Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” innovated Broadway before “Hamilton”

Lauren Clarke, Editor-in-Chief

The Illinois High School Theater Festival, recently located at University of Illinois the second weekend of January, annually presents an All-State show with performers and a crew from all over the state. High school students and teachers interested in theater across Illinois attend the event and view the All-State show. the For 2019, the All-State performance was “In the Heights,” a show written and originally performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda on Broadway.


Miranda is more commonly credited as the creator of the award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton” and the songwriter of Disney’s “Moana.” He’s currently performing as Alexander Hamilton in the touring production of “Hamilton” in Puerto Rico to raise funds to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria. Before that, he starred in Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” as Jack.


“In the Heights” is often overlooked when naming Miranda’s achievements. Miranda began writing the show his sophomore year at Wesleyan University and it was his first show on Broadway. When it was on Broadway in 2008, the show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four including best musical and best original score.


“[Miranda] was a younger writer who was establishing himself as a composer at the time,” drama teacher Beth Wells said. “I don’t know that the music lives up to what ‘Hamilton’ does, but I think that the story is very real and compelling.”


“In the Heights” is based off a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. It’s the story of the vibrant community Washington Heights, the intimate relationships and a winning lottery ticket. Usnavi, the main character, originally played by Miranda, owns a bodega in the neighborhood, and as the neighborhood goes through hardships the audience learns what it means to find your home. The musical style of the whole show is primarily hip hop and rap, but there’s also Latin influences and a more modern Broadway style.


“The show didn’t originally get the recognition it deserved because not everyone shared a passion or interest for Washington Heights,” junior Abbey Finn said. “Although the music was fit for the modern age, people were unsure of the new approach to musical theater.”


Although there were other musicals on Broadway that have hints of hip hop and rap, Miranda was the first to write a musical that uses these genres of music. “Hamilton” is most often credited with bringing this new genre of musical to mainstream pop culture, but “In the Heights” was the original hip hop musical.


“‘In the Heights’ has so many different styles of music put into one musical,” senior Kayce Drevline said. “It feels a little disjointed, so maybe that’s why it didn’t gain as much momentum as ‘Hamilton.’”


As Miranda continuously grows as both a writer and performer, it’s evident in his work that he isn’t forgetting where he started. Not only does he continue to use his platform to pave the way for equality by taking part in social activism and public services, but since “In the Heights” he uses his writing to point out social injustices. Miranda has become synonymous with audiences from a variety of backgrounds, and his writing reflects that. “In the Heights” focuses on stories of immigrants and a neighborhood threatened by financial crisis.


Over the years, Miranda’s been able to use his music to bring real change to real people,” Finn said. “He’s evolved from someone with great ambitions to someone with great actions.”


After ‘In the Heights’ was on Broadway, Miranda also wrote a 14 minute musical titled “21 Chump Street,” which was based on a true story he heard on the radio about a high school student who was arrested because he thought he was buying the girl he liked weed, but in reality it was an undercover cop in 2014. “21 Chump Street” is almost entirely hip hop and rap, and exemplifies Miranda’s writing style.


It seems that Miranda has told hundreds of stories, and he’s clearly not done as he finishes performing Hamilton in Puerto Rico. However, without “In the Heights,” the style and structure of “Hamilton” might not have changed how Broadway is viewed as more modern today.


“Miranda likes to tell stories. That’s what he’s been doing with Mary Poppins and Moana. These are stories that are so unique,” Wells said. “‘In the Heights’ was a unique story and it shows how [Miranda] has progressed in his writing over the years.”