After years of development delays — and then a big pandemic delay — In the Heights is finally headed to the screen. Written by Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, and directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu, it’s a joyous, electric movie musical that celebrates the mostly Latino community in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in upper Manhattan.
The movie taps into the big dreams of its characters, including bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace), car service dispatch operator Benny (Corey Hawkins), and many more of their friends and loved ones. Shot on location in the Heights, it feels like it’s hitting at the perfect moment, with theaters in the US reopening and people rediscovering their communities and the movies at the same time.
Ahead of the film’s debut, I spoke with Miranda, Hudes, and Chu via Zoom, in separate conversations, about similar themes: how they saw their own youthful dreams reflected in the film, the genesis of the project, the challenges and thrills of adapting the stage play for the big screen, and shooting in a neighborhood like Washington Heights. Below, I’ve compiled our chats into one look at a vibrant movie musical that came along at just the right time.
On the creators’ youthful dreams and love for musical theater
Theater saved my life. For me, it was like an invincibility cloak. So much of the trauma of high school is the life-or-death stakes inside your grade at any given time. But in theater, you make friends with kids in other grades. You’re doing something that none of you are getting paid for or getting credit for. You’re just trying to make something greater than the sum of your parts. And you suddenly have little pockets of allyship all over the school. I remember very distinctly when someone hated someone else, or someone wasn’t friends with me anymore, I’d be like, “Okay, I’m going to go visit my friends a grade younger and talk to them about it and maybe we’ll listen to Rent together.” The world gets so much bigger.
And you’re trying to make something together. I remember our “illegal” rehearsals, because school rehearsal wasn’t enough time. We would go to a church basement in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. For me, that meant taking the A train to the D to the R, an hour and a half, to do rehearsals during spring break so that it could be the best thing it could be. We were giving our vacation to do that. The way you learn about sacrifice, and the way you learn that the world is bigger than the immediate drama of the present, is a lifesaver in high school.
Quiara Alegría Hudes
As a teenager, I loved writing. I loved music, I loved books. I did love theater, too, though it wasn’t so accessible to me as a child. But the times I did get to go see plays and musicals, I was really rocked by them. I found it so fun to write. That was like my version of playing with Barbies. I would make a magazine. I would make a poem. I don’t know if I would even name it as my dream, because it was so much fun to do in the moment. It wasn’t about the end goal. It was about how great and wonderful it made me feel, just the creative act.
Jon M. Chu
I grew up in the Bay Area, and my parents would take me to San Francisco every weekend, whether it was musical season, opera season, or ballet season. So I saw it all — whether I paid attention or not, that’s another thing. I’m the youngest of five kids, so you can imagine us getting restless in the seats!
But I loved it. It was always in me. I took tap dance for 12 years growing up, and piano, and drums, and saxophone, and violin, so music was always around.
I remember being in Pacific Overtures in fifth grade, a professional tour that was coming through. I played the boy in the tree. The incredible [original Broadway cast lead] Mako was in it, and it was an all-Asian Broadway show. At that moment, that felt very normal to me. I know that that stayed with me through all these years.
Even though I performed a lot growing up, as a kid, you don’t know if you’re a filmmaker or a storyteller, or how to do that, especially back then. So in a way, theater was the only way in. I realized I was a terrible actor and singer much later and realized that behind the scenes was much more my spot.
How — and why — Miranda and Hudes wrote the original musical together
A lot of things went into that incredibly fertile creative time for me. I wrote [the first draft of In the Heights] on a winter break [from college]. I didn’t sleep. My long-term girlfriend went abroad. So suddenly, I had all this time, and all this angst, which are two of the ingredients you need the most when you’re 19 years old.
At that time I was living in the Latino program house [at Wesleyan University]. It was called La Casa de Albizu Campos, and it was on-campus housing. At Wesleyan, there’s a program house for every kind of cultural affinity. To get into La Casa, you needed to write an essay about how you plan to serve the Latino community at Wesleyan. My entrance was the arts. I was, I think, the only arts major in my house. I was there with engineering majors and math majors. But we were all first-generation or second-generation Latino kids. I didn’t have that experience in high school. And suddenly I had friends who were really just like me in that we were as fluent in some things — Marc Anthony, the TV we grew up with, Walter Mercado — as we were with mainstream American culture.
