‘In the Heights’ 10 Years Later: From ‘Vague Promises’ to a Broadway Smash (Exclusive)

When Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the initial draft of his first musical, In the Heights, it was an 80-minute, one-act show with music that sounded like a hip-hop version of Rent combined with Marc Anthony. It was 1999 and Miranda was a sophomore in college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, itching to write his “dream show” because he wanted a “life in musicals.”

“The version was not for credit. I just really needed to write it,” Miranda told ET following a celebration of the musical at BroadwayCon at the Javits Center in New York City, where members of the original cast and crew reunited 10 years after the show opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on March 9, 2008.

The winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, In the Heights follows a bodega owner (Miranda) and other residents of a largely Hispanic American community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan over the course of three days. The original cast included Mandy Gonzalez, Christopher Jackson, Karen Olivo, Priscilla Lopez, Janet Dacal, Andréa Burns, Carlos Gomez, Olga Merediz, Robin de Jesús, Eliseo Román and Seth Stewart.

Following a big showcase on campus, Miranda put his first draft in a drawer and let it sit there for two years after getting “vague promises” from friends of friends, saying they’d reach out once they’d started their own production company. “Who on Earth makes good on a promise like that?” he joked. Sure enough, they did. “They came to see my senior thesis and I met Tommy Kail for the first time the week after I graduated. The fact that we clicked so immediately was the greatest luck of my life.”

Three years later, In the Heights premiered in 2005 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, before moving Off-Broadway to 37 Arts Theatre in 2007. It then ran on Broadway for 29 previews and 1,184 performances before closing on Jan. 9, 2011.

Like Kail, who was the musical’s director, the production marked the first time Miranda partnered with composer Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. All four worked together on Hamilton, which also saw many members of the original Heights cast reuniting with Miranda. “The hardest part about this business is finding collaborators who are on the same page, and I found that really early,” boasted Miranda. “That was the head start -- finding someone who understands what you’re making.” When it came down to making music edits, the show’s book writer, Quiara Alegría Hudes, who joined the creative team in 2004, says Miranda worked best under pressure. “Every time [Lin] got story notes, he would write a new song,” she quipped.

One song was written at three in the morning before a workshop performance later that day. “Piragua (Reprise)” was conceived on a 10-minute break during tech rehearsals on Broadway. But there were dozens of other songs Miranda wrote at various stages of the show’s development that never made it into the final version, including a solo for Jackson’s Benny. “That song exists because Chris was like, ‘Where’s my Act II solo?’ for, like, three years,” Miranda teased.

The first piece of music Miranda ever wrote for the show, surprisingly, never made it to the final cut. “It was a song about Benny coming out of his own Jean-Claude Van Damme movie and how cool that movie was,” Miranda said, revealing that the first set of lyrics he wrote that has any DNA in the Broadway version was the phrase “In Washington Heights.” When Miranda first wrote those five notes, he said, “Nina was coming home from Yale [which was later changed to Stanford] on Metro North. The lyrics eventually became part of the opening number and title song ‘In the Heights’ and sung by the company.”

While Miranda was unknown at the time, many of the actors recalled the same energy exuded by the creator when they met him at auditions in the basement of Manhattan’s Drama Book Shop. “It was electric in the room. I had never seen anyone like Lin,” remembered Gonzalez, who played Nina. “I knew I wanted to be a part of it forever.” Broadway veteran Lopez (Camilla) had just finished another show when she was given a CD with some songs. “Before I knew it, I was in love hearing the music,” she said. Merediz, who played Abuela Claudia, was confused when she first learned of the show. “My agent called me and said, ‘It’s a show...they’re rappers.’ I said, ‘Rapping? What do you mean rapping?’” But Olivo (Vanessa) was in awe on Day 1. “When I heard the music, I was like, ‘Who’s letting this dude do this?’ He was a superhero in my head.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda posing for the 'Los Angeles Times' on Feb. 20, 2008. Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“As soon as Karen walked in with her hair down to here like she owned the place, that was it,” Miranda said, adding: “There was no shortage of talent. There was no shortage of talent of people of color. I have five companies of Hamilton to prove it.”

Many in the cast felt their roles mirrored their personal lives. “‘Brave’ was such a personal song, because the whole character I knew so well,” Gonzalez said of playing Nina, the first in her family to go to college who then gets kicked out. “Being the first in my family to leave my hometown and do better -- to sing that every night was kind of like therapy for me.” Jackson admits he was living every aspect of Benny’s life. “Along the way, [Benny] raised himself and he and his friends raised each other. That was all happening in real time.”

“Vanessa was who I was during that time,” Olivo remembered. “I [came] from a bad home and being poor. I always wanted something more and bigger than what people told me I could have. Each night was a little bit of that. [The creative team] would see me come into rehearsals and say, ‘That is what Vanessa would do except she’d be in heels and a short skirt.’”

While a film adaptation originally being produced by the Weinstein Company is no longer in the works, Miranda said “that will happen when it happens,” revealing that a screen version has been stalled since 2008. “That’s one of those [things where] I will tell you when I walk into a set and no sooner.”

In the meantime, a reincarnation on stage is not an impossible idea. “I’d like to see a revival of it at some point, but not with me in it. I’m too old, but I’d love to see that,” Miranda told ET. “I think we will feel when the time is right for that.”

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