Lin-Manuel Miranda still believes it was a miracle that ‘In the Heights’, a musical tribute to Latino culture through the lens of the New York neighborhood of Washington Heights, made it to Broadway. In 2008, before the pursuit of inclusion became the standard of the entertainment industry, he and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes were strangers who invented a joyful tale about invisible people.
Their exuberant performance, inspired by their families and neighbors, finally reached the big screen (and HBO Max) in the US on June 10 after they stumbled across several studios (it appeared on June 17 in the UAE). Warner Bros. and director Jon Chu (‘Crazy Rich Asians’) were eventually entrusted with the project.
Looking back, Miranda said, it was naive to think it would be easy to get the show from the stage to the multiplex. It lasted more than a decade.
“Some of the obstacles were the fact that Hollywood was not willing to venture new talent and invest in it,” Miranda said. ‘When you watch this film that Jon directs so beautifully, you see a screen full of movie stars, but some of them you’ve never heard of. They were movie stars without the roles they needed to become movie stars. ”
The film features numerous emerging and experienced talents – including Anthony Ramos as a bodega owner with dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic, Melissa Barrera as an aspiring fashion designer and Leslie Grace as a struggling Stanford student – and is shot in the photo with everyone the panache that can reach a reported $ 55 million budget. Depressing, Miranda said, is that the show and now the film is an anomaly. He hopes for the day when ‘In the Heights’ is ‘free from the representation it carries’, as more productions of its size and cultural importance enjoy equal support and exposure.
In a recent video call with Miranda, Hudes and Chu, the three creative minds discussed their euphoric spectacle with penetrating social commentary on immigration, assimilation and gentrification. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How difficult was it in that adaptation process to lose songs, lose characters, and change some elements of the structure of the story so that it could work as a film?
Quiara Alegria Hudes: I knew we would have to make some cuts just for length and focus. I love every character and I love every song, so it’s hard. But these songs have traveled the world full, it has been to high schools and professional theaters and community theaters. Those songs had a life, whether it made the movie. It set me free to say, “Let me try to add something new to their experience.” For example, losing Camila Rosario [the iron-willed mother of the Stanford student] really hurt because someone who is my friend knows I’m very matriarchal. I come from this generation of very strong women. It was really hard to cut a mother character. What I did do was that I put even more of that maternal, strong, grounded spirit into the remaining matriarchs in the film. Daniela, the salon owner, becomes even more central as a matriarch in the community.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: As for the musical side, every song in this movie is; they can appear as a score, such as ‘Sunrise’. In the same vein as the very clever updates of Quiara, we have sneaked into every movie fiber that people like about this show in some form or another.
Jon, tell me about entering this world that has had a history.
I might have approached it a bit bombastically, like, ‘Hey, I’m not developing movies. I can help make this movie. But what they have created is not just a show. It is a life force. They told me, “Just hold on and trust us.” I took it with a grain of salt, and we went through a lot of hoops and hurdles to get out there. Every time there was a fight, they were like, “This is going to find its way.” Then the pandemic happened, and I’m like, ‘You did not make a joke.’ Who knew that the arrow we threw would hit the moment the world opened up again. The people in ‘In the heights’ who are fighting through things, who are there for each other, it is they who are going to show the world how to rise again. That life force has found its perfect place.
Miranda: Jon also understood the lived experience that he was the first generation son of immigrants and had parents who performed a miracle and made a way where there was no way. I knew it would be valuable to bring our show.
Jon, one of the most enchanting numbers, based on the sheer amount of elements, is ‘96,000 ‘, a Busby Berkeley-like showstopper housed in a huge pool. Was it the most complicated to perform?
Chu: Each one was a new challenge, but the one is up there. There were about 600 extras, from 5-year-olds to 81-year-olds, and you have to think, ‘Oh, wait, they can not drown or get electricity.’ You need to keep them dry so that they do not get hypothermia. But once you get the towels wet, you need to dry them. Also, oh well, you’re going to braai, so you have to have a whole fire department to make sure the place doesn’t burn down. And there is lightning too, so you will have to switch off every 30 minutes. There were countless things. But cinema is a moment. All you do is get it in that little box for that moment, and then you go out.
Was there a number that any of you considered an agreement and that it was necessary to stay?
Hudes: At some point, for various artistic or budgetary reasons, many of the numbers might be cut. You really had to make a strong argument for why the film needed it. Because the piraguero [who sells the Puerto Rican-style shaved-ice dessert] is a peripheral character, at one point the “Piragua” song was ready to cut. I tried to talk softly to Lin about this. He was really sad, and I was like, ‘I have one idea how the studio can keep the song for us.’ That’s why I played him on [him]. This is how that one stayed.
Lin, why did you feel the piraguero was so important to the story?
Miranda: The song is perhaps the fastest song I have ever written. Although, I do not know that I wrote it. I think I just caught it. The metaphor of the whole musical is in the song. Piraguero is every character in this movie. They do their best against impossible chance. They breathe, then they keep scraping. It’s a minute-and-45-second song, but somehow the DNA of the whole show is within that minute and 45 seconds. I was very proud that the pit had to stay. My actions were a testament to my grandfather. He passed away the week after ‘In the Heights’ opened on Broadway. He’s the member of my family who could not see everything that came after the opening night. So I have his espejuelos [reading glasses] around my neck. I have his [Marcial Lafuente] Estefania cowboy novels in my pocket. I wear my socks to my ears and the same kind of shirt he had to wear. I really play as my abuelo.
The concept of the dream, or suenito, differs for each character. The musical seems to say that you can achieve your pursuit without losing who you are for assimilation. This is a deep understanding for immigrants and their children.
Miranda: It’s so simple and so complicated. You are talking to first generation writers whose parents were born on the island of Puerto Rico. You grow up with the ‘Sliding Doors’ and think,’ What if they stayed? Who would I be if I grew up in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico? The nuance we have always fought for is to say, ‘I can accept the sacrifice of my ancestors. I can accept the responsibility that belongs to me and still find my own way in the world. “It’s not about ‘Forget your dreams. These are my dreams. It thinks, ‘I accept the incredible journey I had to take to stay here, and still my job is to make my own way in the world and define the home for what it is for me.’
Sometimes American mass culture focuses too much on individualism at the expense of community care and community experience. But the flip side of the coin is not necessarily better. Too much focus on community responsibility can be stifling and you struggle to find your individual path. The characters in this movie are dealing with that balance. The balance between those individual dreams and the community that dreams together is the way of the plot of ‘In the heights’. I relate to it very personally. It is also the way I honor my cultural roots, and also use the things to find new ways to be an individual to honor my own heart.