Let’s quickly set the stage for March 9, 2008. The bass-thumping club favorite “Low” by Flo Rida topped the music charts in the US. The #1 game (a Wii exclusive!) was Ubisoft’s Brothers in Arms: Double Time. TVs across the country were tuned in to Oprah’s Big Give, the one-season wonder that gamified generosity. George W. Bush was the president of the United States.
But in New York City, a different GWB was ruling the day at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street. Buzz had been building about its latest show’s opening night. Buzz, that is to say, had been building for years about this bombastic Latin score and its boundlessly earnest and energetic wunderkind composer. With the wind at its back that chilly Sunday evening, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (US/UK) was about to make Washington Heights the talk of the town.
In honor of In the Heights’ 15-year Broadway anniversary – and in no particular order – here are 15 fun facts and tidbits about the show, its development and its remarkable creators.
1. “Lots of tests, lots of papers.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda began writing In the Heights in his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in 1999. Even at just 19 years old, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ambition was set firmly in the world of musical theatre. He’d written short musicals in high school, but after seeing Jonathan Larson’s game-changing RENT, he felt called to write his own full-length piece. Instead of rock music, hip-hop. Instead of Life Cafe and a squatter’s apartment in the Lower East Side, a corner bodega and Abuela’s stoop in Washington Heights.
2. “En Washington Heights!”
The opening number’s catchy button is the only lyric from the show that has survived from its first draft. Other songs lost to rewriting process involve a harrowing ballad by Benny’s abused mother – herself a casualty of earlier drafts – called “Never Give Your Heart Away.” Musically, the kernels for the Broadway version were all there. The audition notices for the 2000 Wesleyan production noted a score ranging from “pop to salsa to hip-hop and back.” That, paired with Lin’s trademark effusiveness: “I love you guys already, just for reading this. Ah love.”
3. “Just make it up as you go. We are improvisando.”
In its original version, In the Heights was about a love triangle between Benny, Nina and her brother, an aspiring songwriter named Lincoln. In that version, Nina went to Yale rather than Stanford, and Lincoln was a closeted gay man in love with Benny.
4. “And listen up, we got a special guest!”
While it was not necessarily Lin’s aim to specifically address the lack of Latino representation on the musical stage, the goal was to write the story he always wanted to write, filled with characters that felt true to his life. Less Bernardo from West Side Story and more Morales from A Chorus Line. As fate would have it, that same Morales would take her bows with the original Broadway cast of In the Heights: legendary actress Priscilla Lopez as Camila Rosario, Nina’s devoted mother. In her early career, Priscilla had been asked to change her last name, but she rightly refused, countering that her family had sacrificed so much for that same name. She was a cherished part of the In the Heights family and a role model to actors of color for her fiery authenticity, professionalism and talent.
5. Para siempre.
The voice of the cantante de bolero on Camila’s favorite scratched vinyl belongs to the first person to audition for ITH: Doreen Montalvo. Doreen played Abuela Claudia at the Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in 2005. She enjoyed her Broadway debut with the show in 2008 as part of the ensemble. The 2021 film of In the Heights is dedicated to her memory.
6. “I hope you’re writing this down, I’m gonna test ya later.”
To make ends meet while writing the show, Lin substitute taught at his childhood alma mater, Hunter College High School. One of his tweets reads: “I was a ‘whichever teacher is sick’ substitute for five years. While writing In the Heights.” He specialized in English, but it’s a fun thought experiment to imagine Lin explaining the Pythagorean Theorem to a room of sleepy seventh graders – perhaps in rhyme? He was eventually offered a coveted full-time position at the school, but it would have been to the detriment of his writing – if only for the time he would be able to dedicate to it. Thankfully, at the advice of his father Luis, he declined the offer and stayed the course towards Broadway.
7. “Every day is different, so I’m switchin’ up the beat.”
In The Heights book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes joined the creative team in 2004. Based on her own experiences as her immediate family’s first college graduate, and her experiences in a mixed-culture home, she refocused the musical’s book while Lin focused on composing. With their collaboration, the show grew to what we know today: a celebration of community.
8. “New block of ice!”
In the final weeks of tech rehearsal before the Broadway run, Lin, Quiara and Co. were discussing difficulties with Act 2. With the plot very much driven by the sudden death of the community matriarch and family fights, they needed something to maintain the show’s buoyancy that the fireworks display at the close of Act 1 had promised. “How about the Piragua guy?” He’d gotten laughs earlier in the show with his joyous towel snap and his shade against Mr. Softee. Within that Equity-mandated ten-minute break, the writing team had concocted a victorious reprise. The show got the morale boost it needed, and our second favorite Washington Heights small business owner won the day. Wepa!
9. “Ay Mamá. What do you do when your dreams come true?”
In the Heights was nominated for 19 Tony Awards and won 4, including Best Musical. Andy Blankenbueler took home the coveted trophy for Best Choreography. Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman won for Best Orchestrations. For the Best Score win, Lin-Manuel Miranda famously rapped his acceptance speech, both name-dropping and referencing the work of his lyricist idol and inspiration. “Mr. Sondheim, look, I made a hat where there never was a hat! It’s a Latin hat, at that!”
10. “Dollars? Holler.”
The day after the Tony Awards, In the Heights sold a record number of tickets. The Broadway cast’s electrifying performance at the Tony Awards clearly inspired the masses to grab a ticket to the best show in town, to the tune of one million dollars in ticket sales in a single day. That’s quite a bit more than $96,000!
11. “I don’t go out, I get so busy with the store.”
A week after Lin’s graduation from Wesleyan University, In the Heights found a new development home when Lin visited with Thomas Kail at the Drama Book Shop on West 40th Street in Manhattan. Kail’s theatre company, Back House Productions, was the company in residence in the bookstore’s unassuming basement space. Lin and Thomas, joined by producer Jeffrey Seller and theatre owner James L. Nederlander, would later pay it forward by purchasing and reviving the legendary bookstore at it a new location one block south on 39th.
12. “And I drop this hip-hop.”
As an opening night gift, the producers gave everyone charcoal drawings of the cast of characters in Anna Louizos’s evocative set, complete with the lovers on the fire escape and the towering George Washington Bridge. For his gift, Lin-Manuel Miranda made individualized mix CDs for his entire cast and crew. “It’s good to make mixes [and] spend your day thinking about other people.”
13. “And how do you say kiss me?”
The enduring tale of neighborhood-as-family has been performed across the globe and translated into over a dozen languages – and counting. Do yourself the favor of YouTubing “In the Heights Japanese” if you want to be inspired by the universality of music and community. Whether Usnavi is singing about heim, hjem, hogar or 家, it’s always about Home.
14. “¡Calor, calor, calor!”
At the close of its run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, In the Heights had played 29 previews and 1,184 performances. With four Tonys, a Grammy and a Pulitzer nod, the show’s success rocketed its creator to household-name status and essentially assured a blank check from producers for any future Broadway ventures.
15. “I found my island, I’ve been on it this whole time. I’m home!”
The show went full circle in November 2014, when it opened at Wesleyan University. The show’s director, Claudia Tatinge Nascimento, noted that the 2014 Wesleyan cast was comprised of international students as well as some students that grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood. They all went into auditions fully familiar and in love with the book and score. “It’s also nice to think that [Lin] graduated in 2002 — that In the Heights, at least for Wesleyan students, is not a phase. It has really remained in the collective memory. It’s something that is very alive for the students.”
Later that month, Lin would go into the first round of rehearsals for his next musical.
But that’s another story.
Header Image: 2008 Broadway production of In the Heights (Joan Marcus)