tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS January 28, 2017 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: his groundbreaking musical in the heights, about a vibrant latino community in northern manhattan skyrocketed him to fame. two tony awards and a grammy later, he's paving the way for more latino made productions on broadway-- composer, lyricist, and performer lin-manuel miranda. i'm maria hinojosa, this is one on one. lin-manuel miranda, welcome to our program. >> thank you for having me. >> hinojosa: so you're the lyricist, performer, and composer of the award winning in the heights on broadway which tells the story of this barrio, this neighborhood in northern manhattan, and it becomes this amazing musical of survival of
this community. and you started writing that when you were in college. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: so did you ever imagine, "yeah, it's going to end up on broadway," or was that just like an illusion? >> oh, i imagined it! ( laughing ) i mean, you wouldn't write it if you didn't feel like it was... it was worth something, but i imagined it in the way that you imagine being a jedi when you are three years old, you know? it's in the realm of possibility, and sure, maybe one day. but you know, i just... i knew that i wanted to write, i knew that i wasn't good at anything else, and i just... i knew there weren't enough musicals to keep me employed as a latino actor if i wanted to go into theater. and i... and i just sort of started writing everything i'd always wanted to see in a musical, musically speaking. just hip hop music and latin music and all the stuff i'd sort of grown up with. >> hinojosa: and you were able to translate that... what i love is that you had these images of
broadway, and you're able to take hip hop and salsa, and say, "yeah, yeah, yeah; it works on broadway." >> yeah, well, that was, you know, that was the gradual process of writing the show. but you know, in that first incredibly messy draft, i remember being in the audience and watching the audience sit up during the rap scenes when story was taking place and the characters were rapping to each other, and the audience literally sat bolt upright. and i said, "okay, well, this is new; this is something really interesting." >> hinojosa: so you weren't even sure of it at first in terms of the rapping on broadway? >> well, i didn't know if it would work in my show, much less on broadway-- in my little show at wesleyan. but when i first met with tommy kail, our director, one of the first things he said to me is, "the hip hop is the most exciting part of this, and the way you mix the hip hop and the latin music." and i had had that experience firsthand watching that first production at wesleyan. so you know, that was the beginning of a conversation that lasted eight years, and figuring out how to use it as another form of storytelling on stage. >> hinojosa: finding a director that you could trust... you
said, actually, that when you met your director, you realized that he knew this play, in a way, even better than you did. >> yeah. well, you know, it's interesting. i had... i wrote it and put it up my sophomore year, and then it was in a drawer for two years. and someone gave a copy to tommy kail, some mutual friends, john mailer and neil stewart. >> hinojosa: john mailer being the son of norman mailer. >> yes, and... and so he had two years with this cast album that i'd recorded, and he'd listened to it over and over. and so, you know, he... he said to me, "hi, we've just met but your third song needs to be first." ( laughing ) and luckily, you know, i think any young writer gets very precious about their material, but since it had... i'd had two year's distance on it i was like, "well, those are good ideas; what else do you have?" and that was the beginning of the process. >> hinojosa: the ability, though, to trust broadway to take this show-- well, off-broadway at first, right? >> oh, well, before that a basement in a bookshop. i mean, that's where..
