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Getting to the ‘Heights’

Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about how his breakout musical, ‘In the Heights,’ finally got to the screen

Director Jon M. Chu, left, and Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of "In the Heights."
Director Jon M. Chu, left, and Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of "In the Heights."Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

What sometimes gets forgotten is that Lin-Manuel Miranda has created two great musicals, not just one.

The origins of “Hamilton,” Miranda’s once-in-a-generation juggernaut, have become part of theatrical lore: how he read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton while on vacation in 2008 and thought, hmm, maybe there’s a musical in this.

But by that time “In the Heights” had already demonstrated beyond any doubt that Miranda was a theatrical force to reckon with. A portrait of a Latino community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights that is electrifying and elegiac by turns, “In the Heights” was heralded as a significant blow for diversity when it premiered on Broadway. Four Tony Awards, including one for best musical and another for Miranda’s score, added to the show’s luster.


However, none of that apparently mattered when Miranda and book writer Quiara Alegría Hudes tried to get a film adaptation off the ground.

An adaptation will finally open June 10: in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. It stars Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, and Melissa Barrera, with a screenplay by Hudes and songs by Miranda, both of whom are executive producers.

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

“It’s like doing the cha-cha: It’s one step forward and one step back in this business,’' Miranda said in a Zoom interview with the Globe. “The one step forward was actually getting ‘In the Heights’ to Broadway and the success it had. And then two steps back as we ran into the wall of Hollywood, where they said, ‘We don’t have Latino stars that quote-unquote ‘test international.’”

Consequently, Miranda said, “For many years we kind of were hat-in-hand, asking for the $5 million to make an indie version of this movie: ‘We’ll make it in the neighborhood, we’ll shoot it on the cheap.’”

Well, now that a movie has finally gotten made, it was indeed mostly shot in Washington Heights. (”No place in the world looks like this neighborhood,” Miranda said. “It’s cinematic, and you can’t re-create it in Canada.’') But there was nothing cheap or indie about it: The budget for “In the Heights” is a reported $55 million, and there was plenty of Hollywood muscle behind the camera in the person of director Jon M. Chu, following up on his box-office hit “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018).


From left: Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega and director Jon M. Chu on the set of "In the Heights."
From left: Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega and director Jon M. Chu on the set of "In the Heights." Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

“It was so exciting to watch Jon M. Chu create a lane for a new generation of Asian and Asian-American talent with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’,” said Miranda. “Hopefully, we are creating a lane for a new generation of Latino talent [with ‘In the Heights.’] The fact that this can sort of kick open doors is really the gratifying part, now that I’ve gone from wanting a life in this business and writing a show that would hopefully make that possible to now creating as many roles and opportunities for others.”

Since Miranda is known to be a student (as well as a maker) of musical-theater history, it’s not surprising that he invoked a classic musical, “Cabaret,” to describe his aspirations for the film. While it certainly did not lack for artistic merit when it premiered on Broadway, in 1966, “Cabaret” carried an extra jolt of voltage after Bob Fosse transformed it for the screen, in 1972.

“I would say to musical-theater fans, we’re trying for — and you can be the judge of whether we’ve achieved it or not — ‘Cabaret’-level transition,” said Miranda. “We’re changing things, and we’re deemphasizing plotlines in favor of others. But the hope is to get a more concentrated version of the spirit into what works as a movie.


“You know, I love Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, and I’m always very happy to see them when I watch the stage version of ‘Cabaret.’ I don’t miss them when I watch the movie of ‘Cabaret.’ It’s a different thing. So that was sort of our ideal of how this could go. I think Quiara did a great job, a masterful job, of updating and reshuffling the deck to make this a satisfying film on its own terms.”

From left: Dascha Polanco, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Stephanie Beatriz in "In the Heights."
From left: Dascha Polanco, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Stephanie Beatriz in "In the Heights." Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

Miranda also credits director Chu with first seeing, then maximizing, the possibilities for opening up the story. “Jon, coming off ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ was like ‘This is a big musical you wrote,’” said Miranda. “These characters are everyday characters that we know, but their dreams are humongous, and we should be able to reflect that.

