No fear of ‘Heights’

Producers take risk on young talent

Breaks don’t get much bigger than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s.

At 27, he is the composer, lyricist and one of the stars of “In the Heights,” a new musical premiering Off Broadway. Housed at the expansive 37 Arts complex, it opened Feb. 8 with Rialto talent including John Herrera and Priscilla Lopez. It’s backed by Kevin McCollum, Jeffrey Seller and Jill Furman, three producers whose credits collectively include “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Not bad for a Gotham debut. But why are seasoned producers banking on this newcomer when it’s hard enough to draw auds to unfamiliar works by established writers?

It helps that the show has such an unusual sound. The tuner blends salsa, merengue and hip-hop with standard legit-style music as it tracks three days in the life of a community in Washington Heights, the ethnically diverse Gotham neighborhood where Miranda grew up.

“I’ve never heard salsa music used to tell a story onstage, even though it’s incredibly dramatic,” says Miranda. “I didn’t know anything about the hip-hop theater movement at the time we started the workshops. All I knew is that when they heard a hip-hop song, our audience sat the hell up.”

Miranda also felt a show based on his neighborhood could tell an under-represented story. “I wanted to create something that shows Latinos in the everyday mode I’m used to, and not just in gangs,” he explains.

In his sophomore year at Connecticut’s Wesleyan U., Miranda mounted an early version that caught the attention of three upperclassmen, including Norman Mailer’s son John, who would later form Back House Prods.

Back House’s development workshops — which incorporated a book by playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes — soon stoked commercial interest. Furman came aboard in late 2002, and McCollum and Seller joined early the following year.

In a show of economic faith, producers have not even balked at the relatively large 20-member ensemble and orchestra of seven. Miranda says Seller approached him after the final workshop and said they were adding four actors to help fill the large stage at 37 Arts.

This commitment invites speculation about a Broadway transfer, but the producers’ focus thus far has been on establishing the current production and finding an audience Off Broadway. (McCollum and Seller are part owners of 37 Arts.)

“We plotted a course that we felt would best nurture the show,” says McCollum. “We are producing the entire team’s vision at the only Off Broadway house that could accommodate the orchestra, cast and physical production.”

The chief hurdle now is attracting auds, who need to be sufficiently motivated to find 37 Arts, located in a relatively isolated area several blocks from the theater district. Marketing has aggressively courted Latinos (not normally a major theatergoing demo) and young, nontraditional ticketbuyers, with ads running on the subway system and in community-focused papers.

“To me, the fun is in the mix,” offers Miranda. “It’s really fun when half your house laughs at a Spanish reference, and the other half turns and wonders what they’re reacting to.”

Preview seats sold for a comparatively low $36, and Miranda says auds were a diverse breakdown of ages and ethnicities. But now that tickets are topping out at $85, the test will be expanding the audience. “I hope the show becomes that event you take your girl out to,” muses Miranda. “That’s what theater was to me growing up.”

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