I think that was a big part of me being able to access more of myself in my writing. Everything I’d written prior to then kind of sounded like [Rent composer] Jonathan Larson, kind of musical theater-ish, rock-ish stuff. But I didn’t bring any of my culture to it or any of my heritage to it.
Living in that house, I realized, “Oh, there’s more out there like me. I just needed to write the truest version of what I know.” This was in 1999 or 2000, at the time of the first Latin pop boom. Ricky Martin, “Cup of Life.” Marc Anthony singing in English for the first time. Enrique Iglesias, “Bailamos.” I’m watching all these incredibly talented Latin guys.
But they’re all incredibly hot Latin guys, and I was like, “That’s not me.”
I had directed West Side Story at my high school years before and realized that there was nothing in the musical theater canon that played to any of my strengths. So it was like, “Let me write what is missing.” Then I had all of these other forces pushing on me that led to In the Heights. Can we talk about ourselves with love? Can we talk about our neighborhoods? And have a fully Latino cast?
Quiara Alegría Hudes
I moved to New York in 2004, in August. I came to New York with a handful of plays I had written about the Latino community in Philadelphia, which is where I’m from. A producer heard one of those plays and was like, “I know this guy who’s writing a thing, and maybe you guys should really get together and have a conversation.”
So Lin and I were put in a room together. We didn’t know each other but we were both kind of up to something similar, which is this urgent, joyous passion and habit of wanting to describe our life as young Latinos in this nation.
When we met up — actually, at a cafe near where we ended up doing our off-Broadway run — we were like, “Are we long-lost cousins?” We both had these strong matriarchal figures who were basically community and family centerpieces, our abuelas. We also had parents who came to the United States. They didn’t have a completed community to just plug into; they had to literally build the community that they were inhabiting, through leadership, through advocating for services.
So we had a lot in common and we wanted to join forces and tell the story.
When we were working on the stage version, we would get together sometimes once a week, sometimes two or three times a week. Often it would be in Lin’s apartment, up in Inwood [in upper Manhattan]. I would be writing, with my notepad or my laptop, curled on a corner of his green pleather sofa. I’d say, “I want to work on “Sunrise” for a moment.” But there’s not even a song yet called “Sunrise” — there’s just an idea of what it might be. So I’m like, “You go work on the second verse of Nina’s song ‘Breathe,’ because maybe it could have an idea.”
So he’s skateboarding up and down his very long hallway, which is how he comes up with ideas. I come up with ideas either by sitting statue-still or taking a walk. When one of us had an idea, we would write it out, then tell the other one what we had come up with. It’s a lot like a relay race, passing the baton back and forth. Then we would meet with Tommy Kail, the director, after a few of those sessions and share with him the work that we had come up with together. Tommy would ask questions, he would point out weaknesses, he would tell us, “Oh, this thing really resonates. Go further on that. Take that to the next step.”
Part of the genesis of the show was Latino representation in musical theater, which has a miserable track record. I think the only place with a worse track record is Hollywood — maybe not worse, but super different. It’s very hard to find Latino stories without crime or drugs at the center of them when it comes to mainstream Hollywood representation. That’s just not what we were interested in, but it’s so prevalent.
If you go read the reviews of the original Broadway show, they were like, “This is Sesame Street. There’s no drugs, there’s no crime.” We had to have the audacity to write about ourselves with love, and to write about struggling businesses and struggling with college and the stuff that everyone else has permission to write about but us, apparently. If we do it, we’re airbrushing.
It’s unfair to put any kind of undue burden of representation on In the Heights. Quiara and I are first-generation kids, and we write from our perspective. What we tried to do was grab the things we share. There are so many millions of stories — there’s a song in Heights called “Hundreds of Stories,” but there’s millions of stories — from the cultural specificities of the Puerto Rican American experience, the Dominican American experience, the Cuban American experience, and we couldn’t get our arms around all of that.
What we can get our arms around is: If you come from somewhere else, what do you share? What do you pass on to your kids? How do you feel at home, or not at home? And have every character wrestle with variations on that question.