>> hinojosa: that you would go to after... >> ...that's where tommy kail and i met. i mean, there were... it was literally a storeroom that they converted into a black box theater. it was being painted when we met in that basement. so this was not, "trust me to take it to broadway," this was, "i have some good ideas on how to make show better," and that's the mindset we always tried to stay in mind. we didn't worry about the end goal. we just said, "well, how can this be better and how can this be clearer?" and if you keep your eye on the rock in front of you, then that's... that's the way to get it done. >> hinojosa: now, the show actually continues to change, even... like, in other words, you... there are lots of things that you talk about in the show. you bring up gentrification, you bring up immigration. it's not at all a political show per se, ( speaking in spanish) >> well, a spoonful of sugar. >> hinojosa: you know? here and there, there's just like, a little political thing here and a little political thing here, and you're... is it constantly being adapted, because it's still on broadway? >> it's still on broadway, and it changes with every performer who comes with it. the text doesn't change much, but we also made a lot of little
changes when we rehearsed the touring production, as well. and what's fun is... is what different people bring to it. i... we now have... there are now eight people in the world who have played usna. >> hinojosa: no! >> yeah. >> hinojosa: eight people? >> eight people if you include understudies and swings. >> hinojosa: i'm sorry, but you know what? you will always be usnavi. >> well, thank you. >> hinojosa: i just... i mean, i know it has to happen, but it just breaks my heart to not see you in that central role. >> but for me, the joy is in watching new people adapt it and seeing what they bring, and you know, we're all... it's all very friendly. it's such a hard role to play. i mean, you are rapping for two and a half hours and you never leave the stage. >> hinojosa: and moving for two and a half hours. >> and moving and dancing and all of that. that... you know, we give each other tips. it's like a little survivor's club, and it's, "hey, i like the way corbin did that. i'm going to steal that next time i get to do it." >> hinojosa: but corbin is doing usnavi? >> corbin is playing usnavi. >> hinojosa: corbin is playing... corbin bleu... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...from high school musical fame. >> yeah, and you know, he originally came in to play benny, because he's not... >> hinojosa: right, right, right. >> ...he's not latino and he
came in to play benny, and he was so charming and so effortlessly charming that we said, you know, "i think this guy might be usnavi." >> hinojosa: oh! all right, people are probably saying, "what's that name-- usnavi, what's that?" so we have to tell. there might be some people who get it immediately. it's spelled u-s-n-a-v-i... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...but if you just spell it u-s-n-a-v-y... >> correct. >> hinojosa: ...it says... >> it's says "us navy," and his parents named him after the boat they saw when they first got to the united states. >> hinojosa: urban legend, or... >> urban legend, but also becoming a very popular name in florida with dominican and cuban communities. i heard the story from a friend who works in immigration, and i said, "well, that's too good." >> hinojosa: really? because i heard that story from someone who had nothing to do with... so it's true? >> no, it's becoming a thing. there's a great book called the dirty girl's social club by alisa valdes-rodriguez, and there's a female character named usnavys in that, and it's "us navy" with a y and an s at the end.
it's the feminized version. so it's really becoming a thing. >> hinojosa: and... and seeing someone like corbin bleu doing that role, for you... i mean, i know that what you say is you've got your nights back. >> yes! >> hinojosa: you get to go home at night. >> i sure do. >> hinojosa: because you were working for a full year. >> well, yeah. eight shows a week, your life becomes about being at your peak at 8:00 p.m., and 2:00 and 8:00 on the weekends, and i was finding i didn't have time to write anymore, because you're... you're just thinking about 8:00 p.m. all day. >> hinojosa: and so now you're writing? >> i'm writing like crazy. >> hinojosa: really? >> yeah. >> hinojosa: because you're kind of busy. >> ( laughing ) i'm incredibly busy! >> hinojosa: you're incredibly busy. >> yeah, which is great. >> hinojosa: you are... well, let's see. right after you were in the middle of finishing your role as usnavi, you started translating songs of west side story. >> yeah, i actually did that while i was doing usnavi, at the same time. >> hinojosa: and what i love is that even though your primary... your first language was english, and your parents always sent you back to puerto rico so you kept the spanish alive, and then now you're actually translating into
