More than 20 years since he wrote his first draft of what would become his first hit Broadway musical, In the Heights, multi-hyphenate composer/singer/lyricist/actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda treats STACK to an exclusive sneak peek of the long-awaited film version of his debut musical.
“I can’t believe we’re here today showing you this – just six blocks away from where my parents live,” says the Hamilton creator.
Directed by Crazy Rich Asians’ Jon M. Chu, this glorious multi-cultural Latino musical confection is ultimately a love letter to Washington Heights, the Manhattan neighbourhood where Miranda grew up among a largely Puerto Rican family.
Dubbed as the event of summer 2020, where the streets are made of music and little dreams become big, at the centre of In the Heights is likeable, magnetic bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who saves every penny from his daily grind as he dreams and sings about a better life.
Usnavi was the role Miranda originated for himself, performing In the Heights both on and off Broadway as well as in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico. But in this colourful, big feature version, he prefers to wait in the wings as a producer, casting himself in the small role of “Piragua Guy”.
Fusing his kinetic music and lyrics with director Chu’s lively and authentic eye for storytelling, the screen version promises to capture a world very much of its place, but universal in its experience.
Starring Anthony Ramos (A Star is Born, Broadway’s Hamilton), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman), singer/songwriter Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (TV’s Vida), Olga Merediz (Broadway’s In the Heights), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway’s Rent), Gregory Diaz IV (Broadway’s Matilda the Musical), Stephanie Beatriz (TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Dascha Polanco (TV’s Orange is the New Black) and Jimmy Smits (TV’s L.A. Law), the film showcases so much talent in one square block.
While Miranda wrote the earliest draft of In the Heights in 1999, his sophomore year at Wesleyan University, the show became a hit Broadway musical in 2008, later dropping in and out of development deals with both Universal and Harvey Weinstein.
Giving credit to his screenwriting partner Quiara Alegría Hudes, Miranda says, “It only started getting really good in 2004 when Quiara came on.”
Finally finding its home with Chu and Warner Bros., the film is set for global release in June 2020.
“I think everyone’s very jealous that I got to work with our Shakespeare of his time,” says Chu. “He is everything you would hope he could be and this community is so unbelievable. They were so welcoming and even let us shut down the street,” he adds, referring to how the film was actually shot in this vibrant Latino neighbourhood.
“I brought my mom with me and I turn around, wondering where she’s gone, and she’s hanging out drinking beers in the kitchen with the neighbours. It’s such a warm and beautiful place, and you’re going to hear the word magic a lot. There’s no other word to express what we felt shooting here every day. It was the best summer of our lives.
“Its a beautiful story about change. Quiana and I talked a lot about what our ancestors did when they came here with their bags in their hands and us, as a new generation, metaphorically have those bags to pass on to our children. I had a baby literally while this film was being made and I think every day about what I want to pass onto him from my culture and the people around him. Every character in this story deals with it in a different way and it’s OK, whichever way you want to figure it out – it’s very individual.”
Talking about his original inspiration for the In the Heights musical, Miranda tells us, “Really, I wanted to just show a slice of life of this neighbourhood where I grew up in northern Manhattan with honesty and with love. I wanted to create something where it wasn’t other people writing about us – but us writing about ourselves.”
More than anyone else in the Latino community perhaps, Miranda has contributed to a sense of oneness, single-handedly breaking down racial divides. “That makes me so happy and I remember feeling that at closing night of In the Heights the musical. I thought, ‘This isn’t even close to the end of this thing’. Because what happens next – is that schools get it, and that’s where the real gift starts because you meet people who got married because of that musical or who made lifelong friends because of that musical, putting it on in their own schools.
“I fell in love with theatre – not because I could afford theatre but because I did shows at school, so the fact that there’s a generation of kids for whom this is in their DNA, it really resonates.
“And I’m grateful even for the time it took to get it to the screen because it allowed for that to happen for a whole generation of kids,” says Miranda, whose own accolades include a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, three Grammys, an Emmy, a MacArthur Fellowship and a Kennedy Center Honor.
His message today is simple: “I think one of the stories which we impart to the world is if you work hard, or work twice as hard or even five times as hard as anyone else and do the jobs that no one else wants to do, then you have a shot.
“And this is about a community that holds each other up and we need communities to help that American promise actually bear fruit.”
Addressing President Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration campaign, he says, “Everything in these songs existed in 2008 when the musical was first performed but now it’s even more radical as a result. We have an administration that has never been more hostile to the Latino community than this one. Pick your spot – whether it’s the border, whether it’s Puerto Rico. It’s indifference or contempt.
“But the fact that we have a big Hollywood movie showcasing that we are the next wave of the American dream and that we can make a better life for our kids, the timing couldn’t be better.”
In the Heights is in cinemas June 25, 2020