They Fought to Make ‘In the Heights’ Both Dreamlike and Authentic
Lin-Manuel Miranda still believes it was a miracle that “In the Heights,” the musical homage to Latino culture through the lens of the Washington Heights neighborhood, made it to Broadway. Back in 2008, before striving for inclusion became the entertainment industry standard, he and the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes were unknowns peddling a joyful narrative about unseen people.
Their exuberant show inspired by their families and neighbors finally reaches the big screen (and HBO Max) this week after stumbling through multiple studios. Warner Bros. and the director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) were ultimately entrusted with the project.
In retrospect, Miranda said, it was naïve to think that getting the show from the stage to the multiplex would be easy. It took more than a decade.
“Some of the hurdles were about Hollywood’s unwillingness to take chances on new talent and invest in that,” Miranda said. “When you watch this movie that Jon has so beautifully directed, you see a screen full of movie stars, but some of them you may not have heard of before. They were movie stars without the roles they needed to become movie stars.”
The movie features a cast of emerging and seasoned 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 was shot on location with all the panache that a reported $55 million budget can achieve. Depressingly, Miranda said, the show and now the film remain an anomaly. He hopes for the day when “In the Heights” is “free of the burden of representation that it bears,” as more productions of its size and cultural relevance receive equal support and exposure.
In a recent video call with Miranda, Hudes and Chu, the three creative minds discussed their euphoric spectacle with incisive social commentary on immigration, assimilation and gentrification. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In that adaptation process, how difficult was it to lose songs, to lose characters, and to change some elements of the story’s structure for it to work as a film?
QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES I knew we were going to have to make some cuts just for length and focus. I love every character and I love every song, so that is hard. But those songs had traveled the world, they had been to high schools and professional theaters and community theaters. Those songs had a life whether they made it into the movie. That freed me to say, “Let me try to add something new to their experience.” For instance, losing Camila Rosario [the iron-willed mother of the Stanford student] really hurt because anyone who is my friend knows I’m very matriarchal. I come from this lineage of very strong women. It was really hard to cut a mother character. What I did was I put even more of that motherly, 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 On the musical side of things, every song is in this movie; they may appear as score, like “Sunrise.” In the same vein as Quiara’s very smart updates, we snuck in every fiber of music that people love from this show into the film in some form or another.
Jon, tell me about entering this world that already had a history.
JON M. CHU I came into it maybe a little bombastically like, “Hey, I don’t develop movies. I can help get this movie made.” But what they had created is not just a show. It is a life force. They told me, “Just hang on and trust us.” I took that with a grain of salt, and we went through a lot of hoops and hurdles to get there. Every time there was a struggle, they were like, “It’s going to find its way.” Then the pandemic happened and I’m like, “You guys weren’t kidding.” Who knew that the dart we threw would hit the moment that the world is opening up again. The people in “In the Heights,” who fight through things, who are there for each other, they’re the ones who are going to show the world how to get back up again. That life force found its perfect spot.
MIRANDA Jon also understood the lived experience of being the first-generation son of immigrants and having parents who made a miracle and made a way where there was no way. I knew that that would be valuable to bring on our show.
An important change is the decision to make the character of Nina, the elite student played by Leslie Grace, an Afro-Latina woman. She even refers to herself as a trigueña, which implies this was more than just a random casting choice.
HUDES One thing I’ve learned is if you want to make a nontraditional or strong casting choice, you actually have to write it into the dialogue or else it’s so easy for the production to get away from that. So a word like trigueña gets put in there for that reason. I wanted to consciously make Nina Afro-Latina in this version of “In the Heights.” Since we opened the show on Broadway, this national conversation has happened around microaggressions and really interesting stuff that I feel like would be applicable to Nina’s situation.
Jon, one of the most jaw-dropping numbers, based on the sheer amount of elements, is “96,000,” a Busby Berkeley-like showstopper set in an enormous pool. Was that the most intricate to execute?
CHU Every single one was a new challenge, but that 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’t drown or get electrocuted.” You have to keep them dry so they don’t get hypothermia. But once you get the towels wet, you have to dry them. Also, oh my gosh, you’re going to have a barbecue grill, so you have to have a whole fire department there to make sure the place doesn’t burn down. And also there’s lightning, so you’re going to have to shut down every 30 minutes. There were countless things. But cinema is a moment. All you do is get it in that little frame for that little moment and you get out.
Was there a number that any of you felt was a deal-breaker and needed to stay?
