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Lin-Manuel Miranda closed out the fifth annual Fast Company Innovation Festival on Friday, discussing the upcoming film adaption of his musical In the Heights, along with his passion for supporting small businesses — which recently drove him and several friends to purchase New York City’s Drama Book Shop — with American Express’ chief marketing officer, Elizabeth Rutledge.
Miranda created and composed In the Heights, a story about the Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City, at age 22. However, he won’t be reprising the role he originated on Broadway in Jon M. Chu’s movie adaptation and will instead appear in a small part and serve as a producer.
“The thing that In the Heights is really about is what happens when the people who make a neighborhood special can’t afford to live there anymore. And when those businesses can’t afford to stay,” Manuel said. “Gentrification is tough to dramatize because it’s many forces at work at once. So we really kind of responded with the complexities that I think it deserves.”
In addition to illustrating the rapidly changing neighborhood, Manuel explained that In the Heights addresses gentrification by showing how certain characters respond to their circumstances.
“There’s one set of characters that sell their business, they move to the Bronx. There’s another set of characters where the father sells his business so his daughter can go farther and finish her education,” he said. “Then the main character, Usnavi, in the final It’s a Wonderful Life minutes, decides to stay.”
Chu’s film adaption will feature actual residents of Washington Heights, where the majority of the movie was shot. According to Miranda, production took over different street corners for a month, telling locals, “Listen, this is going to mess up parking for a few weeks but you’re going to live forever and this neighborhood is going to live forever if we get to make this movie here.”
Shooting the film, Miranda said, “was one of the most gratifying artistic experiences” of his life.
Now, he stays busy with Freestyle Love Supreme, his Broadway hip-hop improv show.
“It took me seven years to write In the Heights. It took me seven years to write Hamilton. But I perform and freestyle twice a week at Freestyle Love Supreme. So I create two, 80-minute shows from scratch every night,” Miranda said. “We basically line up like chefs, we get words from the audience. We have a beatboxer, we have two instrumentalists and then we just make up the show with you.”
Miranda and others, including some of his Hamilton colleagues, have also been scouting locations in Manhattan for the Drama Book Shop. The legendary independent store was facing closure due to rent increases, prompting the group to buy the century-old business.
“It’s about providing a space for community, which I think is really important,” Miranda said, adding that the location will be revealed “soon.”
Fast Company’s pairing of Miranda and Rutledge allowed the two to discuss Miranda’s ongoing partnership with American Express — one that helped him immensely during his efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria’s devastation in 2017.
Most notably, Miranda reprised his lead role in Hamilton in Puerto Rico to raise money for victims of the hurricane.
“The moment that I remember, I got to watch you on stage — you don’t come into the production until about five or 10 minutes I think — and Lin walks on stage, and you can hear a pin drop,” Rutledge described. “And then what happens next, is this five-minute ovation. I still have shivers thinking about that. And I know those ovations happened every night the entire time you were there. I think it’s a testament to the commitment that you have to that community.”
The rest of Miranda’s career, he explained, will be figuring out what to do after Hamilton, “the first line” of his obituary.
“I’m very proud of that to be the first line of my obituary…it forces you to interrogate what you say yes to in a very real way. I don’t have to be doing this. I want to be doing this,” he said. “It’s freeing, actually…all right, that’s handled — legacy handled. What else can I get done with with my time here?”
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