Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first hit musical, about the dreams and loves of a group of young people in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York, was originally written when he was a Wesleyan undergraduate. The show landed a movie deal back in 2008, during the its Broadway run. But sometimes, things take a while. Filmed in 2019, in the Manhattan neighborhood in which it’s set, “In the Heights” is finally arriving on-screen June 10, after a yearlong pandemic delay.
“This show is old enough to drink!” said Miranda, musing on the movie’s long road during a Zoom interview last month. “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. “I just couldn’t believe that you were allowed to write musicals about what you knew. It felt very autobiographical — someone who lived downtown writing about downtown.”
In college, Miranda lived in a Latino house program on campus, hearing the stories of his dorm mates. “Like me, they were first-generation, navigating the culture shock of going from largely Latino neighborhoods 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, and not just trying to make it sound like a quote-unquote ‘musical,’ but like what I thought a musical could be.”
A one-act early version of what would become “In the Heights” was performed during Miranda’s sophomore 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 neighborhood 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 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.”
But life — and Hollywood — had other plans. More than a decade ago, studio executives balked at doing the movie without a big star in the cast, reluctant to fill a movie with Latino actors whose names wouldn’t be recognized overseas. “It’s this self-defeating cycle — if you don’t put any Latino actors in starring roles, then they don’t get into the movies that play internationally, and then, ipso facto, there are no Latino stars that test internationally,” Miranda said. A famous Latina recording star — Miranda doesn’t name her, but Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were both rumored — was approached and said no, and that was that.
“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 the 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. “He’s like us: first-generation Chinese American, his dad started a business here and raised a family, he did everything that Usnavi and the characters in our movie go through, and really understood that experience on a molecular level.”
And Chu, after “Crazy Rich Asians,” had some experience with a movie full of people who weren’t household names — Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina — but clearly had star power. “He created a lane where none existed,” said Miranda, hopeful that we might soon be 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. But Miranda’s content with playing a small role in the film — the singing shaved-ice vendor known as Piragüero — and proudly watching Ramos, who played his son in “Hamilton” on Broadway. “In a lot of ways, the role fits him much better than it fits me,” Miranda said, explaining that Usnavi is someone to whom everyone brings their troubles and stories. “I watched Anthony do that, eight times a week in ‘Hamilton.’ … I always say, I played Usnavi but Anthony kind of is Usnavi.”
The astonishing success of “Hamilton” (listen closely and you’ll even hear a sly Easter egg reference to it in the “In the Heights” movie) means that Miranda has the joy of pursuing dream projects these days. 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.
“It’s my little indie Jonathan Larson musical that takes place in the Village,” Miranda said, noting with a laugh that it has no giant swimming-pool dance numbers like the one in “In the Heights.” He’s excited to note a flurry of new movie musicals coming to the screen 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.”