration, showing him that musicals could tackle modern themes and materials.
Miranda developed an early interest in ’90s hip-hop and rap, thanks to both his older sister and a school bus driver. Young Luz took her brother to see Beat Street, an early hip-hop film, and introduced him to artists like the Fat Boys, the Beastie Boys and Eric B. & Rakim. As Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s off-Broadway Public Theater told The New York Times, “He deeply loves musical theater and Broadway, and has since he was a child, and he deeply loves hip-hop and pop music as a whole, and has since he was a child. … His ability to work in both of those forms is inseparable from the fact that he loves both forms — he’s not being a tourist when he visits one or the other, but he’s deeply embedded in both of them.”
Miranda began writing ‘In the Heights’ while in college
Both of his parents stressed the importance of education, and Miranda attended a highly selective public school program for high-achieving students for both primary and high school. He made daily trips from his largely Latino uptown neighborhood to the school’s campus on the Upper East Side. It was a period he recalled as one of “code-switching” – speaking Spanish at home and English at school and going by just “Lin” to his classmates. He took advantage of the school’s drama activities, acting in a number of small and large-scale plays and musicals and taking his first stabs at acting, directing and writing musicals.
He attended Connecticut’s Wesleyan University as a theater and film major, living in a Latino program house with several other students who, like Miranda, had spent their early lives straddling between Hispanic and white worlds. In 1999, during his sophomore year, he began working on a musical that became the genesis for In the Heights. At that time, the musical focused primarily on Nina, a young Latina woman from Washington Heights who earns admiration from her family and friends for making it “out” of the neighborhood and attending by attending a prestigious college. Nina’s reality is a much more difficult battle to survive and thrive in her new environment, a struggle Miranda said mirrored both the experiences of many of his Latino college classmates and the children and grandchildren of other immigrant and minority groups, which often have a more perilous foothold on socio-economic success.
He based a key character on a close family friend
Miranda would later say that he began writing In the Heights as an attempt to create a “time capsule” that captured the Hispanic community of Upper Manhattan, already at risk of being permanently transformed by ever-rising rents and spreading gentrification of its neighborhoods. While Washington Heights is a primarily Dominican neighborhood, he wanted to pay tribute to earlier generations of immigrants who had laid down roots in the area. The character of Claudia, the loving surrogate grandmother, or “abuela,” honors the early Cuban arrivals to the neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s.
Miranda based the character on Edmunda Claudio, his father’s former nanny who had moved from Puerto Rico to New York shortly after Miranda’s birth and played a large role in raising him and his sister. Like Claudia in In The Heights, Miranda’s surrogate abuela gambled every day at a nearby Inwood bodega, taking the young Miranda with her to help pull the slots of a hidden, illegal gambling machine.
It was a college connection that led to ‘In the Heights’ success
After graduation, Miranda worked as a substitute English teacher at Hunter College High School, his alma mater, and supplemented his income writing jingles and songs for the political candidates his father advised. During these lean years, Miranda recalled, his parents continued their unwavering support, with Luis writing his son a letter encouraging him to follow his dreams, just as he had decades earlier by leaving Puerto Rico for an uncertain future in New York.
While still in college, in order to recoup production costs on the Heights student production at Wesleyan, Miranda had recorded and sold a cast album, which eventually made its way to Thomas Kail, a director and Wesleyan alum who had graduated several years before Miranda. Kail approached Miranda about collaborating on the project.
Working with writer Quiara Alegría Hudes, Miranda extensively reworked the musical, including beefing up the role of Usnavi, the Puerto Rican bodega owner, now played by Miranda himself. As they worked on the project, the team returned to Miranda’s love of earlier Broadway shows, including Fiddler on the Roof, whose themes of family, home and a community facing the threat of change resonated deeply with Miranda. In the Heights premiered off-Broadway in 2007, transferring to Broadway in 2009. The show won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Miranda’s acceptance speech for Best Score (which he rapped) included both a nod to legendary Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim and Miranda proudly pulling a Puerto Rican flag out of his tux in celebration.
Miranda used his success to help the people of Puerto Rico and New York
Miranda continued to work on Broadway following In the Heights, reaching his greatest financial and critical success with Hamilton, another musical that weaved together rap, hip-hop and more traditional songwriting to explore the life of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and America’s founding fathers, featuring a multi-racial cast. It won Miranda numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The massive financial success of Hamilton and Miranda’s other projects allowed his family to set up a series of philanthropic programs, including an educational program designed to provides low-cost tickets to Hamilton for students, exposing them to the theater just as Miranda’s parents had decades earlier.
Miranda has also focused his charitable efforts on Puerto Rico, where he’d spent every summer of his childhood visiting relatives. He brought productions of both In the Heights and Hamilton to the island and following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, has donated and raised tens of millions of dollars in relief funds. Miranda and his collaborators spent more than a decade trying to bring In the Heights to the screen, and successfully ensured that it was eventually filmed on location in the real Heights. Miranda has also stayed loyal to his New York roots. He and his wife Vanessa and their children reside in Washington Heights, just a short distance from his parents who still call Inwood home.