Thomas Kail was an American History major at Wesleyan University when he realized that he wanted to do something completely different with his life. “Wesleyan has a very active and open student-run theater [and] I had a couple of friends who participated in that a lot, so they asked me to just be around rehearsal [and] assistant direct a show,” Kail recalls. “I then had my world turned upside down and realized that’s what I wanted to do. This wasn’t until my junior year of college, so I was a late bloomer.”
In 2000, Kail formed a production company, Back House Productions, with Anthony Veneziale, Neil Stewart and John Buffalo Mailer — the same college friends who had introduced him to theater. “We all graduated from college and landed in New York and were doing various things in the arts and realized that we wanted to find a place to go where we could continue to learn and develop and give our friends all kinds of non-paying jobs,” Kail says. That same year, Mailer and Stewart returned to Wesleyan to see a new musical by student Lin-Manuel Miranda called In the Heights. They convinced Kail and Veneziale that Back House should develop and produce the show.
“I met Lin in 2002,” Kail says. “[He] came to The Drama Book Shop, where we were in residence and, as I like to say, we started a conversation that lasted until three minutes ago when I was talking to him before I called you. It’s really been a huge part of the fabric of my life.”
Although Kail was a young director, he knew how to approach writers working on new plays. “I understood very quickly that my job was not to come in and say, ‘This is how you fix something’ [or] ‘If you don’t do this …'” Kail says. “So when I sat down with Lin, there was nothing that had to happen, all I said was that there were some ideas I had that I wanted to bounce off him.”
Among the ideas Kail had were to see what would happen if the third song, “In Washington Heights,” became an opening number and if the character of Usnavi, who was only in three scenes, was expanded. “Lin was not playing him at that point,” Kail explains. “I just told him how much I responded to that voice and this is when, I think, we started to connect, because he said that when they did the show, that’s when everybody in the audience sat up, when he could tell people were leaning forward in their chairs.” Lin took Kail’s suggestions and started to reshape Usnavi as a central character.
Once In the Heights started rehearsals, the character of Usnavi proved difficult to cast. “We had a limited amount of time for rehearsal and Lin was rather adept at performing the lyrics and the songs that he wrote, so we thought, ‘Well, until we find someone else, why don’t you just play Usnavi? And when we find someone else, we’ll put them in,'” Kail remembers. “And as Lin likes to say, ‘The part grew and grew,’ and he remained in it up through Broadway and beyond. He’s not going to be on tour, [however]. The role of Usnavi is played by a fellow [named] Kyle Beltrand who we all sort of met and flipped for.”
Kail says that Lin wrote at least 10 different versions of In the Heights and at least 70 or 80 songs for the show. Along the way, songs were discarded, characters got cut and an untold number of scenes were removed. “We like to say that this is the most current version; the one that we had to stop working on so we could open.”
When In the Heights did open on March 9, 2008, its blend of hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul music numbers wowed audiences and Tony Award voters. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and took home four, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestration. The cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
“There’s certainly something about the story that resonates with audiences,” Kail says. “Ultimately it’s a story about love, and how do we take care of the people that we love, how do we take care of ourselves and hold on to dreams, what the consequences [are] for moving into the world, [and] reconciling where we belong and where we’re from. In the Heights is the story of first and second generation immigrants, and so many of us come from that — no matter what island we came from or what state we were born in — I think that’s something that people can really relate to.”
In the Heights plays the Fox Theatre Nov. 3-8.