The vision behind “In The Heights” comes to Swarthmore

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ana Rosado ‘12 lead a discussion in the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema about “In the Heights” and Latinos in the United States. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ana Rosado ‘12 lead a discussion in the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema about “In the Heights” and Latinos in the United States. (Julia Carleton/The Phoenix)

Many students come to Swarthmore with driving passions — to explore the sciences, to debate, to play an instrument. But one of the goals of a liberal arts curriculum is for students to sample a wide array of fields and departments, so that they can define what truly interests them. Students graduate not just with a degree but with an idea of what they want to pursue for the rest of their lives. In 2002, a Wesleyan University student graduated with all of that — plus a play on Broadway.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who visited Swarthmore on Thursday, September 29, began writing “In the Heights” when he was a 19-year-old sophomore at Wesleyan. In a packed Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema, Miranda, along with organizer Ana Rosado ’12, Professor Luciano Martínez and Dean Rafael Zapata, talked about “In the Heights” and Latinos in the United States before taking questions from the audience.

Miranda described his start as a writer and actor, performing in several high school plays and even writing a few twenty-minute plays of his own. It was not until college, however, that he was inspired to write about his home. “When I started writing, I was just writing a story,” Miranda said. “As the show developed, I was conscious of how Latinos have been portrayed on stage. There were things I didn’t want to represent — for example, Latinos and crime … I wanted it to feel honest to my experience growing up in a Latino neighborhood.”

“In the Heights” describes three days in Washington Heights, an area of New York known for its Dominican population and explores themes of community and questions what the idea of “home” really means. The play opened on Broadway in March 2008 and was nominated for thirteen Tony Awards, winning four for Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Orchestrations and Best Original Score. “In the Heights” was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009, with Lin-Manuel Miranda having written the music and lyrics as well as played the part of Usnavi, one of the main characters. “He’s one of my heroes. He was not afraid to do exactly what he wanted to do. Even though he was writing for Broadway he managed to tell a story that was meaningful to him in a way that was meaningful to him,” said Claire Graham 2014, a member of Enlace, after the talk.

After writing the play, Miranda and two other Wesleyan students — John Mailer and director Thomas Kail, assembled a cast. They picked Miranda to play Usnavi, a character named by his parents after a US Navy ship they saw as they entered the United States for the first time. “I chose the name Usnavi because his parents gave him the most American name possible and he’s still crazy Dominican … [this] represents his parents’ aspirations for him. [Usnavi] is a guy who is so happy to get to where he was all this time, which resonates with me and my childhood,” Miranda said.

One striking element of “In the Heights” is the combination of styles: musical, dance, and even of languages. Characters speak English and Spanish, switching between languages rapidly and authentically. “[In the Heights] was remarkable because the characters spoke the way [Latinos] do in everyday life. Their speech reflects their experience of community, of home,” Assistant Dean Zapata and Director of the Intercultural Center said.

Miranda described his acceptance speech at the Tony Awards as one of the most memorable moments of his life. He pulled a Puerto Rican flag out of his pocket, reflecting his identity and connection to home. Following the Broadway production, “In the Heights” toured Puerto Rico to critical acclaim. “To have the play received very well in Puerto Rico was a dream come true,” Miranda said. “I would come out with the flag every night. For me, having grown up away from home, [the recognition] was overwhelming on a personal and professional level.”

The conversation as well as the audience question and answer session afterwards helped students, many of whom had seen “In the Heights,” develop a deeper understanding of the play. “When he came and spoke, he spoke about how closely [the play] paralleled his personal experiences and how much thought went into it. It became more than just a fun show — it became an examination of life in New York City seen through a less harsh lens. [For me] the show became far more subtle and more realistic,” Graham said.

The show and the talk both highlighted the diversity and multiple definitions of identity for Latinos. “The term Latino is an umbrella for different languages, historical diversity where there are many ways of showing different circumstances of Latinos in America,” Martínez said. “People who came [to the United States] in different times have different understandings of identity. “

“In the Heights” aimed to reconcile some differences.“I don’t consider myself a political writer,” said Miranda. “My goal is to make the audience happy and joyful. Any comedian can make you laugh by making fun and drawing lines separating people. It’s harder to draw a Venn diagram of what we have in common.”

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