spanish. >> yes, and it was such an amazing process, and really, it was... for me, the fun was it was a bonding experience with my dad, because, you know, my dad moved here when he was 18 for school, and so he was the same age as these characters in west side story, although he came here for... under very different circumstances. but we learned a lot. i learned a lot of vocabulary from him; he learned how hard my job is in terms of writing lyrics. you know, he would... he would sit there with these thesauri and he would say, "well, what if we did, ( speaking gibberish)?" and i go, "that's great, dad, but that's 15 syllables and we have five, so we need to make it fit here." >> hinojosa: oh! >> and we were rhyming english with spanish, and so, you know, we had to find a rhyme for the word "size." en español, there's no... yeah. there about three words that do, so we have to find a word that rhymes with "size," we have eight syllables, and the sharks are singing it to the jets in the quintet. and so, you know, my dad... i remember my mom telling me, you know, "your dad has a whole new
appreciation for how difficult your job is because he's staying up at night trying to think of rhymes for 'size' in spanish." >> hinojosa: you... part of, i think, why this... this show has become so successful is because you kind of confront what a lot of young people are dealing with-- this kind of bifurcated existence. which is on the one hand, you are completely latino in your home-- in your barrio, in your neighborhood-- and then you leave and you went to a very high-performing public school... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...in manhattan, but it was like two different worlds. >> absolutely. i mean, i commuted to... to a low-middle class barrio, to the richest zip code in the country every day for school since kindergarten. you know, i would go from 200th street to 94th and park, and so i... i absorbed that schism so early that it wasn't until college and i stepped back from
it that i really gave myself permission to write about it. i'd written musicals before heights-- little one-act musicals in high school-- but i'd never written latin music before that. i didn't know that that was fair game to write about. in my sophomore year when i wrote the show, i lived in a latino program house at wesleyan with a bunch of other kids who were just like me-- who grew up with marc anthony and the thunder cats. and you know, it was the same american, but then our own special, you know, culture on the side and language on the side. and writing about that schism and getting to joke about that with friends-- it was the first time i had latino friends my age. because in puerto rico, i was the gringo who spoke a really badly-accented spanish. >> hinojosa: and you weren't quite accepted in puerto rico. >> no, i... no, not at all. >> hinojosa: you were a gringo... >> i was a gringo, i hung out with my grandparent's friends. i am... you know, when i go to puerto rico, i visit ( speaking spanish ) >> hinojosa: no! >> those were my friends, those were the people i hung out with, those were the stars of my first movies. and so... so yeah, so my sophomore year of college was
the first time i really had latino friends my age and we could make jokes about, you know, jerry rivera and transformers, you know? it's... and both those cultures. >> hinojosa: you know, it was interesting, because the reviews... wonderful reviews, but there were some people who said, "this is so not realistic. this is not what in the heights..." washington heights is a neighborhood that went through some rough times... >> absolutely. >> hinojosa: ...some serious rough times-- major drug dealing, turf battles, you know... >> i was there in the 1980s, i know all about it. >> hinojosa: it was rough. but people looked at your play and they were like, "well, this isn't true." and it's like, well, no, actually, when you were growing up, there was that, too. where it was a community, it was warm place, it was a welcoming place, it was a safe place. >> yeah, i mean, though, i think if you looked at mainstream coverage of new york city, you would think it ended at 96th street. >> hinojosa: right. >> you know, there's the apollo in harlem, and then it ends. so the only time we'd be on the news is if there was a crime.
