Lin-Manuel Miranda talks about 'In the Heights' and the importance of diversity

  • The musical about the Latino neighbourhood in New York City was written long before ‘Hamilton’, but the movie script sat on the shelf for years
  • ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ director John M. Chu came on as director and helped navigate making a big-budget movie with lesser-known actors
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Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera play the romantic leads in "In the Heights". Photo: @CinemaBlend/ Twitter

Way before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's first hit musical, about the dreams and loves of a group of young people in the predominantly Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights, New York, was originally written when he was an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, north of NYC.

The show landed a movie deal back in 2008, during its Broadway run. But, sometimes, things take a while. Filmed in 2019, in the Manhattan neighbourhood in which it's set, In the Heights has finally arrived on-screen, after a year-long pandemic delay.

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"This show is old enough to drink!" said Miranda, musing on the movie's long road. In the Heights, he said, was born from a 17th birthday trip to see Jonathan Larson's Broadway musical Rent.

Miranda had adored musicals while growing up in the '80s and '90s, but hadn't seen a contemporary one.

"Even Chorus Line was a period piece by 1997, when I was 17," he said.

In university, Miranda lived on campus with other Latino students, and listened closely to the stories of his dorm mates.

"Like me, they were first-generation, navigating the culture shock of going from largely Latino neighbourhoods to Middletown, Connecticut.

"We were all navigating it together. I think that sort of went into my beginning to write In the Heights, the beginning of me bringing all of myself to my work, the Latin music I loved and the hip-hop music I loved."

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A one-act early version of what would become In the Heights was performed during Miranda's second year at Wesleyan; a few years later, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes joined the creative team, and the show became a story about love for the neighbourhood you come from.

Momentum built: an out-of-town tryout, an Off-Broadway run and finally a successful Broadway production opening in 2008 - 13 Tony nominations, with four wins, including best musical. In that run, Miranda played the lead role of Usnavi, a young man who owns a Washington Heights bodega, or convenience store, but dreams of another life.

"The miracle," Miranda said, "was actually getting our show - first-time writers, first-time director, no stars, an all-Latino cast - to Broadway in the first place, and then the improbable success of that. I very naively assumed that, oh, then we'll get to make the movie in Hollywood, and I'll play the part and we'll keep it going."

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows director John Chu, left, and Lin-Manuel Miranda on the set of "In the Heights." Photo: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. via AP
But life - and Hollywood - had other plans. More than a decade ago, studio executives turned up their noses at doing the movie without a big star in the cast, reluctant to fill a movie with Latino actors whose names wouldn't be recognised overseas.

In the Heights, the movie, sat on the shelf for years - but after the blockbuster success of Hamilton, Miranda's brilliant hip-hop musical about America's Founding Fathers, suddenly studios became interested in dusting off the project. Miranda said he was actually grateful for the delay, which meant that Jon M. Chu - who had just completed Crazy Rich Asians - could come aboard as director.

With Crazy Rich Asians, Chu had experience with a movie full of people who weren't yet household names - Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina - but clearly had star power.

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"He created a lane where none existed," said Miranda, hopeful that we might soon be as familiar with the names of Anthony Ramos, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera and Corey Hawkins, the young stars of In the Heights.

Ramos plays Usnavi, the role Miranda had once hoped to portray in the movie if time hadn't ruled it out. (Usnavi's character is in his early 20s; Miranda is 41.)

The astonishing success of Hamilton means Miranda now has the freedom to pursue dream projects. He's recently completed another one: directing the movie of the musical Tick, Tick ... Boom! - written by the late Larson, whose Rent so inspired Miranda long ago.

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He is excited to note a flurry of movie musicals due out this year: his two, plus Dear Evan Hansen and Steven Spielberg's West Side Story remake.

"They're all so different, and I hope that diversity within the genre continues," Miranda said, "because that's how it stays healthy."

In the Heights opens on June 17.

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