HUDES At some point, for various artistic or budget reasons, many of the numbers were up for being potentially cut. You really had to make a strong argument for why the film needed them. Because the piragüero [who sells the Puerto Rican-style shaved-ice dessert] is a peripheral character, at one point the “Piragua” song was up for cutting. I tried to talk to Lin gently about this. He was really heartbroken and I was like, “I have one idea for how the studio would let us keep that song.” So I pitched him on playing [him]. That’s how that one stayed.
Lin, why did you feel that the piragüero was so significant to the story?
MIRANDA That song is maybe the fastest song I ever wrote. Although, I don’t know that I wrote it. I think I just caught it. The metaphor of the entire musical is inside that song. Piragüero is every character in this movie. They’re doing their best against impossible odds. They take a breath, then they keep scraping by. It’s a minute-and-45-second song, but somehow the DNA of the entire show is in that minute and 45 seconds. I was very proud that that kernel got to stay. My performance was a testament to my grandfather. He passed away the week after “In the Heights” opened on Broadway. He’s the one member of my family who did not get to see everything that came after that opening night. So I have his espejuelos [reading glasses] around my neck. I have his [Marcial Lafuente] Estefanía cowboy novels in my pocket. I’m wearing my socks up to my tabs and the same kind of shirt he had to wear. I’m really cosplaying as my abuelo.
Quiara, how did you come into the role of producer and why did you decide to take on that responsibility?
HUDES It was a lot of little things that happened organically. When we went to Warner Bros. and Jon came on board, they weren’t saying, “Where are the pages?” They were saying, “What do the pages mean?” I loved having those conversations and saying, “I don’t want to see stiletto heels on any of the salon workers. They’re women on their feet for eight or nine hours a day. Put them in tennis shoes.” Then Jon started asking me, “What would the food look like?” And I was like, “Can we also talk about the pots?” Then I started talking to the choreographer Chris Scott about the dance casting call. I don’t know much about dance, but I did know that at Abuela’s house and out on the street, you’re going to see elderly people dancing and they are going to be schooling the young’uns. At some point I said, “I want to be a producer on this. I’m not just writing words on a page.”
The choice of shooting on location is really compelling, especially when some locations would have been much easier to conceive on a soundstage. Tell me about shooting in Washington Height and what that adds to the experience.
MIRANDA On paper it’s risky, right? It’s expensive to shoot in New York. It’s hard to shoot on location. It’s harder to shoot in Washington Heights in the summer when we all live outside for a few months a year. But the advantage is you get a million authenticity checks every day because your neighborhood is rolling up with folding chairs to watch this movie you’re going to make about them. Your characters better be dressed like the folks who are on the side, your food better be right. Everything you’re putting in the frame should be an honest reflection of the surrounding everything that’s outside of the frame. I give Jon so much credit for leaning in and listening and finding these corners of the neighborhood that have additional layers of meaning for those of us like Quiara and myself, who still live in the neighborhood.
CHU We did “Champagne” in Abuela’s apartment, which was a real apartment there. We had no room, we had to hide all the lights, three minutes, live singing. We had a piano on the sidewalk and Anthony and Melissa had to weave in and out of dialogue and music and movement. Our Steadicam guy had to be right there without camera shadow. It forced everyone to be super present.
The concept of the dream, or sueñito, is different for each character. The musical seems to say that you can attain your aspirations without losing who you are to assimilation. That’s a profound notion for immigrants and their children.
MIRANDA It’s that simple and it’s that complicated. You’re talking to first-generation writers whose parents were born on the island of Puerto Rico. You grow up with the “Sliding Doors” thinking: “What if they’d stayed? Who would I be if I grew up in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico?” The nuance that we always fought for is to say, “I can accept the sacrifice of my ancestors. I can accept the responsibility that bestows upon me and still find my own way in the world.” It’s not an either-or, it’s not about, “Forget your dreams. It’s my dreams.” It’s thinking, “I accept the incredible journey you had to take for me to even be standing here and still my job is to make my own way in the world and define home for what it is for me.”
HUDES Sometimes American mass culture focuses too much on individualism at the expense of community care and community experience. But the flip side of that coin isn’t necessarily any better. Too much of a focus on community responsibility can be suffocating and you have difficulty finding your individual path. The characters in this movie are coming to grips with that balance. Finding the balance of those individual dreams with the community dreaming together is the path of the plot of “In the Heights.” I relate to that very personally. That’s the path I’m on too, to honor my cultural roots, and also use those things to find new ways to be an individual to honor my own heart.
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