there's just no coverage. and washington heights is home to more small businesses than any other part of new york city. there's 3,000 small businesses there. >> hinojosa: this is a statistic i did not know. >> so the fact that we can't tell a story about, you know, stores struggling to get by and stay up on their rents? that's another economic reality that unfortunately, thanks to our recession, i think, is more relevant to our audience than i think even when we first came out. but you know, the story of crime and drugs, that's all over new york, so you know, why can't... why aren't we allowed to tell those stories and why is it unrealistic to tell the stories of the other 23 and a half hours of the day when there isn't a crime taking place? >> hinojosa: so the media, again, becomes this way in which we somehow envision these places, and the media again, it focuses on all this negativity. you are now something of a major player in the media. >> ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: well, in the sense that you've created something that has impacted popular culture and now it's going to be
made into a universal movie... >> yeah. >> hinojosa: ...so what does that feel like to know that you're having an imprint on... on the media, on how communities are perceived? >> well, it's... it's gratifying... it's strange. i mean, you can't think of yourself like that. you can't... >> hinojosa: you don't walk around like... >> ...you can't get out of bed and be like, "i'm impacting the media!" >> hinojosa: "today i'm going to have an impact." >> "i'm going to have breakfast and impact the media." but... but it is... you know, i always tell people, "our greatest blessing and our greatest curse as latinos in theater is west side story. and really, it swings both ways in terms of i don't know a latino who hasn't been in that production. it's our foot in the door; it's also a... it happens to be a masterpiece of storytelling. however, it did its job so well that the iconic... you know, if you had never heard of puerto rico or puerto ricans, you'd probably heard of west side story and your image is of a
guy with a makeup of a color not found in nature with a knife in his hand. and it's so... it's become so iconic that that's what they think of when they think of us. and so what has been gratifying about the success of heights is that it's allowed for an alternative image to flourish, particularly in theater, of who we are. >> hinojosa: so i was telling you the story about my husband who is a dominican immigrant, and when i told him that we were going to go see in the heights off broadway, and he was like, "you know what? i've done the musicals on broadway, i don't need to see another one; they're all the same." and i was like, "you've got to come." and he started crying from the first moment that you hit the stage and probably didn't end crying until the very last scene. and i have heard this story from many, many people-- that they are sitting in their seats crying as they're watching in the heights. >> ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: what does that... i mean, that must just... >> it's unreal. i... it's really unreal, and... you know, i... i'm a theater kid. we didn't get to go to much
theater as a kid, but i remember seeing rent at 17, and crying like your husband did at our show, because i'd always loved musicals-- i love music-- and i didn't know you were allowed to write musicals about now. it just... it had never occurred to me. you know, i'd seen musicals in opera houses, i was in pirate of penzance like your son, and... and it always took place in some other place, in some faraway land, and these were kids struggling to make a life for themselves through their art and living and dying, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. and that's when i started writing, because it just... it tacitly gave me permission. and for me, the most fun from my time performing in the show was when we would have school groups, and we'd have kids from the south bronx, the dominican republic. and i would say, "dominican republic," and you couldn't hear the next five bars... >> hinojosa: oh, they'd be... >> ...because kids would scream so loud. i think if i had seen in the
heights when i was a kid, i'd be president of the united states right now. it's just sort of... it's just... you know, it was... it's... i watch it impacting these kids and seeing themselves, and that's so enormously validating. it's... it's really the best part of the thing. >> hinojosa: how did you know that you could trust your voice? how did you know... i mean, i know that your dad was the president of the debbie reynolds club... >> ( laughing ) yes, that's true. >> hinojosa: ...okay, so i know you grew up also watching musicals, but how did you know that you could do this? where did you learn how to trust that, "yeah, i'm going to put pen in hand and i'm going to start writing a musical"? >> i... i was lucky enough to be encouraged by people who were not family. i had an eighth grade english teacher named rembert herbert-- he still teaches at hunter-- and we had a class assignment for school, and we were teaching chaim potok's the chosen. and we had to present three chapters, and i took charge of our group and i wrote a song based on each chapter. and i was such a control freak
that i made the other kids in the group lip sync to my voice on tape. and dr. herbert-- you know, i'd been lounging, doodling in the back of the class-- and he said, "you've been hibernating in my class and this is amazing, and you're a writer, and that's what you've been doing in the back of my class instead of paying attention." >> hinojosa: oh, my gosh. >> and it was the first time someone who wasn't related to me said, "you're good at this thing." and that was enormously empowering, and i started writing that year. >> hinojosa: so do... did you worry, though, about the fact that, you know, there have been other latino-produced or latino-centric productions on broadway that didn't go so well? >> my heart broke with each one of them. and i think that's part of the impetus... that as part of the impetus to begin writing. i saw, you know, the capeman came out my senior year in high school, and it was written by one of my favorite songwriters of all time... >> hinojosa: paul simon. >> ...and starred two of my other favorite songwriters of