“From that Esther Williams number in [the song] ’96,000′ to dancing up the side of the building in ‘When the Sun Goes Down,’ we could never have accomplished that at [Broadway’s] Richard Rodgers Theatre,” added Miranda. “But it’s a perfect cinematic expression of where these characters are in their hearts and in their minds.”

Of course no version of “In the Heights’' can approach the thematic scope of Miranda’s “Hamilton.’' As story lines go, a historic revolution against an oppressive monarchy followed by the founding of a new nation is pretty hard to match.


But what connects both of Miranda’s musicals is his fascination — and identification? — with restless young strivers who are determined to turn their big ambitions into reality and thereby control their own destinies. (Further cementing that connection: Miranda originated both the title role of “Hamilton” and the leading role of bodega owner Usnavi in “In the Heights” on Broadway.)

On a structural level, too, both “In the Heights’' and “Hamilton” burst into life with a propulsive opening number that ranges from panoramic to close-up as it introduces the key characters, the stakes for each, and the conflicts that will drive the narrative — and all without losing an ounce of musical verve.

Jimmy Smits in "In the Heights."
Jimmy Smits in "In the Heights." Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

Finally, both musicals provide exceptionally roomy showcases for performers from diverse backgrounds. Many of the characters of “In the Heights” are of Dominican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban descent, while Black and Latino actors portray the Founding Fathers in “Hamilton.”

Questions of immigration and identity have always been part of “In the Heights,” but those themes are intensified and updated in the film adaptation by the addition of a new wrinkle to one character, with his undocumented status putting him in jeopardy. Was that alteration from the stage version inspired by the anti-immigrant views of former president Trump, whom Miranda scathingly criticized on Twitter?

“Honestly, this plotline predates the Trump administration,” he replied. “We’ve been working on this script since 2009. I think that Quiara introduced that element around 2014, 2015. So the Trump administration sadly made it even more relevant.


“It’s funny, I look at lines that I wrote in 2008, and my heart breaks a little at how much more applicable they are,” added Miranda. He quoted a lyric from the song “96,000″ (”What about immigration?/Politicians be hatin’/ Racism in this nation’s gone/From latent to blatant”), noting that lyric was originally a response to “draconian” immigration laws in Arizona. Remarked Miranda dryly: “To quote Madame Thenardier in ‘Les Miz’: ‘God almighty, have you seen what’s happened since?’

“That line [from ’96,000′] has only become more relevant in the passing years, as immigration has become an even more divisive issue,” he said. “But I think it’s also one of our issues as a Latinx community in the United States. To put a human face on someone struggling with that issue — and it’s a character you adore — you can’t walk out of this movie the same way, and think of folks struggling with immigration as an Other. And I think that’s some of the power of what art can do if it’s done right.”

Miranda originally conceived “In the Heights” when he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, and it was a project into which he poured his creative energies for much of his 20s. Now he’s 41. Looking back on his youthful creation from the vantage of middle age, does he now understand different aspects of the musical’s characters?

His answer focused not on Usnavi or any of the other young people trying to solidify their identities and figure out their place in, or beyond, Washington Heights. What strikes him most forcefully, Miranda said, is the fullness of the portraits he and Hudes crafted of the older generation, and how they captured that generation’s readiness to sacrifice for their children and grandchildren.

“I watch the movie now, and I have a weird amount of pride in 27-year-old Quiara and Lin because the stories of the parents in this, and the grandparents...” He paused, then continued. “I wasn’t a father when I wrote this, but [now] I understand it in a bone-level, molecular way. I’m proud of how much of that we were able to get when we were still doing it through empathy and looking at our own parents. And I’m proud of our writing on the other side of it, now that Quiara and I have two kids each, and we’re parents, and we see young people doing ‘In the Heights’ everywhere.”

Including, now, onscreen.

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.