'In the Heights' a musical for the multicultural era

Fox hosts 6-day run of Tony winner that's called an instant classic

Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up on the northern tip of Manhattan listening to Broadway show tunes that his Puerto Rican parents loved (think “Man of La Mancha”) and hip-hop CDs that he ripped off from his older sister. (De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were early favorites.)

He saw “Rent” at 17 — and decided then that he would never be the lawyer his father wanted him to be.

“I suddenly saw this show that was about how I pictured my life in five or 10 years,” Miranda says. “It really spoke to me on a gut level. That was why I stopped being in musicals and started writing musicals.”

His first effort was “In the Heights.”

Written while Miranda was a theater major at Wesleyan University, the show features an “emotionally autobiographical,” street-smart rapper named Usnavi and captures the bittersweet yearnings of a Hispanic community straddled between the old and new worlds.

After several years of rewrites and the backing of “Rent” producers Jill Furman and Kevin McCollum, “In the Heights” arrived on Broadway in 2008. With a new book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the show won Broadway’s top honor — the Tony Award for best new musical — and Miranda, then 28, picked up a Tony for his inventive, salsa-and-meringue-inflected score.

On Tuesday, the first national tour of “In the Heights” stops at the Fox Theatre for a six-day run. Miranda, who left the Broadway ensemble in February after playing Usnavi for a year, has been involved in getting the tour on its feet, and Universal Pictures has acquired the rights for a film version.

Every decade or so, Broadway produces a classic — a show that somehow captures the energy and mood of a changing America. “Hair” defined the Vietnam era of the ’60s. “A Chorus Line” encapsulated the changing sexual attitudes of the ’70s. “Rent” chronicled the anxiety and despair of the AIDS era.

“In the Heights” celebrates the immigrant experience and coincides with the election of America’s first black president and its first Latina Supreme Court justice.

It’s a joyous tale about three days in the life of Washington Heights during a record-setting July heatwave. But along with the fireworks and piraguas (frozen ices), the stolen kisses and beauty parlor gossip, there are challenges and conflicts. The character Nina has lost her scholarship from Stanford University. Her Puerto Rican parents are struggling to keep their taxi service afloat and are disappointed that she has fallen in love with a black man. Usnavi’s bodega gets looted, and his surrogate grandmother plays the lottery, hoping to win enough money to move back to the Caribbean.

“I am always a believer that we need positive stories about all cultures,” McCollum says. “It’s very easy structure to create crime drama and people hurting each other. Real artistry is to create stories in which communities come together and make the world a better place.”

At its core, “In the Heights” is about the conflicts of trying to negotiate the traditions of two different cultures. Like Nina in the musical, Miranda says he often dreamed of how his life might have been different if his parents had stayed in Puerto Rico.

It wasn’t until he got to Wesleyan that he realized he was part of a wave of first-generation Latinos who felt split between two cultures and languages. Some of them thought they didn’t fit in either place, he says. “Or they felt like they had two different selves: the one at home and the one for everybody else.”

Living with a group of Latinos his sophomore year, Miranda found his voice and his community — and began to write “In the Heights.” When McCollum first heard the piece at a reading in the early 2000s, he found it scattershot and unfocused. But there was this comedic character named Usnavi who sounded like the real thing. Usnavi was named for the first ship his parents saw in the New York Harbor. It said, “U.S. Navy.”

“I knew that was the guy who wrote what I was seeing,” McCollum remembers. “That was Lin-Manuel Miranda.”

When Miranda told the producer that he had been deeply influenced by “Rent,” McCollum suggested: “Well, don’t write your own version of ‘Rent.’ Write your own version of you.’ “

Hudes — author of “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” and “26 Miles,” which premiered at the Alliance this year, was hired in 2004 to create the libretto. Miranda says they got along like “long-lost relatives” and credits Hudes with helping him streamline the story.” When she read the script, we started telling stories about our childhood and we were telling the same stories,” Miranda says. “She grew up in north Philadelphia and I grew up in northern Manhattan, but they were essentially the same stories.”

Recently, Miranda had an experience that must have been as gratifying as winning the Tony.

Just a few days after Justice Sonia Sotomayor had been confirmed by the Senate, the composer and his lawyer-girlfriend saw the new justice in the back of a Manhattan restaurant, having dinner with a friend. He eventually worked up enough nerve to approach Sotomayor, a daughter of Puerto Rican parents who grew up in the Bronx. “I was like, ‘Hi. I’m Lin. I wrote “In the Heights”.’ ” Her response: “I’ve seen it three times.”

“If anyone is Nina, it’s Sotomayor,” Miranda said. “Anytime I would see a picture of [the justice] with her mom, or walking with her mom, I would start bawling because I think we all relate to that pressure we have to do better on behalf of our parents.”


"In the Heights" 8 p.m. Nov. 3-8. 2 p.m. Saturday. 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday. $18-$55. Presented by Broadway Across America-Atlanta, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-982-2787, ticketmaster.com