It isn’t often that the Broadway theater is in the business of breaking new ground. New dramas have almost disappeared from the Great White Way, and stage musicals are noted for borrowing heavily from well-known source material, especially classic movies.
Which is what makes “In the Heights,” which bowed last March on Broadway and went on to win the top Tony for musical, so noteworthy. Not only did its creators, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, fashion a completely original story about a young woman’s quest for a college degree but they turned that coming-of-age tale into the first commercially successful Latino tuner in Broadway history.
The project’s genesis goes back a decade to Paul Simon’s first and only stab at writing a musical, “The Capeman,” based on the life of Puerto Rican gang member Salvador Agron. That show played a mere 68 performances. Fortunately, Miranda, a high school senior at the time, saw one of those rare perfs.
“Paul Simon wrote some beautiful music, but there wasn’t a show there,” says Miranda, giving “The Capeman” one of its kinder reviews. “No one was going to write the Great Latino Musical. I thought I’d take a crack at it.”
Two years later, as a sophomore project at Wesleyan U., Miranda staged an 80-minute version of “In the Heights,” and he never let go of his dream. Over the years, and several readings in which Hudes eventually took over the book-writer duties, Miranda’s musical developed into the polished two-act show that auds see today at the Richard Rodgers Theater. In some of those early readings, Miranda played all the roles, but nowadays he limits himself to the narrator character, Usnavi, for which he was Tony nommed.
” ‘In the Heights’ is equally autobiographical for Quiara and me,” he explains. “She was the first in her family to go to college, and the lady who raised me — she was our live-in nanny — is the grandmother character, Abuela Claudia.”
Miranda actually grew up in Inwood, the neighborhood just north of Washington Heights in Manhattan. “It’s a case where the song ‘In the Heights’ finds the musical,” he says. “I wasn’t going to write ‘In Inwood.’ ”
Miranda’s next legit project is to perform translation chores on the new bilingual revival of “West Side Story,” which is skedded for Broadway later this season. Comparisons undoubtedly will be made between the two shows, but Miranda doesn’t see it that way.
“Beyond the fact that there are Puerto Rican characters in both shows, that’s the end of the comparison,” he notes.
The songwriter reveals a much more direct inspiration. “The real genetic forefather for ‘Heights’ is ‘Fiddler on the Roof,'” he says. “It was about a community groping with change and has change thrust upon it. We looked to ‘Fiddler’ for our structure. We introduce our types with the song ‘In the Heights.’ They introduced theirs with ‘Tradition.’ ”
When Joseph Stein recently came to see “In the Heights,” Miranda told the “Fiddler” book writer, “You know, we stole all our best stuff from you.”
A surprised and equally flattered Stein took a moment to respond: “You know, you’re right!”