Deciding what to change when migrating In the Heights from stage to screen
Jon M. Chu
It’s crazy to think, but this is my first actual musical. I feel like I’ve been doing musicals my whole life, so it’s very strange to be like, “Oh, no, no, you actually haven’t incorporated lyrics and songs into your stuff.” That was a different experience, especially when you’re working with Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s the greatest lyricist and musician of our time. He crammed so much into each song. I have to help the audience get clarity — not just hearing the words, but understanding the words.
That was a process for me. It wasn’t just expressing it through movement, although movement could help express those things. Movement was just one piece of many different types of language that we needed to use. The biggest challenge was finding a cast that spoke all these languages, that could ebb and flow between the languages without a blink of an eye, without you noticing when they jump to a new language. It had to be so natural to them, so that we felt that they were all coming from the same source of energy, not a new source of performance. The biggest thing we did was hire a cast that understood that instinctively, so I didn’t have to try to make that happen.
Quiara Alegría Hudes
We had to make the decision: Are we going to keep In the Heights in 2008-2009, which was a different world than the one we were adapting it in? We decided to make it contemporary. So, what is the community talking about right now? One of those answers was immigration and our undocumented family, friends, neighbors. These have always been really important issues in the community. But the fever pitch, the way that immigration was being used as the sort of litmus test of Americanness, and even humanity — it felt like we had to address it. And I was really excited to address that more directly in the writing.
Another one was the national conversation that happened around microaggressions. That was new since In the Heights opened on the stage, at least at a national level. All of a sudden I had a new vocabulary for some of the experiences that Nina had been going through at college. It helped me articulate not just the financial stresses that her Stanford education put her family under, but also the cultural dislocation that she felt there, that was pretty profound, that made her wonder, “Is this worth it? Is this worth my parents sacrificing so much for when I’m not even sure I’m wanted there?”
Those are some of the things that had happened in the intervening years. I was like, let me dig into this. Let me sink my teeth in.
Jon M. Chu
One of the biggest choices we made at first was that this is not about gentrification. This is not about the big, bad mayor coming in and buying things out.
In fact, there was no villain in this movie. This is a post-gentrification moment, a moment where it’s happening, so what are you going to do now? Everyone was going to deal with this in their own way, whether they’re going to fight it and protest it, or others are going to go with it and take advantage of it. Some want to leave, and some want to stay. Some people don’t know what to do and are figuring it out. That center really helped us find our path of what the story was.
Quiara Alegría Hudes
Onstage, you have an intermission. You can cram more in, and people will have time to digest it and stuff. But it’s different on film. I knew we would have to cut some songs, maybe cut a character. I decided to cut the character of [Nina’s mother] Camila, for two reasons. I really love that character, so it wasn’t that I felt she didn’t work. It was that I could still focus on really important matriarchs in the community through [neighborhood matriarch] Abuela Claudia and through [local salon owner] Daniela, so I didn’t lose a conversation about what women’s values are in the community, and what the women bring to the table.
What I gained from it was that the relationship between Nina and her dad became more of a pressure cooker. She’s an only child. All of his hopes and dreams are on her. In some ways that is very inspiring for her and gives her a lot of direction. In other ways, that’s really unfair. She has to advocate for herself and her right to choose her own path.
Why Washington Heights wasn’t just a character, but a crew member and co-writer, too
Jon M. Chu
Of course, Do the Right Thing is an inspiration to all movies in New York, I think, and to my own personal life. But the reality was, I didn’t know what it was going to be like until I got to Washington Heights, and I was shown this neighborhood by Lin and Quiara. They were the best tour guides you could ask for. Lin would say, “This is where I shot my home videos, in this tunnel at 191st Street — this is the spot.”
I was like, “I’ve never seen this in a movie before. How can we get cameras down here?”
They’re like, “That would take a lot of wires.” And I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do that. We have Warner Bros., they can do it.”
Or I thought, “We could take these old subway cars and bring it down to this old subway station.” And we could do that.
