When did you first develop the idea for In the Heights?
I started developing the show my sophomore year at Wesleyan University when I was living at La Casa, which was the house for Latino students. The first song I wrote was called “Never Give Your Heart Away” and it came about I was speaking with a friend about a relationship I was in with my high school sweetheart. He told me that his Mom had given him advice to “Always leave a girl before you get left behind”. I thought about how that lecture between mother and son must have gone and got inspired to write that first song. From there I wrote the entire play in a few short weeks over winter break. The musical first premiered in April of 2000 at Wesleyan. From there, a meeting with Tommy Kail was set up for me the summer after my graduation in 2002. We started showing the play and got the producers on board. Tommy suggested I play the main character Usnavi because it would have been too hard for anyone else to remember all the lines on such short notice. Quiara Alegría Hudes came on in 2004 to help write the book because I couldn’t do everything at once and plus she is such an amazingly great writer. She is like a girl version of me so I knew from the start that it was meant to be.
What was your original inspiration?
I started with the music I heard around me my whole life growing up. The setting determined how the play was going to sound. The music was really the driving force behind the play, and it was the mix of the different kinds of sounds, especially the free style rap music, that got the audience into it. I remember in those early performances at Wesleyan how everyone would just lean into the stage and really perk up when the hip-hop parts came about, it was something new. From there the story just kind of developed. Tommy suggested that they we make Usnavi the main narrator, since so much of the action centered on his bodega. The language, the way that everyone speaks really corresponds to where they come from and their generational influences. Like the abuela, when she sings it sounds likes ballads and boleros because that is the music of her time, but when Usnavi and Benny speak they use hip-hop because that is the music of our time, of our generation. I was really just trying to get it to sound as much like Washington Heights as possible while still pushing the narrative along.
Were you inspired by any of the other musicals to come before In the Heights with Latino themes? How is your play different?
RENT really inspired me because it was a contemporary musical; it was just about real people living their lives now in the moment. I related to the story about artists trying to figure out how to make a living since I knew I wanted to be an artist but I also knew I didn’t want to be broke. I pretty much picked up my pen and started writing after that. West Side Story is still the best that musical theatre can get in my opinion- the mix of story, music & dance just can’t be beat. Watching the song “America” in the movie was huge for me and really inspired me. As far as The Capeman is concerned you know 3 of my musical heroes are Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades and Paul Simon. I don’t really think they are capable of writing bad music. But the themes in The Capeman broke my heart because there we were again; Puerto Ricans as knife wielding murderers. The music stirred my soul but the subject matter didn’t. I wanted to capture the Latino experience without the violence, because I felt like that had already been seen and I was thinking, “So, what’s next?” I think in a way I was trying to fix The Capeman when I started writing In the Heights.
Did you ever expect this kind of reception?
No! I’ve been really gratified to see both Latino & mainstream audiences embrace the musical. I’ve even had old Jewish women who have lived up in the Heights for years come up to me and tell me that they can relate because that really is how the neighborhood was. You know, the immigrant experience is a universal American experience. Latinos are just the latest chapter in this story. With all the immigration debates going on, it’s like with this musical I’m saying, “Hey! We’re people too. We’re the same as your grandparents when they came.” All of us have parents and grandparents who want us to do better than they did and this show speaks to that.
How has your life changed with the success of this play?
I lost my nights to a dream come true! (laughing) The biggest change has actually been dietary; I used to have a terrible diet and would eat a personal pan pizza before going on stage and then wonder why I was feeling like I was going to pass out! Off Broadway, I learned that I really have to take care of myself, eat right and sleep 8 hours. Rappers don’t even have this kind of crazy schedule! We have 8 shows a week, 6 nights and 2 matinees. Other than that everything else is the same…Well, the house is a bit bigger, oh! and I have my own dressing room now which is nice. I told the Daily News that the greatest gift I could give the cast is my own dressing room because that means I have my own bathroom now! (laughing)
Do you have any advice for aspiring Latino actors and playwrights?
Pick up a PEN! I think that I realized my sophomore year that there wasn’t going to be a lot of work for me unless I wrote my own material. I think we’re in a golden age for Latinos in the arts right now. It started with film and now you can see it progressing to publishing too with Junot Diaz, who wrote what I consider the great American novel. In terms of theatre, we can’t really expect people to just hand us opportunities, our job is to pick up our pens and write the kind of stuff that we want to see. Kids in the audience get so excited when they see their own country’s flag on the stage. That is the absolute best thing for me, just seeing their eyes get as wide as saucers. My advice is to start writing and doing what it is you want to do!
In the Heights is in previews now, playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street. For tickets visit www.ticketmaster.com