It was lights up on Washington Heights in New York City on Friday, when Lin-Manuel Miranda and other members of the In the Heights Broadway cast gathered to mark the musical’s 10th anniversary.
Miranda — who created and starred in the Tony-winning In the Heights before going on to create another little musical called Hamilton — was joined by Heights book writer Quiara A. Hudes and costars including Christopher Jackson (Benny), Karen Olivo (Vanessa), Mandy Gonzalez (Nina), Olga Merediz (Abuela Claudia), and Javier Munoz (original ensemble, Usnavi), for a conversation moderated by Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda, at the third annual BroadwayCon.
In the Heights follows Usnavi (Miranda), a bodega owner, and other residents who live alongside him — many of them immigrants or children of immigrants — in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights. The musical premiered on Broadway in 2008 and won four Tony Awards, including best musical and one for Miranda’s score.
During the nearly hour-long conversation, the cast reflected on how they came to be a part of the hit musical, singing songs that didn’t make the final cut (Miranda even went over to an onstage piano at one point to play one, as Jackson sung along) and discussing the parts of the show that were most meaningful for them.
After the panel, Miranda spoke to EW about a decade of In the Heights, marking the show’s anniversary amid the current political climate around immigration, and which song from Hamilton could head uptown to the Heights.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to be celebrating 10 years of In the Heights?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: For me, it’s an anniversary I celebrate every day because Quiara, my co-writer, is my neighbor and her daughter was born — Quiara’s water broke with her first child like, an hour after we froze the show Off-Broadway [laughs]. What’s wonderful is the reunion and actually being back with this cast. We spent so much time together — not just the typical year you spend on Broadway but years workshopping. Janet [Dacal] and Chris have been with this since it started. And so, it felt like family.
One of the things that came up during the panel was the community the show created, and these characters, which must feel very meaningful.
Absolutely. What’s amazing is how it’s only continued to grow. I get messages from productions of In the Heights all over the world. That’s wild to me! I’ll never forget the first time I read in, like, a YouTube comment, ‘I played Benny in class and there was a Nina and we kissed and everyone looked!’ [Laughs] Just the fact that there are these seminal moments for people, because my high school shows were Godspell and Pirates of Penzance, A Chorus Line, West Side Story, and I know every note [of them], you know what I mean? They’re just a part of you growing up and I’m just happy it’s in that phase of its life.
It’s interesting to be talking about this show today amid all the current debate happening around immigration. Does that strike you at all, talking about this now with that in the background?
Well, Sonny’s rap in [the song] “$96,000” has only grown more prophetic. It’s literally, “politicians be hatin’ / racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant,” and everything he said has only gotten worse. It’s crazy. But it’s all the more reason to celebrate immigration being one of the best stories we tell as a country, the fact that you can come here from somewhere else and if you work hard, you can make a better life here. And In the Heights is many different permutations of that story.
This is a topic that came up a lot when Hamilton came to Broadway as well.
Yeah. It keeps popping up in my work because I think I’m in awe of it. I’m in awe of people who can uproot everything they know and make a new life somewhere and I think if you can do it, it’s to be rewarded and it’s to be celebrated and I always seek to do that in my work because I’m in awe of it.
Do you have any favorite moments or songs that stand out to you from the course of the run?
“Carnaval” is really special. One of the things I was gonna mention [during the panel] but we didn’t have time was “Alabanza.” My grandmother, who was the basis for the character Abuela Claudia, passed away this past Christmas. So it’s weird that I wrote her eulogy many years before she died. But I remember bringing that song in for the first time, and I remember Karen trying to hide her crying, like, “F— you dude! What are you doing to us?” [laughs] in that way that means, “I love you and I love this.” That was always very special to me, that was a moment where we really all got to check in as a company.
Were there any other moments when you’re looking back now that you’re like, “I can’t believe that happened!”
I can’t believe we did that club number every night. There’s nothing in Hamilton that’s as hard as the dancing in those numbers, and I’m very glad I survived them.
Which Hamilton songs do you think could fit into In the Heights, and vice versa?
Oh, damn! That’s a great question. I think that “When the Sun Goes Down” could fit into Hamilton pretty easily. That was the last song I wrote for Heights, so that’s why I see it on that continuum. And from Hamilton, I could see Sonny singing the s— out of “My Shot.”
Where do you think Usnavi would be now, 10 years on?
I think he’d still be there. He’d find a way to make that corner store beloved and celebrated. We just had a similar version of that story — Coogan’s, up in my neighborhood. It’s this neighborhood bar that opened in 1985. They were gonna raise the rent, and we all made a stink – one of rare stories like that that has a happy ending. I think Usnavi would figure out his version of that.