Hometown: New Yooooooooork (sung a la Alicia Keys in "Empire State of Mind.")
Current Town: Same.
Q: In the Heights is on tour now. Was it a tough decision to decide not to be in the touring cast? What is the schedule of the tour?
A: It wasn't a tough decision. I left the stage in February 2008, and as much I go and check in with Heights on Broadway, I really enjoy having my nights back. What has been really exciting is getting back into a rehearsal room with a new batch of actors and putting the show up again. Rehearsals, Band rehearsals, tech, discovering things in the room--these are my favorite parts of the process. The tour starts in Tampa next week and zigzags across the US for a year. There's a schedule on intheheightsthemusical.com.
Q: I remember seeing an early staged reading of In The Heights that had a different plot. Can you talk at all about how the show was developed from what you created in undergrad to what it is now?
A: It had a lot of different plots! Its first incarnation was an 80-minute, one-act musical that I wrote sophomore year at Wesleyan University. Seeing that original production is like seeing the Simpsons shorts, back when The Simpsons were a part of the Tracy Ullman show. Homer and Bart weren't defined yet, but there was something there, know what I mean? Our original plot still featured a love story between Nina and Benny, Usnavi and Vanessa were there, and Nina's parents figured prominently as well. And the mix of latin music and hip-hop was there, but much more rudimentary. Then I sat on it for two years and finished college. I met Tommy Kail the week after I graduated. He'd heard the CD and read the script, and had all these ideas. And for the next few years, we took those characters, and that mix of musical styles, and tried to figure out the most compelling and musical story to tell with them.
Q: You went to Wesleyan which is 20 min from where I grew up. Is that a good theater school? How did you like it?
A:Wesleyan is a great school if you KIND OF know what you want to do with your life. I knew I loved theater, and I knew I loved film, and Wesleyan has great resources in both departments, enough so that you can say, "Spending my time here is going to be really important for me." I was so hyper-aware of the steep price tag my parents were paying, that I knew I wanted to leave college with more than a diploma under my arm. So I wrote A LOT. I wrote two full length musicals and two one acts, and assorted other songs.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: I'm going halvsies on a musical adaptation of Bring It On, that will be a touring musical. I'm splitting songwriting duties with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, which has been really fun. I'm also writing a score for an animated film for dreamworks, and co-producing the Heights movie adaptation.
Q: Can you tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: My mom did a good job with me. She saw me making up songs and writing stories and making flip books from a very young age, and realized that I was always filtering the world, in some way. And she keyed into that tendency to get me to do things I didn't want to do. If it was a chore, or a crappy job, or even something tragic, she would say, "Just think of the story you're going to get out of this. You could write a song about it." And it gave me perspective, at a very young age. Even in my earliest memories, I remember thinking of my brain as this tape recorder. I have a really distinct memory of staring into the mirror at age 7, being really short, and saying, "MEMORIZE this, cuz it's all going to change."
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Well, anything really. I was a theater major, so I feel like there's something to be learned from any theater experience, whether it's amazing or dreadful. To me, musicals at their best can transport you outside of yourself. Those moments are few and far between: The act one ending of Dreamgirls, "To Life," in Fiddler. But they're so good, they're worth striving towards.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights, book writers or lyricists just starting out?
A: Write write write. No one can hire you based on your potential, or what you WANT or INTEND to do. You have to have something to point at or hand in, and say, this is an example of my work. You'd be amazed at how many insanely talented people I know, from high school and college and beyond, that simply didn't do the work to develop the talents they had. Sometimes it's lack of interest, sometimes it's fear of failing, but they just procrastinate their way towards a different life. You can't do anything if you don't show up. WRITE.
Q: Any plugs?
Q: Any plugs?
A: I'm going to plug Tom Kitt's Next To Normal, because I think it's an amazing score. I hardly ever see anything more than once, and I've seen it three times. I can count on one hand the number of new musicals I've gone back to see more than once. A Light In The Piazza, Hedwig And The Angry Inch Off-Broadway, Tick, Tick Boom . . . yeah, that's it. So go see Next To Normal. And In The Heights too, if you haven't seen it yet.