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9 Ways Lin-Manuel Miranda Teaches Us to “No pare, sigue, sigue!” With Our Original Content

I would venture to say that most students at Full Sail have no idea who Lin-Manuel Miranda is and don’t appreciate Broadway musicals the same way that I do…which is expected and understandable. I came here to get my Master’s carrying my Theatre Arts BA in my backpack and having slept overnight in a parking garage for student rush tickets to RENT. I know I’m in the minority, and I wouldn’t dare espouse the merits of The Last Five Years or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to my fellow students – my opinions will fall on deaf ears.

But I promise, In the Heights is something that you need to pay attention to.

On March 14th, I was fortunate enough to see a show at the Bob Carr that won the 2008 Tony for Best Musical. As an aficionado of theatre, I was pumped for Sunday night’s closing show. What I saw was a performance unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

In a nutshell, the show is about typical residents in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Sons and daughters of Latin immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba are struggling to survive in a neighborhood that is slowly gentrifying. Businesses are moving or closing, and owners of these businesses are trying to figure out where to turn next – move out of the Heights, or stay and maintain the neighborhood?

There’s rap. Hip hop. Reggaeton. Salsa.

…and as someone who is admittedly not a fan of the above genres? I enjoyed every second of it. In the Heights is a musical that crosses the aisle in a way that most politicians in DC can’t seem to wrap their heads around – urban music fans can appreciate as well as hard-core Broadway junkies. The lyrics are edgy without being hard and abrasive, and the harmonization and melodies are smooth and pleasant without being flamboyant and glittery. And now that In the Heights is touring the country, it has the opportunity to introduce a whole new audience to musicals…as well as teaching theatre fans how to appreciate rap and hip hop. And Lin-Manuel Miranda is the mastermind behind the show, writing and originally starring as the lead character.

Below are 9 tips that I’ve gathered from his way of life that I think can truly benefit us as students creating content in an entrepreneurial-based program.

  • Know Your Roots

On In the Heightsofficial website, Lin-Manuel describes his earliest memories of growing up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

My earliest memory takes place in a bodega on Dyckman Street in Washington Heights. I am three years old, and walking hand in hand with my Abuela Mundi. Abuela Mundi isn’t biologically my “abuela” (grandmother), but she lives in my house, feeds me, tucks me in and walks me to and from nursery school. She took care of my father when he was a kid in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico (his parents never stopped working), and when I was born, she came to take care of me and my sister (our parents never stop working). It’s a hot summer day; there’s an open hydrant on Beak Street and I can see the top of the Cloisters across the park as Abuela and I walk down Seaman Avenue. Dominican and Puerto Rican flags hang from nearby windows.

For those familiar with the show, this memory very clearly sets up the feelings evoked by Heights. Rather than stretching for content that he would have to spend (and essentially, waste) time on, he reached back to his roots and cranked out a story that can touch audiences, even outside of barrios.

  • Be Passionate About What’s Important to You 

Lin might have lived in a gritty neighborhood in the city, but grew up as a fan of musical theatre; his father was a member of the Puerto Rico chapter of the Debbie Reynolds Fan Club (the leading lady in Singin’ in the Rain). Lin confesses that he “grew up on a bizarre diet of Juan Luis Guerra, Marc Anthony, Fiddler on the Roof and Camelot.”

In his sophomore year of attending Wesleyan University, Lin wrote In the Heights. It was a much different version of what we see today…but what it became was a fresh an unique perspective on typical stories. Lin admits that the show is influenced heavily by RENT and Fiddler on the Roof, and the score swells just as beautifully as any other musical on the Great White Way. Additionally, there are references in the show to It’s a Wonderful Life and songwriter Cole Porter.

Though his interests seemingly conflict on the surface, he found a way to make them work together.

  • Take Initiative 

Lin describes how In the Heights was born:

I applied to put up a new show in the student-run ’92 Theater. At the time, I had one song and a title: In the Heights. I was given the theater for the weekend of April 20-22- now all I had to do was write a show. I barely slept, I barely ate; I just wrote. I put in all the things I’d always wanted to see onstage: propulsive freestyle rap scenes outside of bodegas, salsa numbers that also revealed character and story. I tried to write the kind of show I’d want to be in.

