Lin-Manuel Miranda talks to STACK about his new big screen musical, In the Heights, and how its delayed release could prove be beneficial.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is impatient. Really impatient. And you can’t blame him, given that he wrote his upcoming musical, In the Heights, when he was just 19 years old.
“I’m 41 years old now and I’m still waiting,” grins the award-winning writer best known for his hit musical Hamilton.
After In the Heights made its stage debut as a college production at Wesleyan University where Miranda attended, it later made its way to Broadway, winning four Tony awards and touring internationally.
Hollywood beckoned and he was excited when a major studio purchased the film rights ten years ago and, after a series of reshuffles, Crazy Rich Asians’ director Jon M. Chu stepped up to direct. But their dreams were temporarily dashed after Harvey Weinstein’s involvement made the project toxic.
Thankfully, the rights were auctioned off to Warner Bros. and the film finally began shooting two years ago. But then came COVID-19, setting the film’s release date back another year.
“So I’ve just been as impatient as hell!” Miranda tells STACK. “Simply because I’m so proud of the movie Jon made and this incredible cast and crew and company. When every Hollywood deck got reshuffled, I think I was the loudest voice for like, ‘Let’s just stream it! Let’s just put it out!’ because I couldn’t imagine sitting on it for another year.”
But Chu was the voice of reason, urging Miranda to wait out the pandemic. “Jon said to me: ‘We could put it on streaming and people will like it because it’s a good movie but, if we wait a year, we could also open a lane for the stars in this movie,” he says, pointing out how Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians made stars of Gemma Chan and Henry Golding.
The director’s reasoning was persuasive, Miranda recalling how he struggled to get In the Heights made after it was first optioned, with studios complaining there were no big Latino stars to cast beyond Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.
“Hopefully now we won’t have to sit in any more meetings of, ‘Are there any Asian movie stars? Are there any Latinx movie stars?’ Because the push that we are able to give In the Heights now, would not have been possible if we’d released last year. I think we’ll really open a lane for all our stars to really have their moment, so I think it will be worth the wait,” says Miranda, listing all the newcomers in this delicious musical confection, envisioning a world where his stars Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera will become household names with blockbuster films in their futures.
Cast in the lead role of charismatic bodega owner Usnavi is Anthony Ramos, who needs no introduction after appearing in most of Miranda’s stage shows, and also making a breakout performance as Lady Gaga’s best friend in A Star is Born.
Ditto Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, BlacKkKlansman), Stephanie Beatriz (TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Dasha Polanco (TV’s Orange is the New Black) and veteran actor Jimmy Smits.
Miranda himself played Usnavi in the original stage shows, but he had no desire to repeat his performance, insisting he had aged out, instead opting for a small cameo as the “Piragua Guy”.
“I believed in Jon’s vision and I loved Quiara Alegría Hudes’ screenplay. The script only got really good in 2004 when Quiara came on,” he says.
So when Chu began asking which role he might play in the film, he was stubborn. “I was like, ‘Oh I don’t have to play anything – this is your movie so go ahead,” he says. “But at some point, I realised I would kick myself forever if I didn’t get to be a part of this moment, and so I play the Piragua Guy – a character I conceived really as a love letter to my grandfather in my play.”
Miranda’s grandfather actually died the week after In The Heights opened on Broadway, making this small role all the more poignant.
“Life always happens all at the same time. It was the highlight of my professional life and one of the worst moments of my personal life, so that bittersweetness carried through and I’m just straight up dressed as my grandfather; I’m holding the old western novels he used to read; I’m wearing his glasses around my neck; I’m letting my hard-earned genetically-predisposed dad-belly out, which is my birthright – so I’m really just playing my grandfather as Piragua guy,” he laughs, between tears of emotion.
If Chu and Hudes have made various tweaks to his original stage play, then one joyful change is the fact that Miranda’s original reference to Donald Trump has been edited out.
“Yup, we cut Donald Trump out!” he smiles mischievously. “In 2005 when I wrote that lyric, Donald Trump was a reality show host and kind of like a Monopoly man; I just thought he was a famous rich guy. But now he represents much more different, darker things and it would really bring us all down to hear that name in the middle of a beautiful song about joy, so we cut him out – and that’s a net good.”
• In the Heights is in cinemas on June 24