In the Heights: Meet the Neighborhood

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of In the Heights, used people in his own life as inspiration for the characters in his play. (In fact, Nina is based on his sister; Vanessa, his sister’s best friend.) As we discovered while talking with members of the original Broadway cast back in January, the experiences of the characters from In the Heights felt very real to the lives of the cast members’ families and loved ones. Part of our responsibility in producing In the Heights is to educate our community about the struggles of traditionally under served, immigrant communities like the one we see in the play. So, without further ado we introduce you to the characters from In the Heights. Be sure to check out the links below for more information about the community and people of Washington Heights.

The company sings IN THE HEIGHTS during our final dress rehearsal. Photo by Joanna Chattman.
The company sings IN THE HEIGHTS during our final dress rehearsal. Photo by Joanna Chattman.


The ensemble. L-R: Destiny Nwafor, Sarah Lucia, Abby Berry, Nick Hill,, Caleb Stern, Eric Chen, Kai McCalla, Nate Gordon, Henning Fischel, Haley Beecher, Triniti Slaughter, Anna Wilinsky, and Josh Calianos
The ensemble. L-R: Destiny Nwafor ’17, Sarah Lucia ’16, Abby Berry ’16, Nick Hill ’17, Caleb Stern ’19, Eric Chen ’16, Kai McCalla ’17, Nate Gordon ’16, Henning Fischel ’17, Haley Beecher ’18, Triniti Slaughter ’18, Anna Wilinsky ’17, and Josh Calianos ’18.

Mr. Miranda writes the ensemble into nearly every song in his play– songs that would normally be solos like BREATHE and PACIENCIA Y FE have the entire ensemble  bring the song to life. This is not an accident. Mr. Miranda wants the audience to feel the presence of the community in Washington Heights. When they sing “Mira, alli esta nuestra estrella!” (Look, there is our star!) during Breathe we feel their faith for Nina and what her accomplishments mean to them. When they sing “You better learn Ingles” with Abuela Claudia, we feel the pressures that immigrants, past and present, have faced and continue to face today. It’s unusual for a musical to have the ensemble woven in to the story like this, but thankfully Mr. Miranda gives us the gift of these characters who enrich the play.  Without them the community wouldn’t feel like home, and the end of the play (no spoilers– come see the show!) would make little sense. Read this article to learn more about Washington Heights.


Josh Holmberg '18 and Gabby Record '17 as Piragua Guy and Graffiti Pete
Josh Holmberg ’18 and Gabby Record ’17 as Piragua Guy and Graffiti Pete

Piragua Guy is a beloved character from In the Heights. Played on Broadway by Eliseo Roman (who we had the honor of meeting on our trip to New York in January), Piragua Guy’s character grew in the development of the show because Mr. Roman brought so much depth to the role.  Anyone who has spent any time in New York City in the summer has probably seen a Piraguero– Spanish for Piragua Guy.  More than just giving New Yorkers relief on those humid summer days piragua, Puerto Rican snow cones, provide a link back to the islands and gives locals a taste of home. Piraguero’s are typically recent immigrants. They do what they can to survive, often sending money back home, while speaking very little English.  Watch this YouTube video about Piragua. Try not to let your mouth water too much, though!

While Unsavi calls Graffiti Pete “this little punk I gotta chase away,” Graffiti Pete saves the day. To learn more about graffiti read this blog post about our work with Wane COD, a graffiti writer from the Bronx.


Makenna Hambley '17 and Neha Nascimento '17 as Carla and Dani
Makenna Hambley ’17 and Neha Nascimento ’17 as Carla and Daniela

Daniela and Carla are brash and fun. Daniela owns the salon next to Usnavi’s bodega. They both love to spend their days gossiping about what’s going on in the neighborhood. Despite their love of a good piece of juicy gossip, Daniela and Carla’s support for their friends runs deep. After years in business, Daniela is closing the doors of her salon and moving to the Bronx because she can no longer pay the skyrocketing rents in Washington Heights. This is an all-too real conflict for mom and pop shops in communities all over New York City.  Read this article  from December 2015 to find out more about the current state of gentrification in Washington Heights.


Cam Stanley '16 and Noah DeVos '17 as Camila and Kevin Rosario
Cam Stanley ’16 and Noah DeVos ’17 as Camila and Kevin Rosario

Kevin and Camila Rosario immigrated from Puerto Rico when they were eighteen. They worked and saved for years before they were able to open a car service in Washington Heights. Taxi cabs are a way of life for wealthy New Yorkers, but many taxis won’t take passengers to low-income communities.  In response, local, mostly family-owned, car services provide the transportation yellow cabs refuse to. The Rosarios have done everything they can so their daughter, Nina can truly live the American Dream. They represent the voices of hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the U.S. and the sacrifices they must make in order to make a better life.


Calvin Ticknor-Swanson '16 and Julia Wise '16 as Benny and Nina
Calvin Ticknor-Swanson ’16 and Julia Wise ’16 as Benny and Nina

Benny has worked at Kevin’s dispatch booth since he was a kid. He has big dreams of going to business school and opening his own dispatch one day. Nina Rosario comes home after her first year at Stanford University. Nina was the star of her neighborhood. She defied the odds and got a full scholarship to Stanford– the first in her family to go to college. The challenges of transitioning from an underserved neighborhood to an Ivy League college proved to be greater than she’d imagined and she returns home after dropping out of school. The phenomenon of high-achieving first-generation college students struggling when they leave home is all too real. Listen to this story from This American Life, which Julia Wise used as character research, to learn more. It’s about an hour, but worth every minute.


Hana Brown '16 and Calvin Frye '16 as Abuela Claudia and Sonny
Hana Brown ’16 and Calvin Frye ’16 as Abuela Claudia and Sonny

Abuela immigrated to Washington Heights from Cuba in the 1940’s. While Abuela means grandmother in Spanish, as Usnavi says “She’s not really my “abuela,” She practically raised me. This corner is her escuela (school).”  Abuela Claudia is the caretaker on the block. She looks after the neighborhood kids whose parents are working and makes sure they all stay on the right track. Through her song “Paciencia Y Fe” we see the correlation between the immigrant experience in 1943 and now. Sadly, not much has changed.

Sonny is the youngest character in the play. He works with his cousin Usnavi in the bodega but he has big dreams of becoming a community organizer. With his rap in 96,000 we get a glimpse into the changes he wants to bring to the neighborhood, and the world. See this list of community organizations working to empower the residents of Washington Heights.


Verdi Degbey '16 and Leeanna Albanese '16 as Usnavi and Vanessa
Verdi Degbey ’16 and Leeanna Albanese ’16 as Usnavi and Vanessa

Usnavi, born in the Dominican Republic but raised in Washington Heights by Abuela Claudia, is a bodega owner. Bodega’s are a way of life in New York City (see a brief definition in this article from the Gothamist) and the owners are the caretakers of the block (a skill Usnavi undoubtedly learned from Claudia). They know what everyone orders for breakfast in the morning and exactly how they take their coffee. Usnavi dreams of returning to D.R. one day and opening a small bar near his parents’ hometown. He harbors a long-time crush on Vanessa, who has big dreams of her own. Growing up with a dysfunctional mother, Vanessa has worked at Daniela’s salon with hopes of saving enough money to move out of Washington Heights. Sadly, she lacks the good credit necessary to get an apartment in downtown Manhattan.

To learn more or to purchase tickets to the show visit our ticket website.  Seats are going fast so make your reservations soon.

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