They Fought to Make ‘In the Heights’ Both Dreamlike and Authentic
When he gave some to hfis 45-year-old sister, Susan, she was able to melt 54 LBs by simply drinking this red soda daily before 10am...
Lin-Manuel Miranda still believes it was a miracle that In the Heights, the musical homage to Latino culture through the lens of Washington Heights, hit Broadway. In 2008, before the pursuit of inclusion became the standard in the entertainment industry, he and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes were strangers selling a happy tale about invisible people.
Her boisterous show, inspired by her families and neighbors, finally hits the big screen (and HBO Max) this week after stumbling through multiple studios. Warner Bros. and director Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) were ultimately entrusted with the project.
Looking back, Miranda said it was naive to believe that it would be easy to get the show off the stage and onto the multiplex. It took more than a decade.
“Some of the hurdles were Hollywood’s unwillingness to risk and invest in new talent,” Miranda said. “When you watch this movie that Jon did so beautifully, you see a screen full of movie stars, but some of them you may never have heard of. They were movie stars without the roles they needed to become movie stars. “
The film features a cast of emerging and seasoned talent, 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 of Elan, which has a reported budget of 55 million US dollars. Depressing, said Miranda, the show, and now the film, remains an anomaly. He hopes for the day “In the Heights” is “free of the burden of representation it carries” as more productions of its size and cultural relevance receive the same support and exposure.
I WANT HUDES TO JOY I knew we had to make some cuts just because of the length and focus. I love every character and I love every song, so that’s hard. But these songs had traveled the world, they had been to high schools and professional and community theaters. Those songs had a life if they made it into the movie. That gave me the freedom to say, “Let me try to add something new to your experience.” For example, losing Camila Rosario [the iron-willed mother of the Stanford student] really hurt because everyone who is my friend knows that I am very matriarchal. I come from this line of very strong women. It was really hard to cut a mother character. What I did was put 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 On the musical side, every song is included in this film; they can appear as a score, like “Sunrise”. Much like Quiara’s very smart updates, we’ve put every fiber of music people love from that show into the movie in some form.
Jon, tell me how you enter this world that already had a story.
JON M. CHU I got into it maybe a little bombastic and said, “Hey, I don’t develop films. I can help make this film. ”But what they made is not just a show. It is a life force. They told me, “Just hold on and trust us.” I took this with caution and we took a lot of hurdles to get there. Every time there was a fight they said, “It will find its way.” Then the pandemic happened and I thought, “You weren’t kidding.” Who would have thought that the arrow we threw would hit the moment the world opens again. The people in “In the Heights” who fight their way through, who are there for each other, it is they who will show the world how to get up again. This life force has found its perfect place.
MIRANDA Jon also understood the lived experience of being the son of first generation immigrants and having parents who worked a miracle and paved a path where there was no path. I knew it would be valuable to get on our show.
An important change is the decision to change the character of Nina, the elite student, played by Leslie Grace, an Afro-Latina woman. She refers to herself as Trigueña, which means that this was more than just a random casting decision.
HUDES One thing I’ve learned is if you want to make an unconventional or strong casting decision you actually have to write it in the dialogue, otherwise it’s so easy for the production to get away from it. For this reason, a word like trigueña is inserted there. In this version of “In the Heights” I deliberately wanted to make Nina Afro-Latina. Since we opened the show on Broadway, this national conversation has developed about microaggression and really interesting things that I think would apply to Nina’s situation.
Jon, one of the most mind-boggling numbers based on the sheer amount of elements, is “96,000,” a Busby Berkeley-like Showstopper in a huge pool. Was that the hardest thing to do?
CHAPTER Each one was a new challenge, but that’s up there. There were about 600 extras, from 5 to 81 year olds, and you have to think, “Oh wait, they can’t drown or get electrocuted.” They need to be kept dry so they don’t get hypothermic. But once you get the towels wet, you need to dry them. Also, oh my god you’re going to have a grill so you have to have a whole fire brigade there so the place doesn’t burn down. And there are lightning bolts too, so you have to shut down every 30 minutes. There were countless things. But cinema is a moment. All you do is put it in that little frame for that little moment and you get out.
Was there a number that one of you felt was a deal breaker and had to stay?
HUDES At some point, many of the numbers were up for potential trimming for various artistic or budgetary reasons. You really had to make a strong argument about why the film needed them. Because the piragüero [who sells the Puerto Rican-style shaved-ice dessert] is a marginal character, the song “Piragua” was up for editing at some point. I tried to talk to Lin about it gently. He was really heartbroken and I thought, “I have an idea how the studio would let us keep this song.” So I made him play [him]. That’s how it stayed.
Lin, why do you think the piragüero was so important to the story?
MIRANDA This song is maybe the fastest song I’ve ever written. However, I don’t know that I wrote it. I think I just got it. The metaphor of the entire musical is in this song. Piragüero is every character in this film. They do their best against impossible adversity. They take a deep breath, then they keep scratching. 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 this kernel was allowed to stay. My achievement was a testimony to my grandfather. He died a week after In the Heights opened on Broadway. He’s the only member of my family who hasn’t seen everything that came after that 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 up to my tabs and the same type of shirt that he had to wear. I really cosplay as my Abuelo.
Quiara, how did you get into the role of producer and why did you decide to take on this responsibility?
HUDES There were a lot of little things that happened organically. When we went to Warner Bros. and Jon came on board, they didn’t say, “Where are the pages?” They said, “What do the pages mean?” I loved having these conversations and saying, “I don’t want to see stiletto heels on any of the salon employees. They are women who are on their feet eight or nine hours a day. Put them in tennis shoes. ”Then Jon started to ask me,“ What would the food look like? ”And I said,“ Can we talk about the pots too? ” Then I started talking to choreographer Chris Scott about the dance casting call. I don’t know much about dance, but I knew that in Abuela’s house and on the street you will see older people dancing and teaching the young people. At some point I said, “I want to be a producer here. I don’t just write words on a page. “
The choice of location shooting is really compelling, especially when some locations on a soundstage would be a lot easier to think of. Tell me about filming at Washington Height and what that adds to the experience.
MIRANDA It’s risky on paper, isn’t it? It’s expensive to shoot in New York. It is difficult to take photos on site. It’s harder to shoot in Washington Heights in the summer when we all live outside for a few months a year. But the upside is you get a million authentication checks every day because your neighborhood rolls up folding chairs to see that movie you are about to make about them. Your characters should be better dressed like the people who are by your side, your food is better. Everything you put in the frame should be an honest reflection of the surroundings that are outside the frame. I give Jon so much credit for leaning in and listening and finding those corners of the neighborhood that have added layers of meaning to those of us like Quiara and me who still live in the neighborhood.
CHAPTER We made “champagne” in Abuela’s apartment, which was a real apartment there. We had no space, 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 dialogue, music and movement. Our steadicam guy had to be there without a 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 be saying that you can achieve your aspirations without losing who you are through assimilation. This is a profound idea for immigrants and their children.
MIRANDA It’s so simple and so complicated. You will speak to first-generation writers whose parents were born on the island of Puerto Rico. They grow up with the “sliding doors” thinking, “What if they had stayed? Who would I be if I grew up in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico? ”The nuance we’ve always fought for is to say,“ I can accept the sacrifice of my ancestors. I can take on the responsibility assigned to me and still find my own way in the world. ”It’s not an either-or, it’s not about:“ Forget your dreams. They are my dreams. ”It thinks:“ I accept the incredible journey that you had to take to even stand here, and yet it is my job to go my own way in the world and define home 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 better. Too much focus on community responsibility can stifle and struggle to find your individual path. The characters in this film manage that balance. Finding the balance of these individual dreams with the common dreaming community is the way of the plot of “In the Heights”. I take that very personally. This is also the path I take to honor my cultural roots and also use these things to find new ways to be an individual, to honor my own heart.