Consider it the movie event of the summer: In the Heights is getting ready to sizzle on screens big and small nationwide. The film, based on the 2008 Tony-winning musical that was conceived by Broadway favorite and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, centers around a tight-knit Latinx community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Miranda, who wrote the score and created the central character of Usnavi on stage, appears in the film as Piragua Guy, and taking on the role of Usnavi is Miranda’s onetime Hamilton costar Anthony Ramos. The cast also features theater veterans Daphne Rubin-Vega (a two-time Tony nominee, for Rent and Anna in the Tropics) as Daniela, and Olga Merediz, who is re-creating her Tony-nominated performance as Abuela Claudia. Original book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes (Pulitzer Prize winner for Water by the Spoonful) updated the screenplay. Entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with cast members and creatives from the film to discuss transforming the stage musical into a must-see cinematic event.
Lin, your film was originally set to premiere a year ago, but COVID-19 prevented that from happening. How do you feel about In the Heights finally debuting nationwide?
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I’m over the moon. I’ve been waiting longer than all of you. I remember when we started thinking about what a movie version of this might be in 2009, and then there were so many steps and bumps and steps forward and backward on that journey. But then when Quiara wrote the version of the screenplay that you see now, with brilliant updates to the story, and when we found our director, Jon Chu, who sort of at every turn looked for the most cinematic way of telling the story, I’m really proud of what they’ve made.
Speaking of changes, Quiara — without spoiling anything — can you talk about some of the changes you made for the film version of Heights?
Quiara Alegria Hudes: Because there was a unit set with the stage show, you just know you’re going to go to more locations on screen. You’re going to go to bigger places, like the New York subway system or, like, the dance club. I wanted to go to the beach. I wanted to go to Cuba because I think these characters bring their histories to New York City with them in their hearts.
I also have to point out the story seems more timely today compared to when it first debuted on Broadway back in 2008.
Quiara: Yes. I mean, a lot of history has happened since Lin and I started writing In the Heights together, and history continues to happen, and I wanted to include what has been happening to our community. What was happening with family separation and with this fever-pitch rhetoric around immigration, which matters deeply to our communities.
Lin, you created the role of Usnavi on stage, but for the film we see you in a cameo-type part as the Piragua Guy. What was it like passing the baton to Anthony Ramos?
Lin-Manuel: I’ll never forget Anthony’s audition for Hamilton, where I just remember going, “Who is this kid?” Because when you meet Anthony in person or on screen, you root for him. He’s got that movie-star thing. And I was lucky enough to see a production of In the Heights at the Kennedy Center where Anthony played Usnavi. And the only way I can describe it is, I created this custom suit years ago and it fit me OK, but it fits Anthony like a glove. I played Usnavi. Anthony is Usnavi.
Anthony, you were a cast member of the original company of Hamilton and now you’re part of the film adaptation of In the Heights. Did Lin change your life?
Anthony Ramos: For sure. Just Lin writing this role, and this show coming from his heart … Just writing this show, he created this piece that made me feel seen. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Olga, you were part of the original Broadway company of In the Heights, and now we get to see your brilliant performance of Abuela Claudia once more.
Olga Merediz: I mean, how rare is it for a theater actor to do their role in the cinema? It’s miraculous. I feel like the luckiest woman in the world, to have had all these incarnations from the readings, from the workshops, from Off-Broadway to Broadway and then the movie! It’s a miracle. And to play this woman. I love playing people who are usually invisible. You know, when you walk down the street and you see a little old lady, you don’t go, “Look at that little old lady.” I love shining a light on this woman who has history. She’s gone through everything.
Daphne, fun fact: You too were a part of the original stage production of Heights — but you weren’t on stage.
Daphne Rubin-Vega: I got a call to do a voice-over for the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, where I played a DJ. And I remember thinking: Lin, he’s a little juggernaut. And so this full-circle moment is astounding to me.
And on screen you play Daniela, a salon owner, and your character’s story has been updated for the film.
Daphne: Daniela owns the salon with her business partner and life partner, Carla, which is new for the film. I think to flesh out the story has just more amplified representation. It was powerful to include that element, to just be seen as a human being who is self-supporting and happens to have a woman partner in business and in life and not make a big deal out of it, but just show it. To expose that — it matters.
Lin, it was recently announced that the curtains will rise once more on Broadway starting in a few months. Hamilton is one of the first shows that will return. What are you most looking forward to about Broadway coming back?
Lin-Manuel: I mean, so many things. First of all, I think that there are these two parallel tracks that are happening: There’s the pure level of getting to gather and tell stories in the dark. And I can’t wait to do that again, and I can’t wait to see theater again. And then, you know, with the world stopped, I think all of Broadway had a real reckoning in terms of the systemic inequities and racial inequities happening in the theater. I know speaking only for Hamilton’s part, that has been our work for the past year, really making sure our cast members feel valued and heard and safe, and putting elements in place where some were missing and getting our house in order so that our cast feels supported and safe to do their show. And then the continuing conversations will be, How do we continue to get our backstage to be as diverse as the incredible company we have on stage? And we’re doing that work and making up for lost time. And also, the next question after that is, How do we continue to diversify our audiences? And those are all the big philosophical and specific critical questions we’re all wrestling with so we come back to a more equitable and better Broadway.
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