The pool — [we walked by and I saw it and said,] “What’s that?” Quiara said, “Oh, that’s the pool that we all swim at.” I’m like, “Okay, let’s go check it out.” We went in, and I thought, “This is incredible, I’ve never seen anything like that.” Quiara just says, “Yeah, this is our pool.” I said, “You guys swim in this? How funny would that be to do a Busby Berkeley/Esther Williams number in this thing, with people of all shapes and sizes and colors and tattoos and sneakers, and nobody matching? How beautiful could that be?” We walked away laughing. And then as we got in the van, I was like, “Oh, no, we have to do that. This is why we’re here.”
I think the neighborhood spoke for itself. Washington Heights wasn’t just a cast member — it was a crew member, it was a co-writer, it was all those things. Even right now, it’s our biggest fan. The people who come from there, the way they are pumping up our movie — you can feel their spirit.
I couldn’t tell the difference between our background [actors] and the real neighborhood. Sometimes, there was no difference. There’d be that neighbor who was sitting at their stoop hanging out, playing dominoes, and I loved that we got to lean into that. My mom came to the set and I put her on the stoop. I said, “Stay here. We’re shooting this number. Don’t go anywhere.” My mom, you know, she can get into trouble.
So I go and shoot and I come back — she’s gone. I’m like, “Oh, no.” Then I hear yelling, I look up, and she’s on the second level of the building drinking beers with the neighbors outside the window. They’re like, “Oh, we saw her, and we just want to hang out.”
That’s Washington Heights for you. That’s the cultural exchange for you. I loved it so much that I had a son during the shooting of the movie, [and] I gave him the middle name Heights, because I just love that word. It made me feel the aspiration, the dreaming big, the dreaming beyond your windowsill. I wanted to say that word every day of my life. And I wanted him to hear that every day of his life.
The biggest compliment we get is this movie feels so New York. The reason it feels New York is because of that community. That’s New York. That’s not the Empire State Building New York. That’s Washington Heights.
Quiara Alegría Hudes
The day we shot the “Carnaval” number, there was so much pressure that day, because we’re looking at all the flags. And we’re like, “Do we have every flag?” Because when you’re seeing it on the big screen, people want to see their flags. We can’t miss one or two. They will be shown. We had to work really hard and get all those flags in there.
Afterwards, I hear people from screenings say, “I saw my flag, I saw my flag, I saw my flag!” That’s one of the great things about the big screen.
Jon M. Chu
Without my experience with Crazy Rich Asians, I’m not sure I would have understood how important a close-up of food is, or that you needed a food designer who understood the culture and all the little idiosyncrasies — what sauce was on the table! We needed to make room for that. I knew that was my job, to make the room where the cast, the crew, Lin, and Quiara could all speak up. They needed to make an environment for me where I could ask stupid questions and try to understand this thing, because I needed to then communicate that to the outside world who doesn’t know this community.
So I think that there was a beautiful grace amongst ourselves, a safe space that we could understand each other and that we could just connect on that. I couldn’t ask for a better community to do that.
A new meaning on the big screen
Jon M. Chu
While we were making this movie, I was going through a period of my life where I met the woman of my dreams, I got married, and I had just had my first little girl. So I was like, the story that I’m making right now is how I’ll tell my little girl what the world is like. And how do you do that?
I was also going through a period of time where I felt like my life with my family that I grew up with was changing and going away. It was sad to me. I kept thinking, “Our best days are in the past.”
But then I had my little girl, and realized, “Oh, I get to watch Animaniacs again and show her? I get to show her Out of This World? Oh, my best days are ahead.”
So I realized, this movie was about passing on your stories, about going through life your own way but knowing that your kids are going to have a totally different way, and you’re never going to understand it. That’s going to create conflict, but that’s okay, because that’s how we progress. That America is going to be not the place that we think it is — America’s always been a dream — but what we make it. We each move it along in our own way. That centered what the movie was about for me.
Quiara Alegría Hudes
In the movie version, there’s so many strong matriarchs, and there’s the notion of what makes a strong Latina. [In the movie’s framing device,] Usnavi telling the story to these little kids, these little girls — in some ways, what he’s doing is sneakily saying, “Here’s four or five or six versions of what a strong Latina looks like. There’s no cookie-cutter mold. There’s different ways to do it, and to find your strength and to find your power.” And he’s telling this to these little girls to help them find their power.