all time... >> hinojosa: marc anthony... >> ...and ruben blades. and i went into that thinking, "this is going to be my dream musical." and it got killed by the critics. the score was gorgeous; it got killed by the critics and it closed after 68 performances. i saw it three times in previews. and the cold, hard thud of reality set in-- "no one's going to write your dream show for you, papa," you know? "no one's going to write that dream... it doesn't exist unless you make it." and i spent two years editing capeman in my head. i remember thinking, "well, if you start it in the 1950s and you just tell that part of the story," or, "if you start in prison and maybe you do a flashback," you know, i tried to fix that show before i started writing my own. >> hinojosa: on the subway, you were doing this? >> ( laughing ) on the subway, yes. >> hinojosa: all right, so big, big changes for you. hollywood-- wow. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and i told you, i asked you, "are you moving to hollywood?" you said, "no, no, i have an apartment north of the heights." >> yeah, i do, i do. i live uptown, and you know, for
me it's just logistical. i do most of my writing on the subway. i find it's the perfect mix of being able to interact with the world and be closed off, so any time i'm in l.a.-- like when i had to shoot my episode of house-- any time driving feels like lost time. that's... that's my writing time is commuting time. so you know, i... i participate in that world as much as is necessary, and then i go home. >> hinojosa: you're a producer of a hollywood film. >> ( laughing ) well... >> hinojosa: i'm sorry, i just have to say that. >> i'm a co-producer. >> hinojosa: okay, you're a co-producer... all right, well, let's just say you are producing a major hollywood film in a team... >> when you say it like that it's terrifying! ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: well, i want to know if it's terrifying. i mean, how do you... i mean, suddenly you're like, negotiating hollywood executives. and not one, but a room full. how do you like, kind of say, "no, it's going to stay this way," when you've got other people saying, "no," and "you must," and "you've got to change," and "we've tested this," and "we've screened this"...
>> well, i have the luxury of great collaborators. you know, our producer meryl poster saw us very early off broadway and really champions the show very early on. and kenny ortega is a fantastic collaborator, and... >> hinojosa: and just so we don't... in case people don't know, kenny ortega of... let's see, high school musical fame, of... >> ...newsies, my favorite; michael jackson's this is it... >> hinojosa: michael jackson this is it, an amazing... >> yeah, choreographed dirty dancing and footloose; i mean, has just unbelievable history. >> hinojosa: one of your heroes, right? >> yeah, absolutely. >> hinojosa: and now you're working with him. >> yeah. it's... it's... i mean, it's quite literally a dream come true. so i mean, to answer your question, i have people who are very protective of the work working with me, and i also, i feel like my... my reason for being in the room is, you know, i helped to write this thing and i have been with it for going on 11 years. so you know, i'm sure there are
people who know more about the movie making business than me, but there's no one who knows more about this story and these characters than me. and so that's... that's my way in. >> hinojosa: and you will be playing usnavi. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: oh, my god! >> i have to go to the gym. >> hinojosa: you have to get back to the gym. >> i've been sitting on the couch, writing. >> hinojosa: what are writing about? >> i am writing a lot of things. i'm going to probably write couple of new songs for the movie, and i'm working on... >> hinojosa: you know, i'm still... i'm kind of like, wow, you have been doing this for 11 years and you still have the capacity to write a new song... >> well, it... >> hinojosa: ...about this story that's... >> well, you know, it's... it sounds like we've been working on the same story for eight years, but really, that was the process of me going from having a good idea and not really having the craft to pull it off yet to getting to be a good writer and that practice. so i have a trunk full of music already, and also, you know, just... it's... i know these characters backwards and forwards at this point, so it's very easy to slip into their skin. but the fun of writing for
musicals is it's acting. you put on someone else's clothes, you sit in someone else's pantolone, and you talk to yourself until it feels true. and if it feels true and it sounds... sings well, you write it down. it's not much more complicated than that. >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> and so, you know, right now i'm working on an animated film for dreamworks, i'm writing a score for an animated movie, and so i get to be a cuban monkey every once in a while. ( laughing ) and that is a blast! >> hinojosa: how do you switch it off? like... >> you... you kind of don't, and you know, my fiancée vanessa... >> hinojosa: congratulations, by the way. >> thank you, thank you. and she'll... she'll see me get an idea and i look like i'm having some sort of episode, because i just... i go... i'll stop and i'll... talking to myself. i get my rain man on, and then... and she knows to just kind of like, "oh, he's... he's in a thing," and she goes and does something else until i've written it down. >> hinojosa: and you're writing by hand sometimes?
