Five Questions for Lin-Manuel Miranda

in the heights

by Laura Kusnyer, 11/03/2008

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Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of In the Heights, shares his take on the Tony Award–winning musical, Latino culture in the City and how New Yorkers can keep the artistic spirit alive in Upper Manhattan—all in English and Spanish.

What sets In the Heights apart from other musicals?
One thing that sets it apart is that it’s not based on anything except our own lives and our own experiences growing up in Latino communities. In the Heights is a fun-house version of our lives growing up. It tries to capture the memory of Washington Heights almost as it was. There’s no Starbucks in the Washington Heights you see on that stage, but there is in the real one.
¿Qué es lo que tiene In the Heights que lo distingue de otros musicales?
No es basado en un cuento que ya existe—solo en la memoria de los escritores. Washington Heights tiene más negocios locales de toda Nueva York, y era importante para nosotros escribir sobre eso. Y también, para mi, es realista porque siempre hay música tocando en las bodegas de Washington Heights, y si hay un sitio que va a explotar en un “song-and-dance number” va a ser Washington Heights (risas).

You’re Puerto Rican. Were you ever criticized for trying to be a representative of Dominican culture?
People ask me, “Why are you playing a Dominican if you’re Puerto Rican?” but it wouldn’t be a fair representation of Washington Heights if I were playing a Puerto Rican. All you can do is give the most honest portrayal you can. When I speak Spanish in the show, it’s with a Dominican accent. I think most people are very happy that we’re just trying to see ourselves in a positive light.
Eres puertorriqueño. ¿Alguna vez te criticaron por intentar ser un representante de la cultura dominicana?
No he conseguido mucho criticismo porque he sido muy honesto de mi experiencia como puertorriqueño creciendo en el alto Manhattan. Washington Heights es mayormente dominicano. Quería [que fuera] un reflejo honesto, y creo que lo hemos hecho. Estamos tratando de representar tantas culturas, y el show se trata de las mezclas de culturas. Una de las gran preguntas de la obra es: ¿qué traes contigo? y ¿qué se queda?            

What advice do you have for aspiring writers—the starving artists—here in New York City?
Keep writing and do whatever you can do to support yourself and/or your family. I taught seventh-grade English; I taught at-risk kids in Queens; I danced at bar mitzvahs; I wrote jingles for commercials; I had garage sales of my parents’ things to make rent. I did whatever I had to do to keep the lights on. You just do what you can do so that you can keep doing what you love.
¿Cuáles consejos le darías a los escritores aspirantes—los que tienen hambre—aquí en Nueva York? 
Que sigan escribiendo y que hagan lo que tengan que hacer para soportar a ellos mismos y a su familia. Yo enseñé clases de inglés; enseñé a muchachos en teatro en Queens; bailé en bar mitzvahs; escribí música para anuncios. Haces lo que tienes que hacer para que las luces se queden emprendidas.

Who are your mentors?
I am definitely here because my parents are the hardest-working people I know. I’ve never known them to have just one job ever in their lives. If anything accounts for my success, I point to them. I certainly wasn’t the brightest kid in my classes, but I worked. And that’s why I’m here.
¿Quiénes son tus mentores?
Mis papás. No recuerdo un tiempo cuando mis papás solo tenían un trabajo. Yo no soy la persona más inteligente del mundo, pero gracias a mis papás, siempre he trabajado muy duro, y es por eso que estoy donde estoy.

Your character in the musical, Usnavi, is incredibly vested in his community. How can New Yorkers show their support for Upper Manhattan?
There are organizations like NoMAA (Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance), Aspira and ACDP (Community Association of Progressive Dominicans), which my family has been involved with my entire life. One of the simplest ways anyone can get involved is by supporting local businesses in Washington Heights. When we think about the fact that Rent was about this bohemian community in the East Village, guess what? That community is barely there anymore.
Tu personaje en el musical, Usnavi, le da mucho a comunidad. ¿Qué pueden hacer los neoyorquinos para apoyar a la comunidad de alto Manhattan?
Hay mil cosas que puedes hacer. Hay NoMAA (Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance), ACDP, Aspira y muchas organizaciones que pueden apoyar en Washington Heights e Inwood, pero la cosa más simple que puedes hacer es usar tu dinero en negocios locales. En vez de comer en McDonalds, ¡comer en Caridad! (risas)

 

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