Monday, October 6, 2014

In the Presence of Greatness

I have frequented the streets of Washington Heights a lot in my blog posts in my writings about Nina Rosario, the "failed" neighborhood superstar of the barrio. I wax and wane myself off from the musical In the Heights, telling myself, "I need to move on" one day. But no more than a week goes by when I'm back waving my Dominican Republic flag. Tonight, I had the honor of seeing and talking with the man who brought Washington Heights into my life: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony-winning composer-lyricist of my all-time favorite musical, In the Heights.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's advisor at Wesleyan University (where he received his undergraduate degree in Theatre) is the father of the Headmaster at Lawrence Academy in Groton, MA. This is the fourth year of Lawrence Academy's J. William Mees Visiting Scholar's program. Miranda was this year's featured scholar. The night featured a video overviewing In the Heights, a few gracious performances from several of Miranda's works, and a question and answer session with the audience.

Miranda opened the night with songs from the Wesleyan draft of In the Heights, including one of Nina's original numbers on the subway, and a song from her brother Lincoln (who was cut in an earlier draft of the show). He wrote the first draft of In the Heights his sophomore year of college as a 90 minute, one act show at a time when he had a lot of "time and angst on his hands."

"Time and angst are all you need to write a musical. 'I have all these emotions and I just need to sing.' That was really the birth of 'In the Heights,'" he said.

He explained that he drew inspiration from home life, his summers in Puerto Rico, and his own "What if?" questions about the characters in his life. Attending Hunter College High School in New York City, he said he didn't have Latino friends his age until sophomore year in college. This allowed him to re-explore his Spanish roots, and write about them. He references the rock musical Rent as his epiphany that musicals could be written about everyday life––about "stuff."

When question and answer time came, the audience was silent. I myself, who had drafted three questions before I came, felt my hand twitch in my lap, but could not muster the courage to raise it. My stepdad, who is never afraid to be the first to volunteer, raised his hand.

"How do you go from In the Heights to Hamilton? How do you go from Washington Heights to Washington D.C.?" he asked, referencing Miranda's new musical, Hamilton, written about the life of the founding father, Alexander Hamilton. The musical premieres at the Public Theatre in New York City on January 20, 2015.

"I'm so glad you asked that question," Miranda said, and I cursed myself, because that was the big question I wanted to ask, and I wanted to sound smart in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer-lyricist of (have I mentioned?) my all-time favorite musical. Regardless, I took a deep breath, and raised my pen, ready to absorb every word he said.

Ultimately, Miranda said to write about what you know. His mother, he said, was a psychologist. She told him everything he experienced in life was, "Grist for the mill." It's how she got him to take out the trash, and also how she convinced him to work at McDonald's painting little kid's faces when they had the deal on Happy Meals on Friday nights. Coincidentally, Miranda said his experience at McDonald's became the "grist" for a later song of his.

Miranda said he first picked up Alexander Hamilton's biography on a vacation from In the Heights in Mexico.

"You can ask my wife," he said. "I was two chapters into the book and I said, 'This is going to be my next musical.'"

Miranda said he relates to the "ticking clock" Hamilton is so aware of, that idea that you never have enough time. Hamilton brilliantly interweaves current day inspiration into the characters of the 18th century. For example, Thomas Jefferson raps like Drake. Although it's a period piece, he explained that the debates of the 18th century aren't too different from the debates of today, like the issues of taxation and foreign policy.

"What does it take to bring a production like In the Heights to Broadway?" an aspiring playwright in the audience asked.

"I'm going to start with the bad news," Miranda said. "No matter how hard you work, no matter how good your show is, there is an element of luck." He then proceeded to explain the "elements of luck" that played a part in the success of In the Heights.

Most of them were with regard to the connections he made. He highlighted the importance of inviting anyone who is remotely involved in theatre to workshops of your play. He frequently talked about inviting "a guy who knew a guy who dated her," or someone of the sort. He also said it's important to have something physical (like a physical recording of your musical and/or a draft of a script) to give to someone so when that "element of luck" comes your way, you're ready to seize it.

At the end of the evening, I finally had my chance to personally meet Miranda himself. It was surreal to be able to shake his hand and thank him for this show that makes me feel at home; for writing songs that on my worst day, can make me laugh and fall in love; for giving birth to this character (Nina) who helped me find my voice. It was intimidating, inspiring, and incredible to meet the man who is where I want to be someday.

We talked about directing. He emphasized the importance of collaboration with actors, producers, and others involved in the show. It's important to be open-minded, he said, and not get married to a particular vision of the show. It takes a great amount of trust.

I asked him whether it was hard to let his vision go. The only part of the original Wesleyan draft of In the Heights that remains in the final version is, "In Washington Heights." More than sixty songs were cut between the first and final draft. Several characters were, as Miranda terms it, "killed."

"No," he said. He's just always excited about what's next.

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