>> it depends. i catch it any way i can catch it. a lot of the time when i'm composing, i'll write... i'll use logic, which is a great program, and so i play each part into the computer and it's freed me up enormously since that technology came out. i used to write by hand-- i wrote the entire first draft by hand and i wrote out all the parts by hand, but i'm very slow at it. i can read and write music, but i'm just very slow. so technology has helped the speed at which i can write and the specific... the specificity with which i can write enormously. but yeah, i... i often will write until i have a chord progression or a melody i'm really crazy about, and then i'll put it on my ipod and i'll get on the train and i'll talk to myself. and i'll play the thing on a... >> hinojosa: on the train? >> ...on a loop-- yeah. i'm... that crazy guy next to you on the train? that's me! >> hinojosa: okay, good to know. >> and then i'll have it on a loop and i'll just kind of let it sort of sink in and then figure out how this thing wants to talk. >> hinojosa: so your dream has
kind of come true two or three times over. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: what are you dreaming about these days? or do... do you, i mean... or it is about vanessa? >> ( laughing ) well, it's always. but well, you know, vanessa and i went to high school together, so i've been... i've been dreaming about her for a minute now. >> hinojosa: yay! >> but the... it's a lot of things. i think what's really exciting about writing is it's just... it's limitless, you know? i'm working on a lot of different things and they're using different parts of my brain. you know, i'm working on this hamilton mix tape-- this alexander hamilton concept album that i got to sing... i got to perform at the white house. >> hinojosa: right. a friend of michelle and the prez... >> yeah, which was... and that was the first time i'd performed that song in public outside of the shower. so it was really terrifying and thrilling and amazing. but you know, that is... requires all this historical research and this part of my brain that has long laid dormant
in terms of, you know, being accurate historically while getting to really play with contemporary music. and then you know, slipping back into my old heights bathrobe and writing those songs. so the fun for me is in trying to get as much done as i can. >> hinojosa: but more can you dream about? i mean, if you already have a play on broadway that's been a success and it's going to be made into a hollywood movie, kind of what... you know, what's like, the next thing? >> well, you know, you just continue to... i think the goal of any writer is to continue to find stories that move you, angenerated or you hook into something, you know? like, when i read hamilton's biography, i... you know, i'm not a found... you know... it's a different type of identification than in the heights, which is, you know, i'm latino, i grew up in upper manhattan. like, i'm not a founding father, but i read hamilton's story and i said, "i know that guy, i just know that guy and i know how he thinks and why he was so brilliant and ambitious but also self destructive, and the
childhood that fed that," and it just... just spoke to me. and so that's how you do it. you just hook in. >> hinojosa: i'm interested, so we'll be looking forward to it. lin-manuel, congratulations. >> thank you very much. continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org
- [announcer] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation and hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy, and by klru's producers circle, ensuring local programming that reflects the character and interests of the greater austin, texas community. - i'm evan smith. she's an actress whose credits include the hit tv series, orange is the new black and jane the virgin. her memoir, in the country we love: my family divided has just been published. she's diane guerrero. this is overheard. let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught right? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa? at 17, he made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. we saw a problem and, over time, took it on. let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak.