‘In the Heights’ creators on making a dreamlike, authentic movie

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Quiara Alegría Hudes, left, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, June 1, 2021. Image Credit: NYT

Lin-Manuel Miranda still believes it was a miracle that ‘In the Heights,’ a musical homage to Latino culture through the lens of the New York City neighbourhood of Washington Heights, made it to Broadway. In 2008, before striving for inclusion became the entertainment industry standard, he and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes were unknowns peddling a joyful narrative about unseen people.

Their exuberant show, inspired by their families and neighbours, finally reached the big screen (and HBO Max) in the US on June 10 after stumbling through multiple studios (it releases on June 17 in the UAE). Warner Bros and director Jon Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”) were ultimately entrusted with the project.

In retrospect, Miranda said, it was naive to think that getting the show from the stage to the multiplex would be easy. It took more than a decade.

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Director Jon Chu. Image Credit: NYT

“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.

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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Melissa Barrera, left, and Anthony Ramos in a scene from “In the Heights.” (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP) Image Credit: AP

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 Alegria 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 travelled the world, they had been to high schools and professional theatres and community theatres. 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 fibre of music that people love from this show into the film in some form or another.

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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Corey Hawkins, left, and Leslie Grace in a scene from “In the Heights.” (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP) Image Credit: AP

Jon, tell me about entering this world that already had a history.

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.

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.

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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows, from left, Melissa Barrera, Stephanie Beatriz, Leslie Grace, Dascha Polanco, background, and Daphine Rubin-Vega in a scene from “In the Heights.” (Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP) Image Credit: AP

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 piraguero [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 heart-broken, 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 piraguero 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. Piraguero 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] Estefania 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.

The concept of the dream, or suenito, 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.”

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 honour my cultural roots, and also use those things to find new ways to be an individual to honour my own heart.