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PREVIEW: In the Heights Rises (Ordway)

The cast of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts/Teatro del Pueblo production of In the Heights.

The musical Hamilton is such a cultural juggernaut that it’s brought a lot of non-traditional audiences to the altar of musical theatre. Such is its publicity that many regular theatregoers assume that its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda simply burst on the scene with the show’s snappy script, flowing raps, and hiphop beats. Talk to Hamilton fans and you might never know that Lin-Manuel Miranda also wrote a Tony Award-winning musical called In the Heights.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s in-flight reading: Ron Chernew’s biography Alexander Hamilton.

That blindspot is doubly unfortunate because the story of In the Heights is deeply intertwined with the genesis of Hamilton. Miranda began writing In the Heights as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, finishing the first draft in 1999 (his sophomore year). After Second Stage (a student theatre company at Wesleyan) accepted it for production, he started to add more overtly “ethnic” music like salsa and rap as the story grew and evolved. So began a near-decade-long process that culminated in the show’s opening on Broadway in 2008.

A trademark of Miranda’s style is that he writes roles that capitalize on his many talents, often leaving large dramatic and musical shoes to fill. When he took the stage to star in In the Heights, that left little time for other endeavors like composition. During a rare vacation, he decided to sneak in a vacation to Mexico. In the airport, a copy of Ron Chernew’s nonfiction book Alexander Hamilton caught his eye. A few chapters in, Lin-Manuel Miranda was already thinking of how to adapt the real-life story of the founding father for Broadway.

With one show in his head and a new story on his mind, it’s not surprising that many of the same musical and stylistic threads from In the Heights run through Hamilton. Many of the cast members from In the Heights also went on to star in Hamilton, with Miranda crafting roles that showcased their specific talents.

College Stage to Center Stage

When he started writing Hamilton, Miranda was already starring in a hit Broadway musical that he’d written. Well, mostly written. Back in 2000, the first public iteration of In the Heights played at Second Stage; Miranda had penned the book, music, and lyrics himself – a mammoth task for any writer, much less one who was also starring in it. After graduation, Miranda continued to work with a team of producers to refine the piece for Broadway, ultimately joining forces with playwright and composer Quiara Alegría Hudes to produce a new book that unified the show. (Her Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.)

With the writing partnership thus reinforced, In the Heights was developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Music Theater Conference in 2005, a 4-month Off-Broadway run in 2007, and finally opening officially on Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 9, 2008. The Off-Broadway production racked up 9 Drama Desk Award nominations and 2 wins; the Broadway production won a Grammy Award and 4 Tony Awards.

The story of In the Heights is something of a neighborhood tale. All of the action takes place in a tightly-knit neighborhood in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood – the neighborhood that Lin-Manuel Miranda had grown up in, as a matter of fact. At the time, Washington Heights was rapidly gentrifying, with shifting ethnic diversity, long-time residents being priced out, and tight-knit communities grappling with change (something that continues today). Miranda and Hudes closely knit these themes into the narrative of In the Heights, where they drive many key events in the story.

A promotional image for In the Heights showing the iconic George Washington Bridge in the background and Lin-Manuel Miranda in the foreground. Lin-Manuel Miranda will not, however, be appearing in the Ordway production.

The creative team for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts production of In the Heights includes Eugenio A. Vargas (musical direction), Anna Louizos (scenic design), Jesse Cogswell (lighting design), Andy Horka (sound design), Trevor Bowen (costume design), Robert A. Dunn (hair and make-up design), Rick Polenek (props design) and Reid Harmsen (casting).

The Ordway’s In the Heights is both directed and choreographed by Teatro del Pueblo Artistic Director Al Justiniano and Ordway Vice President of Programming and Producing Artistic Director James A. Rocco. In light of the show’s constant pulse of motion and plethora of Latin dance styles, it has both three additional associate choreographers – Alexander Gil Cruz, Giselle Mejia, and Ashley Selmer – and two assistant director-choreographers, Louise Madison & Lisa Bartholemew-Given.

In the Heights stars Pedro R. Bayon as Kevin, Brian Bose as Graffiti Pete, Debra Cardona as Abuela Claudia, Fernando Collado as Sonny, Justin Gregory Lopez as Usnavi (the role that Lin-Manuel Miranda originated on Broadway), Emily Madigan as Carla, Aline Mayagoitia as Nina, Val Nuccio as Vanessa, Lara Trujillo as Camila, Lauren Villegas as Daniela and Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny. The ensemble also includes Courtney Arango, Rush Benson, Alexander Gil Cruz, Renee Guittar, Patrick Charles Jeffrey, Abby Magalee, Giselle Mejia, Zander Morales, Jorge Quintero, Jen Santoro Rotty, Rudolph Searles III, Maureen Sherman-Mendez, and Adan Varela.

The Ordway presents In the Heights in collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo. The production opens September 12 and plays through September 24 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, MN.

Lin-Manuel Miranda Performs a Song from In the Heights at the 2008 Tony Awards

This article has been edited from its original version to add missing director and choreographer credits.

Basil Considine