So one new addition [in the film] is the scene where he quizzes them on famous Latinas. That’s because I was reading the screenplay and thinking, “This is in there. How do I put my finger on it a bit more and still have it be fun and comic.” So we got that particular scene, which I love.
Why they’re so glad they waited for a delayed release
Quiara Alegría Hudes
I feel like this movie inadvertently became a really entertaining instruction manual for how we can be together again. Honestly, we’re rusty. We’re out of practice. But In the Heights is a bunch of people crammed into big spaces and crammed into small spaces, being community members together in the space.
There’s this tiny detail in the dinner scene where Daniela and Carla come in, and Carla hugs Abuela Claudia hello, and she just pinches her butt. I love it, because it’s so real. That’s totally my experience, too. We have to relearn, literally, how to hug the people that we are closest to. So it’s like the Ikea manual for getting back together with your friends and neighbors.
Jon M. Chu
I love this movie so much. I was so excited to share this in the summer. This film has been a decade in the making. It was hard. But you know, we had other issues going on. We had to protect our families. We had to protect our neighborhoods. So [when the pandemic delay happened,] we could put it in a box and not think about it. I didn’t think about it. I think we were all really good at not thinking about it.
Lin and I had a frank discussion last year: Should we just release it [on a streaming platform during the pandemic], to give it as a gift to people who needed it? My argument was that I’ve seen what movies can do with a whole community of people — of making movie stars that then start a whole new path. We had that in our hands. Why would we compromise that right now, and give it to people just for a short period of joy in their life, when they can have the joy later?
Plus Warner Bros. were going to spend tens of millions of dollars to make these stars stars. They are going to paint what the new face of the movie star is going to look like. And they’re going to make paths for other movies. It’s not just this movie.
That gave us focus. Who knew that we would hit just the right date, when things are opening up? And that it will premiere [at the Tribeca Film Festival] in Washington Heights, who knows how to deal with struggle, who knows how to get back up? In that number alone, “Carnaval del Barrio,” they’re going to show the world what it takes when you feel powerless to get back up and feel powerful.
This is a big-screen movie. I’m so glad we waited. Even though I was dragged kicking and screaming into waiting, I’m really glad we waited. Because I think a lot of people are gonna choose to see it together — and it’s a show about community.
What it was like to finally see the musical on a movie screen
My first time seeing In the Heights on a movie screen was a few days ago [in mid-May], at a drive-in in Puerto Rico with my cousins — who, by the way, are named Kevin, Camila, and Daniella, all characters in the show. And believe me, Camila is like, “What do you owe me for cutting Camila out of the movie? The next movie is gonna be named after me.”
To watch it in Puerto Rico on the big screen — as the kids say, it hits different. The applause after every number. I always say the best week of my artistic life was the week we brought the tour of In the Heights to Puerto Rico in 2011. I got to play with Usnavi and we got to pull those flags out. It healed something I didn’t know was busted to bring that show to Puerto Rico and have them be proud of it. And I got sort of an echo of that [when I saw the movie there].
Quiara Alegría Hudes
By the time I got to see it on a big screen, honestly, I’d seen the screener so many times that the really new element for me was being amongst audience members. It was almost emotional after this year and a half of social distancing and isolation to just hear a story with other people. I was so tuned in to the family behind me and the family to the left of me. It was pretty clear to me they had never seen the stage version of In the Heights. So they were really taking in the story for the first time. They weren’t comparing it to something else.
When they realized what was happening at the end, I could hear them gasp a little bit. I could hear them exclaim and be like, “Oh, my gosh, now that makes sense.” It was just such a joy experiencing it with other people.
What I’m excited about is what this movie will trigger in other writers and other creators. I’m focused less on, “Okay, what am I doing next?” What I want to do next is relax for a minute! I want to sit back and watch other writers tell their stories.
I hope the movie opens doors. There’s a lot of Latino writers out there telling stories. But hopefully, if the movie is successful, producers view us less as a special interest or a one-time-only opportunity, and actually relax and say, “Okay, this can just become part of the commercial fabric or the producing fabric of what we’re making.”
So I’m hoping that it is successful. I want to see other people grab that baton and run.
In the Heights premiered — in Washington Heights — on June 9 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens in theaters and on HBO Max on June 11.
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