Washington Heights is the latest New York neighborhood to be celebrated on the Broadway stage in the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights. The show's set is a colorfully funky affair, depicting a bodega, a beauty salon, a cab company and tenements around the 181st Street subway station, with the George Washington Bridge looming in the background.
But if you take the A train to that subway stop, ride up the long escalator — or walk it, if the power is off — that brings you above ground, one of the first things you see as you emerge from the station is a Starbucks.
"That used to be a lyric in the show: 'Starbucks at 181st Street/Who'll be the next one to go?' '' says Lin-Manuel Miranda, who conceived the musical, wrote the music and lyrics, and starred in the Broadway production. "And I think that's implied. You know, Manhattan is always getting more expensive. The East Village of Rent doesn't exist anymore. And in 10 years, I don't know if the Washington Heights of this show will exist anymore. It's amazing to watch this show turn into a time capsule of this neighborhood that was.''
Miranda is now preparing In the Heights for a national tour, which has its first stop this week at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. He's hopeful that a musical that combines hip-hop and salsa, reflecting the Latino melting pot of Washington Heights, will strike a chord around the country.
"We haven't done anything to de-New York the show,'' he says. "If anything, the opposite is true. I think the themes in it are universal enough that it's going to play really well.''
Miranda, 29, began working on the musical that became In the Heights when he was still a student at Wesleyan University, where he graduated in 2002. Of Puerto Rican descent, he had grown up in Inwood, another predominantly Latino neighborhood just a couple of subway stops beyond Washington Heights on the northern tip of Manhattan, but his main interest originally was not with the setting of the show but its music.
"The neighborhood came later,'' he says. "Quiara Alegria Hudes (the book writer) deserves the credit for making the neighborhood a character. The first draft I wrote was a love story. It was set in Washington Heights, but that was my excuse for using as much hip-hop and Latin music as I could get away with.''
In the Heights, which won the 2008 Tony for best musical, score, orchestrations and choreography, is a heady mix of Latin rhythms, mashed together with the rapping of the Dominican bodega owner Usnavi (played by Miranda on Broadway until last February) and others.
Miranda's parents — his father is a political consultant, his mother a psychologist — listened to Latin music giants such as Eddie Palmieri, Ruben Blades and El Gran Combo, and he absorbed that tradition. His score is a virtual homage to classic salsa.
"I think Latino audiences really appreciate that it isn't just general Latin music,'' he says. "When Abuela Claudia sings about Cuba, she's singing an old-school Cuban mambo. It Won't Be Long Now has a little merengue, which is Dominican.''
One night, when In the Heights was playing off Broadway, iconic Puerto Rican trombonist Willie Colón sat in the front row. Another night, Juan Luis Guerra ("the Bob Dylan of the Dominican Republic,'' Miranda says) attended.
"That was insane, probably my roughest show,'' Miranda says of performing in front of Guerra. "I was thinking like a writer the whole time, flinching whenever a trumpet part messed up or an actor sang a note off-key.''
Miranda was careful to make the hip-hop numbers palatable to a traditional Broadway audience. Usnavi's opening rap includes references to Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.
"When they hear that, folks who grew up listening to musical theater say, 'Okay, I'm going to like this,' '' he says. "I see my goal as a writer to make the audience feel as taken care of as possible. We're all going to go on this ride together, and this is how these characters express themselves. Usnavi is the same age as hip-hop, so that's how he expresses himself. Claudia sounds like La Lupe or Celia Cruz when she sings.''
With the success of In the Heights, which is slated to be made into a movie, Miranda has gained some great opportunities. When a new production of West Side Story was bound for Broadway, the original book writer Arthur Laurents, who directed the revival, asked him to translate some of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics into Spanish. The bilingualism is an innovative touch, but not everybody loves it. The Spanish has been cut back since the show opened last March.
"Audiences were complaining about having to hear Spanish in A Boy Like That,'' Miranda says. "I think it's a real shame that audiences don't feel ready to do the work. There's still Spanish in I Feel Pretty.''
Recently, Miranda moved from midtown Manhattan back to his old stomping ground. "I bought a place in Inwood because I missed the neighborhood,'' he says. "I think it's the last affordable place in Manhattan.''
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.