He could have breezed through college. He could have done the bare minimum. He could have lived by the dogma of, “Cs get degrees”…but he didn’t. He wrote a show, he applied for the chance to perform it, and then honed his craft. Living to our fullest potential is a lesson that all students should take to heart.

  • Network

We are thriving in a creative environment – it’s hard not to believe that we’re all on our way to being terribly successful. At Wesleyan, Lin was surrounded by equally motivated people. He explains,

I was approached by John Buffalo Mailer (son of Norman), a senior at the time. He loved the show and said, “My friends and I are starting a production company when we graduate, and we want to help you bring it to New York.” I said, “That sounds awesome,” went to the cast party and promptly forgot about his offer.

Fast forward to the summer of 2002, when I meet director Tommy Kail for the first time in the basement of the Drama Book Shop. John Mailer has made good on his promise and has founded Back House Productions with Tommy, Anthony Veneziale and Neil Stewart. I’ve just graduated, and Tommy is breaking down what he likes about Heights and what he would do if he directed it. Two thoughts occur to me. The first is: “This guy is smarter and understands the show better than anyone I’ve ever met.” The second is, “Crap. I have to completely rewrite this show.”

You don’t know who is sitting next to you in class – they might be next big producer or the one with the ability to catapult you to fame.

  • Work Hard 

“Everybody’s got a job, everybody’s got a dream,” riffs Usnavi, the main character of the In the Heights that was written by, based on, and played by Lin-Manuel. As has been lectured to us in each class, it is possible to work for someone while you work for yourself at the same time. Lin was a 7th grade teacher in his old high school by day, and worked on getting Heights off the ground by night.

  • Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

’nuff said.

  • Give Back 

After that King of Wishful Thinking video, it could be inferred that perhaps Lin-Manuel felt a kind of…kinship towards Nicholas. Seeing Lin fostering a child’s love of musical theatre and guiding him through the blocking of the finale proves to me just how genuine he is.

The cast of In the Heights gives back, too. Last summer, the crew got together to clean up the real life Washington Heights neighborhood.

  • Be Prepared for Success 

The following dialogue is taken from the song, “It Won’t Be Long Now“.

Sonny: “Uh, m-my cousin over there with his tongue hangin’ out has been meaning to ask you–”

Vanessa: “Yes?”

Sonny: “-what a lady, such as yourself, might be doin’ tonight?”

Vanessa: “Does your cousin dance?”

Sonny: “Like a drunk Chita Rivera.”

For those that don’t know, Chita Rivera is best known for originating the role of Anita in West Side Story in 1957. Writing that dialogue is one thing, but imagine if Chita Rivera came to see you perform? We’re told that success one half timing and the the other half luck…be prepared when that secret recipe comes to fruition.

  • Keep Going 

In the show, character Abuela Claudia asks, “What do you do when your dreams come true?”

…keep going!

In May of last year, Lin was invited to the White House’s first Poetry Slam. While he could have performed Heights material, he instead debuted his latest work: a concept album about a gentleman that Lin believes “embodies hip hop”…

Prior to performing for the Leader of the Free World (from whom he received a standing ovation), Lin had the honor of rewriting portions of the latest incarnation of West Side Story. Steven Sondheim, the original composer, gave his blessing to Lin to translate portions of the songs into Spanish. Lin is also busy working on writing the songs for theatrical version of Bring it On.

Lin has handled success brilliantly, and in recent Heights news, Universal has acquired the film rights, which (High School Musical, Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and Newsies alum) Kenny Ortega will be directing. The film is currently in development.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda is a fascinating individual that I have learned an immense amount from in such a short amount of time. Like In the Heights, he straddles borders; he is persistent without being obnoxious. He is a talented freestyler with nerdy theatre-kid tendencies. And what I appreciate most is that is he has portrayed his life and neighborhood in a positive light without being obnoxiously squeaky-clean.

Lin-Manuel has a long career ahead of him, and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us.

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