Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t fit the traditional musical mold so he broke it

Javier Munoz and the cast of 'In the Heights' sing about their hopes for the future. The musical opens March 29.

Joan Marcus

Javier Munoz and the cast of "In the Heights" sing about their hopes for the future. The musical opens March 29.

  • What: "In the Heights" | Read the review
  • Where: Artis—Naples
  • Cost: $72
  • Age limit: 17+

Full event details »

‘In the Heights’

When: 8 p.m. Monday through April 2 and

2 p.m. April 3

Where: Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd.

Admission: $72

Information: 597-1900 or www.thephil.org

Lin-Manuel Miranda was an overnight sensation.

The musical he wrote and starred in, “In the Heights,” was instantly celebrated as a Broadway sensation. It was nominated for a whopping 13 Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical. Now Miranda is in the process of adapting his vision for the screen, in a film to be directed by musical wunderkind Kenny Ortega.

The national touring cast of the musical stops in Naples for a week of performances at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts from Monday until April 3.

The thing about overnight sensations is they rarely happen overnight. Miranda toiled for nearly a decade to get his vision off the ground. What started out as a 19-year-old sophomore’s college project at Wesleyan University, took another eight years before it saw the Great White Way. In between, Miranda was constantly tweaking, polishing and fine-tuning his dream.

“I actually was watching a video of the original production at Wesleyan the other day,” Miranda, 30, said. “It’s almost completely different. I had a good idea but I didn’t have the craft to pull it off.”

He worked with veteran Broadway producers, such as Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller, who had helped push other atypical musicals, “Rent” and “Avenue Q,” to great success.

In a way, Miranda is proof that having a great idea is much more important than having the skill to pull it off. To put it in basketball terms, you can teach someone to have a good jump shot but you can’t teach height.

Perhaps it’s surprising, given Broadway’s Latin influence goes back at least to “West Side Story,” it took someone so long to incorporate such a strong Latin flavor into a musical. But “In the Heights” went further than that. Well-versed in music as diverse as merengue and hip-hop, Miranda incorporated the sounds that would be native to his characters rather than imposing a specific genre on the whole production.

“It wasn’t necessarily intentional,” he says. “I was working with the music that was natural to me. This is the sound from 173rd to 183rd in Manhattan. It’s a mix of hip-hop and Latin music. I wanted it to sound very natural for those characters.”

So of course Abuela Claudia sings an “old-school Cuban mambo” because that’s the music of her time. But the main character Usnavi, played first by Miranda on stage, is a hip-hop guy.

If you are expecting “Oklahoma” you are going to be disoriented to say the least. For Miranda, there wasn’t a choice but to write a musical that fit his skill set. If he wanted to be a leading man, he was going to have to write himself a leading part.

“I can’t dance well enough to be Bernardo,” he says of the “West Side Story” character he played in high school because he was “the only Puerto Rican in the class.”

It was a challenge for him to give up playing Usnavi on Broadway. In many ways the character was an extension of himself. But Miranda knew it would be handed over to more-than-capable actors and if he wanted to move on in his writing, there was no way to play one character eight times a week and write others at the same time.

In his down time, he took on a role in the two-hour season opener of “House,” playing the manic foil to Hugh Laurie’s institutionalized doctor. In every respect, he is now more famous for that 120 minutes of TV than he will ever be for writing a Tony-winning musical or playing a lead on Broadway.

But that’s OK.

“ ‘In the Heights’ would have to play on Broadway for 100 years before as many people could see that as people who watched that one episode of TV,” he says.

But he’s hoping to overwhelm America with other projects until they know him by his complete body of work. He recently rewrote “West Side Story” for a Spanish-language production. He’s working on adaptations for a “Bring It On” musical and the “Heights” movie.

“It’s really exciting to bring that world into 3-D,” he says, then rethinks the connotation of that last sentence. “Not like ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but well, you never know.”

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